I will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah because there’s a strong likelihood that I am the issue of a closeted Jewish family.
Let me explain.
Many years ago, shortly after my mother’s funeral in Paris, I went to visit her best friend, Madame C. She sat me down in a parlor full of priceless antiques and said, “Did you know your mother was Jewish?”
I did not.
Madame C then told me a fascinating story.
When the Dreyfus affairs* broke out in 1894, antisemitism, which has plagued France since Roman times, was rampant and often violent. Many French Jewish families, fearful of what the scandal might lead to, opted to change their names and, at least on the surface, their religions. In order to recognize each other anonymously, a number of these families assumed the names of months. The Rosenfelds became the Septembres; the Hassans became the Janviers. My mother’s family name was Février (February). I looked into our family tree; the Février name appeared suddenly in 1898. And then I remember being a tiny kid in mid-50s and listening to my maternal grandfather carry on about the injustice done to Dreyfus. In my family of origin, the affair was far from forgotten.
My mother’s first marriage when she was very young had been to a Jewish doctor and film-maker who originally hailed from Algeria. She had two daughters with him and both were raised in the Jewish faith, though neither really practiced it.
I had always assumed this first union was largely due to my mother’s desperate desire to leave her home. Madame C thought otherwise. “I think you mother wanted to return to her faith,” she told me.
If this was the case, my mother’s decision did not survive World War Two. She divorced her first husband and eventually married the man who became my father. Judaism, to the best of my memory, was seldom mentioned in the household.
To be honest, religion was never an important part of my life. My parents, if they attended services, did so for social reasons. I was confirmed as a Catholic, and attended Christmas midnight mass occasionally. Much later I became a Buddhist of sorts.
But Madame C’s tale stayed with me. Years ago, I spoke about it to my late sister, Florence, who hemmed and hawed and, after a long silence, simply said, “Maman had secrets.”
That she did.
Arielle and I will make dinner and she will teach me some of the faith’s blessings.
זה טוב. I think that reads, “It is good” in Hebrew.
* A scandal that rocked France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans.
In 1894, after a French spy at the German Embassy in Paris discovered a ripped-up letter in a waste basket with handwriting said to resemble that of Dreyfus, Dreyfus was court-martialed, found guilty of treason and sentenced to life behind bars on Devil’s Island. In a public ceremony in Paris following his conviction, Dreyfus had the insignia torn from his uniform and his sword broken and was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
In 1896, the new head of the army’s intelligence unit, Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence pointing to another French military officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the real traitor. However, when Picquart told his bosses what he’d discovered he was discouraged from continuing his investigation, transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. Nevertheless, word about Esterhazy’s possible guilt began to circulate. In 1898, he was court-martialed but quickly found not guilty; he later fled the country. After Esterhazy’s acquittal, a French newspaper published an open letter titled “J’Accuse…!” by well-known author Emile Zola in which he defended Dreyfus and accused the military of a major cover-up in the case.
The Dreyfus affair deeply divided France, not just over the fate of the man at its center but also over a range of issues, including politics, religion and national identity. In 1899, Dreyfus was court-martialed for a second time and found guilty. Although he was pardoned days later by the French president, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus officially was exonerated and reinstated in the army. History Magazine