By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006; A01
RICHMOND, Sept. 20 -- Henrietta "Etty" Allen said Wednesday that she concealed her upbringing as a Jew in North Africa from her children, including Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), until a conversation across the dining room table in late August.
She said Allen asked her directly about his Jewish heritage when he was in Los Angeles for a fundraiser. "We sat across the table and he said, 'Mom, there's a rumor that Pop-pop and Mom-mom were Jewish and so were you,' " she recalled, a day after Allen issued a statement acknowledging and embracing his Jewish roots as he campaigns for a second term in the U.S. Senate.
At the table in Palos Verdes, Calif., Allen's mother, who is 83, said she told her son the truth: That she had been raised as a Jew in Tunisia before moving to the United States. She said that she and the senator's father, famed former Redskins coach George Allen, had wanted to protect their children from living with the fear that she had experienced during World War II. Her father, Felix Lumbroso, was imprisoned by the Nazis during the German occupation of Tunis.
"What they put my father through. I always was fearful," Etty Allen said in a telephone interview. "I didn't want my children to have to go through that fear all the time. When I told Georgie, I said, 'Now you don't love me anymore.' He said, 'Mom, I respect you more than ever.' "
Allen's heritage became an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign Monday, when television reporter Peggy Fox raised it at a televised debate in front of 600 business executives in Fairfax County. Allen repeated what he has said in the past: "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."
In fact, Allen had just recently learned about their Jewish roots when he made those comments. Allen declined to comment, but his mother said she had sworn him to secrecy.
"I said, well, I just didn't want anyone to know," she explained. "I had said, 'Please don't tell your brothers and sister and your wife.' The fact this is such an issue justifies my actions, and my behavior."
For Allen, the 2006 campaign was supposed to have been a coronation -- an easy reelection to a second term in the Senate and a springboard to national prominence and a possible presidential campaign in 2008. Instead, the last six weeks have become a nightmare for his political consultants and a source of material for late-night comedians.
And for the past three days, he has been forced to deal publicly with a very private matter.
Allen's Jewish heritage has been a subject of low-level political speculation for years, in part because the former governor and first-term senator often refers to his grandfather's incarceration by the Nazis in political speeches. But Allen has always said Lumbroso was a member of the Free French resistance movement and insisted that he and his mother were raised as Christians.
Fox has said her question was prompted by an article in a Jewish newspaper that had explored his heritage last month.
"You've been quoted as saying your mother's not Jewish, but it had been reported her father, your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish," Fox asked Allen. "Could you please tell us whether your forebearers include Jews, and if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?"
Allen reacted angrily, in part, because Fox's question came on the heels of a previous one about the "macaca" controversy. Fox had asked Allen whether he learned the word macaca from his mother. Allen had used the word to describe an Indian American volunteer for the campaign of his Democratic opponent, James Webb. Macaca is a genus of monkey and is a French slur for a dark-skinned person. French and Arabic are spoken in Tunis.
Etty Allen said Wednesday that she had never used the word "macaca" before and had to go to a dictionary to look it up when she heard of the controversy. She said the word did not exist in her dictionary.
"I swear to you, I have never used that word," she said. "I must have used a lot of bad words, but not that word."
Allen's angry reaction at the Chamber of Commerce debate prompted criticism from Internet bloggers and some Jewish leaders, some of whom accused him of hiding his Jewish ancestry or viewing it as a political problem.
"It's strange that George Allen wasn't more curious about his own heritage and a lot of people are wondering why," said George Mason University politics professor Mark J. Rozell.
But Rozell said most Virginia voters are not likely to see the question of Allen's roots as an important one in determining how they will vote in November.
"I don't even think among some of the more hard-core religious conservatives in this state it will cause him any difficulty," Rozell said. "When it comes down to it in November, voters are going to look at George Allen's record, the war in Iraq, Jim Webb, a lot of policy issues."
Allen's mother said she first began concealing her Jewish roots after meeting her future husband, afraid that she would not be accepted by his parents and fearful that her religion could harm his budding coaching career, which started at Whittier College, a school in Southern California founded by Quakers.
"He didn't want me to tell his mother," she said of the elder George Allen. "At that time, that was a no-no, to marry outside the church." Allen died in 1990.
Leo Mugmon, 92, a longtime friend of Allen's mother who knew her as a Jew in Tunis, recalled her decision to hide her faith when she came to the United States.
"She did not say anything to her mother-in-law or her family," Mugmon said. He added that Etty Allen's father, Felix Lumbroso, traveled from Tunis for the Allen wedding. "Mr. Felix didn't say anything about it. In silence, he sort of condoned it."
Etty Allen said she is relieved to no longer have to keep a secret about her past. She said she hopes the revelation does not hurt her son's bid for reelection to the Senate.
"He's fine. He loves challenges," she said, then offered an unsolicited observation that suggests her son might be ready for a break from tough questions: "His favorite time of the week is when he comes home, sits on his riding mower, by himself and mows his lawn and no one is asking him questions."