Etty Allen's Unease

By Ruth Marcus
Saturday, September 23, 2006

You may have heard the term "gaydar," the ability claimed by some gay people to detect other gays. My mother has a similar skill -- call it "Jewdar" -- the knack for identifying fellow members of the tribe.

When I was growing up in northern New Jersey, my mother would demonstrate this talent when we went to restaurants, methodically shifting her gaze from table to table. "Jew, Jew, Christian, intermarried," she would pronounce, with the certitude of the preternaturally gifted.

I've got to admit, though: Virginia Sen. George Allen would have stumped Judy Marcus. Madeleine Albright -- not a surprise. Take off that gaudy eagle pin, take her out of the Council on Foreign Relations and she looks like everyone's Jewish grandma.

But George Allen Jewish? This is like finding out Joe Lieberman is a closet Presbyterian. George Allen makes Montana's Conrad Burns look like a yeshiva boy.

First, there's Allen's football shtick: the coach father, the incessant gridiron metaphors, the -- pardon the phrase -- pigskin he likes to toss into the audience at campaign events. Add the chewing tobacco, the cowboy boots, the Confederate flags, and Allen is the ultimate un-Jew, his goyish bona fides beyond question.

Was that part of the point, consciously or not? In fact, it turns out, the Jewish Question wasn't entirely new to Allen: Charlottesville Daily Progress columnist Bob Gibson referred to the senator's Jewish roots in an October 2003 column -- and says that was the only time in 27 years of coverage that Allen demanded a correction.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to find offense in Allen's behavior. His hostile response to the debate question -- okay, the reporter's phrasing was odd, but Allen's bristling was out of proportion. His revealing remark that it was wrong to be "making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs." His misleading restatement of his mother's background. Yes, she asked him -- begged him, he said later -- not to tell, but, as any politician knows, there are lots more elegant ways to duck a question.

But I can understand Allen's discomfiture. For many of us, as a matter of culture as much as of spirituality, our religious roots form part of the basic architecture of our self-image. No wonder Allen reached for the nearest ham sandwich and lovingly recalled his mother's prowess with pork chops.

Rather than feeling affronted, though, I prefer to see the pathos in the Allen family story. I imagine Mrs. Allen, turning the pork chops, putting the angel on top of the Christmas tree, all the while feeling the impostor, the outsider with a Terrible Secret. How did she feel when her husband-to-be asked that she keep her background hidden from his mother?

Indeed, the Allen story captures in microcosm an important, if not particularly attractive, aspect of the Jewish experience. How much easier to hide your Judaism, change your name, not to stick out so much in the majority culture. Some Jews responded to the Holocaust with "Never Again" resolve not to play history's perpetual victim. Others learned the lesson of determined assimilation.

"What they put my father through, I always was fearful," Henrietta "Etty" Allen told The Post's Michael D. Shear, referring to her father's imprisonment by the Nazis during the German occupation of Tunis. "I didn't want my children to have to go through that fear all the time."

This week, as the Allen story broke, I've been reading my friend Jeffrey Goldberg's new book, "Prisoners," about his journey from becoming a teenage Zionist on Long Island's South Shore to serving as a prison guard in the Israeli army to covering the intifada for the New Yorker.

Goldberg describes the immutable alienation of Jews, even in America, even now. "We felt something, I think, that many Jews in this country still feel: a kind of involuntary apartness, an unease, rooted in an incontrovertible truth about America -- that no matter what the Constitution says, it is a Christian country," he writes. "It could be argued that no country in the Diaspora has so successfully inoculated itself against Jew-hatred as has America. But the fear of anti-Semitism is the forge on which many American Jews build their identities."

Etty Allen understood this fear and unease. So, I suspect, does her son, from a different, more entitled, vantage point. And that may go some way toward explaining this whole meshugeneh episode.

marcusr@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company