When my middle son discovered several years ago that his genetic material included a “trace element” of Ashkenazi Jew, he was proud and so were we. No one was surprised, least of all me. I’ve always felt, without examining its origins, a quiet, unquestioning philosemitism. Where would I be without a Jewish inheritance, from Isaiah to Proust, Daniel Fuchs, Howard Nemerov and Joseph Epstein? They are already my literary uncles. Why not make the inheritance literal?
In 1934, when a fascist magazine in Argentina accused Jorge Luis Borges of being a Jew, he replied in the most civilized fashion by writing a brief, cool-headed, amusing essay, “I, a Jew”:
“Who has not, at one time or another, played with thoughts of his ancestors, with the prehistory of his flesh and blood? I have done so many times, and many times it has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish. It is an idle hypothesis, a frugal and sedentary adventure that harms no one, not even the name of Israel, as my Judaism, is wordless, like the songs of Mendelssohn.”
The anti-Semitic magazine was Crisol (Crucible). Rather than argue with the Jew-haters, Borges, long before genetic testing, teasingly embraced the possibility of Jewish ancestry:
“I am grateful for the stimulus provided by Crisol, but hope is dimming that I will ever be able to discover my link to the Table of the Breads and the Sea of Bronze; to Heine, Gleizer, and the ten Sefiroth; to Ecclesiastes and Chaplin.”
Anti-Semitism is having yet another of its semi-annual flare-ups. It’s a disease that will never be eradicated. On Tuesday, Rabbi David Wolpe said on Twitter: “I remember when hating Jews wasn’t chic.” His memory is better than mine. You don’t have to be a Nazi to be a Jew-hater. I recently heard a university administrator describe a woman’s voice as “too Jewy.” Anti-Semitism is an equal-opportunity employer.
[You can find Eliot Weinberger’s translation of “I, a Jew” in Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions, Viking, 1999.]