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My mother as a social thinker

My mother was not a theorist. She was never educated to think in abstract terms. But she was, in her own way, a social thinker. It is only as I set about writing this piece that I properly appreciate how much she influenced my own thinking.

Mum was a voracious consumer of what she liked to call “human stories” -- novels and memoirs telling the life story of real people or fictional characters living in various countries who got caught up in the turbulent events of the twentieth century. For many years she and I used to exchange and discuss books of this kind. She also collected human stories “straight from the horse’s mouth” -- from the many people she met, on holiday for instance. Another source of ideas for her was science fiction. Mum had a passion for sci-fi. She passed this passion down to me. My daughter in turn picked it up from me.

Let me give an example of the impact the human stories had on Mum’s attitudes and on my own. The fight against fascism was important to my mother, as it was to all socially aware people of her generation. In the immediate postwar years (she was 17 when the war ended) she belonged to the 43 Group – an almost forgotten gang of Jewish youngsters in London who fought (physically) Mosley’s Union Movement. A correspondent has informed me that there is a book about them by Morris Beckman, although only a few copies are still available.

But at the same time she was capable of empathizing with people who were drawn to fascism for humanly understandable reasons. I recall her reading a novel set in Weimar Germany. The hero was an unemployed young man who found pride and self-respect by joining the Nazis. As usual, she passed the novel on to me. When I caught the drift I refused to read further — “as a matter of principle.” She insisted that I read on. It was one of the few times when she got angry with me. I believe that this episode affected me deeply. Much later I myself wrote a book about Russian fascist movements. I tried to convey to the reader an empathetic understanding of why a youngster living in the misery of post-Soviet Russia might be drawn to fascism.

On their continental driving trips, my parents for many years avoided any contact with Germans they ran into. One year I was astonished to hear from Mum that they had made friends with a German couple. From then on Mum would always take umbrage on behalf of young Germans who were unfairly blamed for the sins of their fathers.

At some point when I was in my early teens, my mother and father visited Israel. On her return my mother conveyed to me her discovery that Israel was “a fascist state.” Even then I was no admirer of Israel, but this phrase jolted and astounded me. I recall two points she made in justification. First, there were “soldiers everywhere.” Second, on the road they had come across a column of youngsters marching in the hot sun. They were made to march long distances, she said. Some collapsed. Youngsters in Nazi Germany were put through the same training. My mother could not have given an exact definition of fascism, but her statement could not be dismissed out of hand as empty rhetoric. The reasoning behind it had a basis in a certain kind of knowledge.  

My mother was not consistent in her political allegiances, but she was strongly sensitive to social injustice. I think this was rooted in her experiences as an evacuee during the war. She was evacuated to the countryside when she was only 11, together with two younger brothers to look after. Some of the families with whom she was billeted treated her very well, and she maintained contact with them for many years afterward. But she would also talk about the local gentry who had made her work as a skivvy and the benighted peasant family who were outraged when she aired the bed as her mother had taught her.

My basic left-wing reactions owe a great deal to my mother. Long before I had heard the word “capitalist,” I had absorbed from her the feeling that a mysterious activity called “business” was bad and dirty. So were those who engaged in it, such as a distant cousin whose family we visited for a time—until they insulted us by returning a gift for their daughter’s wedding that they considered insufficiently valuable.

In 1960 or thereabouts, Mum and Dad left my sister and me in the care of our aunt on the Isle of Sheppey and went on a trip to the Soviet Union. I later learned from my mother that this was a very important trip for them because they were considering taking the family to live in the USSR and the decision would depend on their impressions. In the event they decided against the move. Not that they had managed to see much that they were not supposed to see, but they had discovered the existence of anti-Semitism, facilities for the practice of medicine were rather backward, and the public toilets were in a disgusting state.

My mother was on the periphery of the Communist Party milieu in Muswell Hill, where we grew up. She was always willing to help with the jumble sale that was held each year to raise funds for the Daily Worker (later the Morning Star). The crucial factor was her friendship with Lillian and Simon Temple, communists who lived on the next street for whom she had enormous respect and admiration. Simon was a headmaster and stood regularly as candidate for the party in local elections. But Mum stayed on the sidelines and was never drawn in, because while she admired communists in the local context she knew from her human stories of the terrible things that had happened in Russia and other countries under communist rule.

My mother was also sensitive to the position of women in society, even before women’s liberation became fashionable. The inferior position of women in Judaism was one of the main reasons she moved away from religion. She didn’t like the taboos surrounding menstruation or the way women were secluded behind a curtain on the balcony during synagogue services. One thing that especially incensed her was the funeral address that our rabbi delivered whenever a woman in his congregation died. Unlike his address on a man’s death, which would contain at least something specific to the individual concerned, the address on a woman’s death was quite standardized and always quoted the biblical saying that “a virtuous woman is worth more than rubies.” Mum found this insulting to the highest degree, reducing women as it did to the status of possessions.

Curiously enough, for a long time Mum was on very friendly terms with our rabbi. She took a certain pride in being his confidante. But eventually her friendly personal feelings for the rabbi fell victim to her increasing hostility both to Judaism and to Jewish nationalism.

In some ways my mother was well ahead of her time. I remember a conversation about abortion: she thought that the woman should have the right to decide. This must have been in the early 1960s. It was a very controversial position to take at that time. 

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