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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.