The ancient Jewish art of blending in

For centuries Jews living in the Diaspora had to be constantly on guard and aware of those who threatened their survival.

Herzl’s portrait hangs in the Jewish Museum, Vienna (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herzl’s portrait hangs in the Jewish Museum, Vienna
(photo credit: Courtesy)

For centuries Jews living in the Diaspora had to be constantly on guard and aware of those who threatened their survival.
There were periods in history when they needed to live double lives in order to survive. This was particularly true during the period of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were hunted down all over Catholic Europe. They became Anusim or Conversos, seemingly practicing the Catholic faith but secretly continuing to maintain their Jewish identity. They were given new names and outwardly spoke and dressed like their Christian neighbors. They even wore crucifixes, yet inwardly they were still Jews. They communicated with each other using secret codes. One account tells of how Spanish Jews recognized each other on the streets of Andalusia by whistling the tune of a popular love song, the melody of which is still sung today as a Friday night Sabbath hymn, (Tzur Mishelo).
It was only after the emancipation, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, that Jews were granted equal rights and were allowed to leave their ghetto existence behind them. Thus began the heady days of the haskala (the Enlightenment movement). Only Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews chose not to adopt the ways of the people among whom they lived, a trend which they have continued to this day. They deliberately dress and behave in a way that makes them stand out from the rest, ostensibly to prevent assimilation. The majority of their co-religionists however embraced their newfound freedom.
Despite the so-called “emancipation,” even those with exceptional wealth or talent were still not welcomed into gentile society. The life stories of Felix Mendelssohn and Gustave Mahler attest to this. Jews had to deny their origins and assimilate in order to progress. In 19th century Vienna, the suicide rate among young Jewish adults reached epidemic proportions as a result of their inability to fit into either gentile or Jewish society. Antisemitism pervaded and came to a head with the ideologies of nazism and communism. Jews went to great lengths to hide their identities by changing their surnames.
In the Islamic countries, they masqueraded as locals and took Arabic names. They were forced to follow the custom of betrothing their children to the children of their Muslim neighbors. In the town of Mashhad in Iran, Jews circumvented this practice by betrothing their 12-year-old daughters to significantly older Jewish males in the community. This practice continued until well into the 20th century.
Psychologists who have studied persecuted peoples in history have commented on how this affects the human psyche. Among other consequences, it seems that victims of discrimination and persecution become unusually intuitive and aware of their social surroundings. In my early career as a business coach and counselor, I remember asking one of my teachers about the meaning of the word intuition.
“There is no such thing as intuition,” he told me. “I prefer to think of the phenomenon as ‘acute observational ability’ that enters the subconscious mind of human beings, particularly those who are harassed and persecuted. It’s like the sixth sense that animals develop when they are being hunted.”
No wonder then that so many Jews have opted to work in fields such as psychoanalysis, clinical psychology and psychiatry. It may also explain why so many of our co-religionists develop above-average perceptive skills that allow them to ‘read’ people, and why the Mossad has never had a problem in recruiting and training intelligence agents. Perhaps exile and migration have imbued us with a kind of ‘radar’ that helps us to discern friend from foe.
As a child growing up in South Africa, my ears were attuned to many languages. The easiest to differentiate were the Afrikaans and English-speaking white South Africans. This became more refined as I grew older. I learned to pick up on the voices of those who came from Cape Town, Durban or my birth city Johannesburg. There were even different speech nuances among the Jewish communities.
I grew up with grandparents from Lithuania and parents who were raised among the Boers in the South African farmlands. They spoke with pronounced accents. My parents were conscious of this and wanted us to ‘speak properly’ so that we didn’t identify ourselves as ‘Jewish Jo’burg kids’ from the Northern Suburbs. We were sent for elocution lessons. The premise was (from our mother’s point of view) that Johannesburg accents made us sound unsophisticated, and that we needed to work on our pronunciation and aspire to more British Commonwealth-sounding accents like the people from the very English city of Durban. Perhaps she wanted us to improve our life chances by preparing us to blend in with our predominantly English-speaking non-Jewish surroundings.
Needless to say, I learned a lot from Ms. Sheila Shlain, my speech teacher, and went on to make a successful career of speaking in public. Some of our friends and members of my extended family went to much greater lengths to disguise their origins. They underwent plastic surgery to change their facial features, which in those days was known as “having a nose job.”
When I moved to London in my early 20s, I was astounded by the array of accents.
“The minute you open your mouth to speak, people can tell exactly where you’re from,” they told me. “And what’s more, they can slot you into where you belong in society.”
English Jews, especially in London, were particularly good at sniffing out those who had been brought up in the East End and those who had bettered themselves by acquiring a more sophisticated northwest London pronunciation. To this day in the Jewish neighborhoods of London, different accents proliferate.
My early wanderings also took me to Switzerland. Living in the German part of the Confederation, I learned to distinguish between the Basel and Zurich accents. I learned a lot about the community. In 1622, most of the Jews (except for physicians) were expelled from the country with the exception of two villages, Lengnau and Endignen in Canton Aargau. The Jews were not even allowed to bury their dead on Swiss soil and were allocated a small burial plot on an island in the middle of the Rhine.
Emancipation brought about some small positive changes for the Swiss Jews. It took pressure from Britain, France and the US to get the Swiss to grant equal rights to all citizens, and in 1874 the constitution was modified.
Meanwhile, the two “Jewish” villages were obliged by law to “blend in” to their Swiss surroundings. Each of the villages had its own synagogue. The Jewish inhabitants were required to build them so that they looked like churches with a steeple and a clock tower. The communities were granted one concession – they were allowed to use Hebrew lettering on the clocks instead of numerals. Some years later they were also given a small piece of land between the two villages to be used as a burial ground. The buildings and the cemetery still exist and are used for special ceremonial occasions.
In the early 20th century, the Jews of Lengnau and Endingen – who spoke a unique dialect of Yiddish – began to migrate to the main cities of Zurich and Basel. As they went about their day to day business, Swiss Jews went to great lengths to hide their Jewish identities by not being too conspicuous. The slang phrase for identifying a Jew in Swiss German was ein acht fünf und zwanziger, which directly translates to “an 8:25er,” referring to the time that the train from their ancestral towns of Endingen or Lengnau left for Zurich each weekday morning.
The United States is one example of a country where Jews have found a safe haven without the fear of persecution, discrimination and a need to blend in. By its very nature, the country extended itself to those seeking refuge from oppression and persecution. In the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
And yet in the same way that Jewish Londoners aspired to neutralizing their accents, a significant percentage of American Jews have done the same. This is best captured in Woody Allen’s 1983 movie “Zelig.” Set in the 1920s and ’30s, the film concerns Leonard Zelig played by Woody Allen, a nondescript man who has the ability to transform his appearance to that of the people who surround him. He is first observed at a party by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who notes that Zelig related to the affluent guests in a refined Boston accent and shared their Republican sympathies, but while in the kitchen with the servants, adopted a rougher tone and seemed to be more of a Democrat. Zelig soon gained international renown as a “human chameleon.” Although the film does not overtly refer to Zelig as a Jew, it is blatantly obvious that Allen is alluding to the fact that he is.
Some may argue that the phenomenon of “blending in” is not an exclusively Jewish issue. They would say that it has more to do with being an “outsider” in an “insider” social environment. The fact is that we Jews have been exposed to more prejudice and discrimination for most of our history than many other ethnic groups. “Blending in” with our surroundings has thus become an instinctive part of Jewish survival.
After the establishment of the state in 1948, the Jewish Agency began its work of gathering in the exiles. Having started to take the Jews out of the Diaspora, they now had to take the Diaspora out of the Jews. This work began in the late 19th century with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the resuscitator and father of Modern Hebrew. So determined was he to eradicate the “stain” of the Diaspora on the new Jewish Utopia that he forbade his young son from playing with the Yiddish-speaking boys in their local Jerusalem neighborhood. Even before the state was established, Ben-Gurion continued to promote Ben-Yehuda’s legacy and made sure that those who settled in the State of Israel would speak a pure untainted Hebrew in keeping with the ideals of Zionism.
From its inception, the Jewish Agency began to address the challenge of absorbing immigrants. Absorption centers were set up all over the country, where every new immigrant was and still is encouraged to immerse himself/herself in the language, history, traditions and culture of the country. Having been through this process myself, I am very conscious that many immigrants do not speak a perfect Hebrew, and that we stand out among the veteran Israeli population. Ironically, the governing powers have turned this situation to their advantage. They have utilized the “blending” talents of their citizens to build a formidable intelligence service and a robust international economy.
As someone who spends a fair bit of time volunteering with young third- and fourth-generation Israelis, I find it fascinating to see how confident and uninhibited they are when they travel and work abroad. They might be a little self-conscious about their English, but they have shaken off the shackles of galut (exile) and do not see themselves as having to conform or “blend in” with anyone. Provided that they don’t do this with too much chutzpah, I believe that Theodore Herzl would be proud of them. They are living his dream of being part of a flourishing indigenous Jewish nation in his Altneuland (Old New Land) – the modern State of Israel.