Judith Claire Mitchell, the author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
In 1996, shortly before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, a transplanted Iowan told me how much I was going to love his home state. “The people there are so nice,” he said. “You’ll make new friends in no time. Just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Well, they don’t like Jews,” he said. “But other than that, you’ll love it there.”
I did love Iowa. I also ignored his advice. I’m not sure who my acquaintance hung out with when he lived here, but I’ve now lived in the Midwest for about twenty years — after two years in Iowa, I moved to Wisconsin — and I haven’t found it all that different from anywhere else in terms of anti-Semitism. In fact, when I arrived in Iowa two decades ago, the first time I told a new acquaintance I was Jewish, I didn’t get the cold shoulder, I got invited to a Seder.
I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag.
It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.”
That’s my strong preference when it comes to being Jewish: to tell everyone.
But often, in my work, my characters are more reticent. Take, for example, eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss, one of the main characters in my first novel The Last Day of the War, which is set in the aftermath of World War I. Because the U.S. government has appointed the sectarian YMCA to run its military canteens in Europe, Yael changes her name to Yale White and claims she’s Methodist. She thinks she’s just being practical, doing what it takes to enroll in an organization restricted to Trinitarian Christians. If lying and passing and giving up a part of one’s self is what’s required, she’ll lie and pass and become who she’s implicitly urged to be. This being literature, repercussions ensue.
In my new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, there’s another character who sloughs off his Jewishness, in his case by converting. This character, Lenz Alter, is based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in the early years of the twentieth century led to the development of both nitrogen fertilizer and the first poison gases of World War I. A Nobel Prize winner (for the fertilizer) and a feted German war hero (for the gas), Haber’s conversion was not atypical in an era when many non-practicing Jews identified more as German than Jew. Conversion, of course, was no protection a few decades later, and with the passage of 1933’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially threw Jews out of their jobs, Haber left his beloved Germany, heartbroken and blindsided. He died a few months later in a Swiss hotel. Many believe he’d been on his way to Palestine.
I sometimes wonder whether my literary exploration of Jews who, for one reason or another, find their Jewishness an impediment to be brushed aside has to do with the fact that people don’t always realize I’m Jewish, which means, I suppose, that I might be able to pass if I wanted to. Once (and not in the Midwest, but in a big liberal city on the East Coast), I was buttonholed by a woman who was railing against Jewish lawyers. As she carried on, I was very aware that, in the event she should run out of breath and actually allow me to speak, I’d have a choice to make. I could simply change the subject. Lovely weather we’re having. How’s about those Mets?
Instead, when I was able to get a word in, I said, “Yes, I’ve had experience dealing with Jewish lawyers, too. My brother, for example.”
It took her a moment to do the math. Then she reddened, which I first took to be embarrassment, but, no, it turned out to be umbrage. “Well, how was I supposed to know,” she snapped as if I’d done something sneaky and, therefore, typical. “You don’t have a big nose.”
Whether or not I have a big nose may be up for debate. But what I definitely don’t have is a Jewish last name. That, rather than my features, is what I think throws people off — as, indeed, it was meant to. Long before I was born, my father and his brother, children of Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine, believed they weren’t finding work in their fields due to their surnames. They legally adopted the nondescript Mitchell, and — nu! — jobs for everyone!
I get why my father changed his name. His suspicions about his industry were hardly unfounded. And “Americanizing” one’s name (the word seems to mean the complete opposite of what it’s supposed to) was done more frequently back in the 1950s. Tony Curtis. Burt Lancaster. Judith Mitchell.
Mitchell has been my last name since birth, and I’m not planning on changing it back to my paternal grandparents’ name at this point in my life. Still, for an “I’m telling everyone” Jew, going by Mitchell can make me feel a lot like a “don’t tell anyone” Jew.
Given all this, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was a kid, I was fond of a song by Jacques Brel that included this lyric:
If we only have love,
we can reach those in pain;
we can heal all our wounds;
we can use our own names.
Fiction has given me the opportunity to explore the outsider status that too many of us — Jews, yes, but hardly Jews alone — struggle with. After all, fiction is essentially a means of artful truth-telling, and there is no more important truth for each of us than “this is who I am — and I’m telling everyone.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.
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Judith Claire Mitchell is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, artist Don Friedlich.