I try not to let a good opportunity pass me by. I tend to enjoy being involved in controversial issues of the day. So, when Olu Temehin Adegbeye who is the ‘ Othering Correspondent’ of ‘The Correspondent’ a contemporary Dutch news magazine, requested her readers share with her examples of when they had been denied their own identity, I rose to the occasion! Whilst this journalist tends to specialise in sexual identity, I decided to volunteer my story of religious identity. And here is the story I shared.
It Started from my Date of Birth
Indeed my identity was denied to me from my date of birth and I have spent the eight decades of my life working hard on trying to reclaim my birthright!
I was born in 1938 in London, England. It was just before the outbreak of World War 2. Anti-Semitism was rife in Britain, and my father wishing to protect me, did not tell me I was Jewish. I was told by the live-in housekeeper at the age of about 6 that I was lucky I was not living in Europe. She told me stories about how Jewish people were being murdered in Europe and burnt to death. I was forbidden by her to tell my parents that she had shared these stories with me.
I endured a state of great confusion as I had no one in whom I could confide. When I was seven years old I remember secretly saying this prayer to myself every evening before going to sleep, “Dear God, please do not let the Germans come into this country and take me away to a concentration camp.” I did not have a concept of God, and a limited idea of the conditions in a concentration camp. My only source of information was the lady employed by my parents to help with the housework and looking after my elder brother and sister, as well as myself.
My memories of the war are of food shortages, rationing, standing in queues, and my mother having to get some extra coupons to buy me a pair of shoes. Then there were the planes crossing the English Channel, flying over our home in Brighton en-route to bomb the city of London. We had to rush into the air-raid shelter as they frequently dropped bombs as they passed over our home.
Arrival in South Africa
My confusions were heightened when the family came to South Africa in 1947, two years after the war had ended. I was sent to a posh Anglican School and given the false identity of belonging to the Unitarian Church. My father explained to me that if he told the school authorities I was Jewish, they would not give me a place in this desirable educational institution. Of course, this was due to post-war anti-Semitism.
I nominally knew I was Jewish but had only a very hazy concept of what that meant. I somehow sensed I needed to hide this information from the children in my school. However, I had no conception of the deep meaning of being a Jew. If I asked my father any questions regarding my identity, I was told, “Do not worry your pretty little head. I am protecting you by making it public knowledge you are a member of the Unitarian community.”
I was totally confused.
I had no extended family in this country with whom I was able to share my feelings. My nuclear family was one in which there was little verbal interaction, and the family dynamics were centred on not upsetting my father.
It is only with hindsight that I realise he was a narcissist who ruled the roost as a dictator whose comfort zone was protected by my mother. My father’s whim dominated the interactions of the family. My sister, my brother and myself were trained to respect him, obey him, listen to him, and forget about our personal wishes or needs.
Attending the Great University in Cape Town
On completion of my school career, I attended Cape Town University and studied for a BA degree.
I had always played table tennis whilst growing up, so decided to take part in this sport at UCT. I became a member of the table tennis team and for the first time in my life met some young Jewish people. They were part of the same team and we went to different venues together to play matches. At the end of my first year of study, I was encouraged by the members of this team to participate in a group holiday excursion to Europe.
Tour of England and Europe in 1956
There were about 70 participants on the tour – students from all the Universities in South Africa. We went on a six week trip to England and Europe travelling both ways for 10 days on a ship. This proved to be a further opportunity to be in contact with Jewish people of my age. Whilst they had many joint experiences of which I had not been a part, surprisingly I was absorbed by osmosis into their lifestyle.
It was on this excursion that I made my first friends who belonged to the Jewish faith, and they taught me about the customs and lifestyle of this 2000 year old people.
Later this group of friends introduced me to my future husband and father of my four children. He was a Jewish doctor and started educating me into the richness of my heritage.
Becoming a Mother
One of my earliest resolves as a mother was that I would not allow my children to suffer from a lack of knowledge of their identity. I would have to learn about Jewish customs and history to allow my children the advantage of reclaiming the identity I had been denied. I felt that if my children wished to opt-out of their Judaism as an adult, I would be fine with that. At least they would have the choice of knowing their family’s true history.
I pursued many courses in Jewish History and the Hebrew language when I was in my 40’s to compensate for the education I had been denied during my early years.
Gradually I absorbed my birth right and became more and more comfortable within the Jewish community in Cape Town where I live. I still feel a bit like a convert as I only became familiar with my Jewish heritage as an adult, unlike my friends who grew up learning Hebrew and attending synagogue from an early age.
Overcoming being an Outsider
I remain a bit of an outsider. I am not a fully integrated part of the local Jewish community as I only arrived in this country at the age of 9. I emerged from a British heritage and most of the South African Jews are of a Lithuanian lineage.
So, that is my story in brief. It helps me to understand ‘the other’ better than if I had grown up with a secure identity.
I know what it is like to be an outsider.
Thanks for your wonderful reflective journalism, Olu. You are a brave young woman. I wish you strength in your ability to describe the outsider experience.