I've spent a lifetime answering the question "What's your religion?" with the simple declaration, "I'm a Jew." I'd always resented the question as an effort to categorize, limit, and define me. And perhaps I didn't want to carry the burden of Jewish history on my rather narrow shoulders. I was not an observant Jew, at best a cultural Jew, whatever that means, but anyone born of Jewish parents, growing to maturity during or after the Holocaust as I did, knew in their bones that it would be cowardly and unconscionable to answer with "atheist" "agnostic" or "non-believer" even if that more accurately covered one's beliefs. My religion in my youth was being a New Yorker; what I believed in was the god-like power of art to change one's life, but that sounded all too pretentious, even to me in my private moments.
Moreover, it would seem a denial of my parents, something that would be equally shameful and cowardly. And so I put down Jewish on my passport and college applications as an obligation to the past, yet felt that my life should be lived without labels and limitations. My marriage to Joan, whose Scandinavian beauty belied her own German Jewish origins, and with my dark hair, short straight nose and Latin features, it made it difficult for strangers to determine our backgrounds; we fell too far from the notorious Nazi Julius Streicher's definition of what a Jew looked like. I haven't thought much about the subject recently, but a tablecloth hidden away in a linen closet in our apartment, brought about some sort of time travel into my own past. I won't glorify it by calling it an epiphany, but in a funny way it was akin to one.
My wife and I have been trying to simplify our cluttered lives by giving away, selling, or donating to charity "stuff" that fills our closets and no longer has a place in our everyday life. We came upon the tablecloth as we investigated the back of that linen closet which contained some broken antique lamps, ancient perfume bottles, and other never to be used again items. The tablecloth was wrapped in fine tissue paper and seemed as crisp, and new as the day it had been purchased. It had seen little if any use during its 60-odd year history. My wife observed that nobody uses such tablecloths anymore, least of all organdy ones with white hand sewn flowers on them. Together with its twelve matching napkins it had been bought by us as an anniversary gift for my mother and father-in-law in 1953 when my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Florence, Italy. It had come into our possession a few years ago when my mother-in-law died in her early nineties. Somehow, we couldn't add the tablecloth to the pile of giveaways. As I studied it I knew at once that it had a special meaning for me and the reason could be traced to a dinner party in a dilapidated villa in Fiesole, outside of Florence more than sixty years ago.
We were on our wedding trip when we arrived in Florence without hotel reservations -- my lifelong bad habit, and, after checking into a modest railway hotel, we visited the museums, saw the required Michelangelos and Botticellis, we purchased inexpensive gift shop reproductions of Fra Angelica saints, gilded and glued on to wooden panels, together with some hand-tooled leather goods as souvenirs for our families back home. The dollar was strong in the fifties, nothing cost a great deal for an American in Europe, one could live comfortably there on 10 dollars a day, or so the guide books told us. Leaving a museum we came upon a small linen shop where we hoped to purchase some table linens for my wife's mother who had asked us to buy her a new tablecloth in Florence.
The woman who owned and ran the shop introduced herself as the Contessa Montevello, or Montebello, I don't quite recall, but Contessa she was. She was an elegant grey-haired woman in her late forties who spoke English with a rarified British accent, ever so faintly tinged with an Italian rhythm. It was evident that she was not by birth or custom a shop-keeper; this was the result of the war which turned royalty into peddlers, long before the arrival of the Ralph Laurens, the Tommy Hilfigers, and the Diane von Furstenbergs turned peddlers into royalty.
The Contessa showed us a variety of hand-made cloths she had for sale, treating each item with the reverence reserved for the very best merchandise made for the very best clientele. My wife selected a muted grey and white organdy table-cloth and napkins knowing that this would please her mother's simple taste. "A wise choice," the Contessa declared, commending my young wife for her mature judgment when she had rejected the brightly embroidered linens. As she wrapped the tablecloth in tissue paper and ribbon, the Contessa then asked me what I did in the world and I told her that I was a recent college graduate, a writer, or at least an aspiring one. "Wonderful!" she exclaimed. You must meet Jamie Hamilton. He's visiting me with his wife, my cousin, the Contessa Pallavicino. You'll adore Yvonne and Jamie, and they will love you," she assured us, looking with approval at my beautiful bride. She went on to explain that Jamie was better known as Hamish Hamilton, the successful British publisher and one-time Olympic rowing champion, the publisher of such authors as John Paul Sartre and Albert Camus; just part of his long list of literary luminaries. I had heard of this man and I was impressed. More than that, I entertained the hope that someday he might publish my work in England should I ever write a novel.
"You'll come to dinner tonight?" the Contessa asked, less a request than a command. The Contessa took down our address so that she could send her driver to pick us up. When she discovered that we were staying in the railway hotel she declared it fit only for whores and anarchists, not for a charming young couple such as we were, and suggested a beautiful but inexpensive pension nearby into which we moved as soon as we returned to the hotel. We packed our heavy leather wedding-gift luggage, placing the tablecloth carefully inside, encased in the tissue paper to keep it from creasing.
Early that evening we were picked up at the pension by an elderly man in threadbare chauffeur's livery. He held the door open to a large, ancient, gleaming, black Bentley with enormous bug-eyed headlights, ushering us inside where we sat on deep maroon leather upholstery. It was like being seated in a fine old theatre rather than an automobile. So this was Europe! The real Europe, where struggling aristocracy managed to keep up the appearance of luxury by living on pride and willpower alone. We were having a Henry James adventure; a young American couple on their first time abroad, dining with an impoverished Italian countess, and who knew where this could take us?
Intrigue awaited as layers of motivation would be peeled away and we would see the worldly heart of old Europe. Better than that, we were Zelda and Scott without the drinking, the breakdowns or the despair. Being in our very early twenties, everything seemed possible. One day you're living in a fleabag hotel, that same night you are on your way to a Contessa's villa in a luxury auto to meet a famous British publisher and his aristocratic Italian wife.
It was dusk as we drove through the Fiesole woods in that enormous black vehicle, down a long gravel driveway bordered by conifer trees towards a villa with just the right amount of peeling stucco and faded geraniums in old stone pots, where the Contessa stood waiting to welcome us in her pre-war silver lame evening gown. She hooked her arms between ours and led us inside the villa to meet the other guests. The great drawing room was furnished with ancestral paintings, old tapestries and tattered sofas and chairs, many of which had horsehair stuffing peeping out of the torn upholstery, betraying the aristocratic indifference of the owner as much as her poverty.
The Contessa explained that the Germans had requisitioned her villa during the last days of the war and that they had done much damage to it, damage she could not afford to repair. She was currently renting out a whole wing of the villa to some rich Americans; and noisy and disagreeable as they were, she would rather do that than sell this home, one that had been in her late husband's family for hundreds of years.
"The war took everything, you know," she said, without further explanation. We assumed that the "everything" she referred to included her husband, her wealth, and her former life. It was less than seven years since the end of WWII, and we understood that not only working class Italians but many in the Italian aristocracy had suffered much from Mussolini's fascism, and the Allied bombing of Italy.
Jamie Hamilton proved to be as charming and erudite as the Contessa had claimed he would be. I won his approval by praising an inexpensive edition of Middlemarch that he had published several years before; one with colorful, marbleized end papers. I owned a mildewed copy of that book which bore his company's trade name, having picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Bermuda during a school holiday. His lovely, aristocratic Italian wife had a warm, welcoming smile and a genius for putting a self-conscious young couple at their ease, advising us as to what we should see, where we should eat, and what we should avoid in Firenze.
We were seated next to the Hamiltons at dinner when halfway through the meal Jamie Hamilton asked me, "Have you read many Italian writers?" I replied that I had enjoyed the works of Italo Svevo, Carlo Levi and Alberto Moravia, hoping to impress him with my knowledge of European literature, while in truth I had just exhausted the names of the only three Italian authors I knew. It was then that my hostess, the Contessa laughed, as if she was about to betray a wicked secret, remarking, "You mean Smitz and Pincherle?" I looked confused. She went on; "Those are their real names. They are all Jews, hiding behind distinguished Italian names, all except Levi, who couldn't conceal his wretched origins no matter how hard he might try. No Italian is deceived by this. The Jews will do anything to hide their true heritage. It's quite disgusting, but fortunately they are always found out. Communists -- all of them. If I can forgive the Germans anything, which is not easy after what they did to Italy, I can forgive them for getting rid of so many Jews." I waited for Jamie or his wife to respond, to argue with her, to contradict her statement, but no one said anything. They went on eating and drinking undisturbed as the Countess ended her diatribe and flashed her smile at me, satisfied that she had improved my education in the true nature of Italian writers.
A bit of personal history here. I had been raised in middle class comfort in New York City and I had rarely come up against any anti-Semitic remarks. This was during the late 30s in America, a time of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, the first a vicious hatemonger, the other a covert anti-Semite, men who had a wide following during the Depression and years after. When I was a small child my mother had made the mistake of renting a beach house in a Long Island resort town that she later learned was "restricted." I was told years later that we children were shunned by the neighbor's children when an elderly immigrant aunt of ours had come to visit, her presence revealing our Jewish origins. Hardship, I've learned, doesn't often make people better, it just makes them harder. And hard times seek out easy victims for blame, and the Depression was one of those times. But growing up in a cosmopolitan city, a city with a large Jewish population, had sheltered me from overt signs of bigotry, although once as a 10-year-old on vacation in Miami with my family we passed a sign on the Kennelworth Hotel reading "No Jews or dogs allowed." When I asked my father about it he simply said that these people were idiots and I should pay no mind to that sign. And I didn't.
I was neither ashamed nor proud of my background. I saw no reason to be proud of anything you didn't create like your religion, your race, or your appearance. But I was not so naïve as to think they didn't matter in the world. I wanted more than anything to blend in wherever I was so I could watch and listen and take mental notes for the future masterpieces I was sure to write. And here I was in this villa in the Fiesole, when all the artifice of civilization was peeled away like the villa's rotting stucco, and I was staring into the face of a deep, ugly racial hatred.
I didn't plan it. Without thinking I rose from my chair and turned to my wife saying, "We have to go, love." Everyone looked up at us surprised. The Contessa asked if I was ill. I replied, "No, not ill, merely Jewish." She looked stunned. I repeated my remark in a more direct way. "I am a Jew. My wife and I -- we're both Jewish."
I don't recall if it was the Contessa or Jamie Hamilton who responded, "Really, I thought you were Canadian." On any other night I would have laughed at the absurdity of that remark but this was no night for laughter. I realized that I never wanted to be defined by anything but my own character and my own talents, and I believed that I had gone beyond race and religion when I immersed myself in world literature, but I had been faced by a challenge that night for which there was only one reply, identifying oneself with the despised group.
The Contessa offered us her driver and car to take us back to the pension but I refused her in a steely show of controlled outrage and independence. I would not be beholden to her for anything, not even a lift back to Florence. We nodded goodbye to Jamie Hamilton and his wife without the customary handshake and made our way out of the villa. It was now a very dark, starless night and I realized soon after we reached the end of the driveway that we would have to make our way through a road in the woods to the main highway, and that road had many forks and turnings. Need I add that we were soon miserably lost in those woods? We were Hansel and Gretel without the trail of bread-crumbs. It took us two hours to find our way to the nearby main highway when I finally saw the distant lamplights on the roadway through the trees and we headed towards the lights. We finally flagged down a bus and made our way back to Florence.
Somehow, looking at that tablecloth again brought this whole misadventure back to me with such clarity. It seems that antisemitism often sleeps late, but it always awakens and it never dies. I have spent a lifetime believing that I am a part of the family of man, and avoiding the formal religious aspect of life, finding the beliefs of others something I accept with ease but without any desire to partake of those beliefs. I realize that for many this reveals my great limitations of mind and spirit; and that for them my life is narrow and circumscribed, without spiritual comfort or the hope of redemption. Since religion is to me so often divisive, it seems responsible for much of mankind's misery as much as it offers comfort, I regard all organized religion as a drowning pool in which I don't want to swim. But on that dark night in the Fiesole outside of Florence I knew that I was a Jew, then and forever, and that I could not live with myself if I did not declare it openly in response to that ugly table talk, the kind of talk that had previously led to the death of millions of my fellow Jews. I knew that I would not have been spared by my love of books or my wife's beauty had I lived in Europe during the war years, certainly not by the likes of that Contessa. That night I was no New Yorker, and I was certainly no hero. I was simply someone who had found a moment of clarity, a discovery that would stay with me for life; and all because we had purchased that organdy table cloth in Florence. And so, the other day, I decided to keep the table cloth as a reminder of times past, a time when I learned that I was not Scott Fitzgerald, not Italian or even a Canadian, no citizen of the world, but that I was simply, inexorably me.