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The Tenth Man

The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place

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Hitchens, 2006. (Christian Witkin)

Later in 1989, Hitchens met Carol Blue, the woman who became his second wife. He promptly told his wife, Meleagrou, who was the mother of his son and was then pregnant with his daughter, that he and Blue were in love. He split up and remarried: In a sense, his daughter’s birth’s baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.

Politically, his course was set. The muddy complexities of the Cold War—which pitted an ostensibly Communist system that was in fact brutal, crude, repressive authoritarianism against an ostensibly free system whose capitalism run rampant and omnipotent national security state nixed the possibility of true democracy—had permitted Hitchens only to call for a pox on both their houses. Now he could truly honor that which he believed good and condemn that which he believed bad. Good is free speech, anti-clericalism, irony, and mercy; bad is conformity, theocracy, fanaticism, and an incredibly misplaced sense of justice. It may have taken a cataclysm of 9/11’s scale to reveal where Hitchens stood. Perhaps 9/11—and specifically, the specter, in its aftermath, of this fervent lefty fervently backing a fervently right-wing president—was merely what made people notice. But an honest reading of Hitchens’ intellectual trajectory would find that his reaction to the terrorist attacks was entirely in keeping with more than a decade of writing and thought, and that if a new path was indeed blazed, it was blazed in 1989.

***

Hitch-22 has at its heart almost something of a mystery plot, and it goes like this: How can Hitchens absolutely believe in the wrongness of absolute beliefs—chiefly theism and totalitarianism? How does he square that circle? Like any good mystery, a clue is under the reader’s nose all along (the title), and the answer is not revealed until the final page. There, Hitchens explains:

It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. … To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics. But that’s my Hitch-22.

The dialectic—the ability of opposites to feed off of each other and eventually produce a synthesis that assimilates the best aspects of both into an overpowering Truth—is the answer to the riddle of Hitchens’ career, particularly of what many saw as his rightward turn later in life. If he did not quite add up, perhaps that is because Marx is not “right” but rather “rightest,” and Hitchens achieved not “synthesis” but rather “Hitch-22,” his personal variation on Joseph Heller’s famed construct wherein two mutually exclusive premises are bound to co-exist. Belief in unbelief, certainty in uncertainty: These are the Scylla and Charybdis through which Hitchens skillfully steered his ship.

But Hitchens speaks most movingly and with the most tactile feel for the magic of the dialectic not while discussing what could be termed his faith, Marxism, but while discussing his mother’s faith. “Judaism is dialectical,” he argues. “Even pre-enlightenment Judaism forces its adherents to study and think, it reluctantly teaches them what others think, and it may even teach them how to think also.” Yvonne gave him “two sides to his head” not by virtue of being Jewish as well as English; the two sides, instead, are contained totally within his Jewishness.

Hitchens also credited the Jews with having prepared the antidote—atheism—to one of the manifestations of the “totalitarian principle” that he spent his life opposing. In the course of answering a “Proust Questionnaire,” he cited his real-life heroes as “Socrates, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky.” I count there two Jewish Marxists and the Jewish inventor of unbelief in God. Atheism is, for Hitchens and just generally, a distinctively Jewish virtue (or vice, if that’s how you feel about it).

Much of the chapter in Hitch-22 that deals with Hitchens’ Jewishness is based on a 1988 essay in the literary quarterly Grand Street in which Hitchens first reported this aspect of himself, and some of the best lines are even pilfered wholesale, with due acknowledgement: “I took my leave and, turning at her little garden gate, somewhat awkwardly uttered the salute ‘Shalom!’ ” Hitchens recalls of visiting his grandmother after learning of her (and his) heritage. “She responded, ‘Shalom, shalom’ as easily as if we’d always greeted and parted this way and, as I wrote it down at the time, I turned and trudged off to the station in the light, continuous English rain that was also my birthright.”

But there is a crucial passage from that earlier essay that Hitchens omitted from the book. In it, he takes readers back to the moment when he has just learned that he is a Jew, and he begins to wonder if there were ever any hints:

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regina winters says:

Having read/heard several decriptions of Hitchens as a self-hating Jew, I was surprised and now am quite of changed-mind. Wonderful article.

Hitchens –how ironic his first name now appears!–is indeed that tenth man…the Johnny-come-lately, the almost-absent, yet the one who allows the Minyan to start its holy work.

This is a fanciful recreation of Hitchens’ life.

It leaves out the essays and books he wrote supporting antisemitic people like Israel Shahak and David Irving (the Holocaust denier) It also left out his anti-Zionist book on the Palestinians.

Hitchens decided to become a Jew (and the story of his mother’s revelation needs to be corroborated by evidence. Was it an accident that he went public with this bit of information when Christopher was being criticized for his association with David Irving?

I think not.

HannaH says:

He was so damn liberal. And I’m so damned conservative. But I love reading anything he wrote. To me it was the only honest man on the left. I will miss him and his memory always be a blessing. He was not a religious man. But I think he was a man of G-d. I think G-d will look kindly on him. We all lost a good man

This reminds me a bit of Bill Maher, who’s also an atheist with a Jewish mother who found out very late in life that his mother was Jewish.

R Bruce Stark says:

Marc- Fabulous synthesis of the yin and the yang of who Christopher Hitchen’s was. Stunning in the way you have shown how his inner search connects to the universal we and the threats to mind, thought, freedom, and truth.
The comments on what “Jewishes” is through the prism of Joyce and the historical evolution of Jewish thought is a remarkable
take on a huge subject. Really thought provoking. “Arguably” the best take on CH yet. Thanks- R. B. Stark
P.S. You just may have inspired a new song– “I wanna Be Jewish”………….for a 21st Century Enlightenment” movement– Post- Fundamentalist, Post Ideological…one can hope (and think)

R Bruce Stark says:

[my typo]should say- ‘Jewishness’ (sorry), or nod to Joyce -Jewish wishes……..

wonderful piece. he would have got a kick out of it

Christopher Orev says:

Nice work, Marc, and produced quickly. Thanks and congrats.

Funny how a man renowned the world over as a lonely, independent-minded, iconoclastic rebel should somehow come to be eulogized by absolutely everyone as a true kindred spirit–even by Marc Tracy, who sees in the virulently anti-Zionist atheist Oxonian the quintessential Jew. Perhaps he wasn’t quite the fearless, conscience-driven man of principle that his followers (presumably with his encouragement) liked to pronounce him to be?

RayneVanDunem says:

Disclaimer: I don’t believe in a deity, and was raised by an Evangelical mother.

Hitchens identified Jewishness with subversiveness, as if Judaism and Jewishness was all supposed to be pigeonholed into a particular “quality”, “relationship” or “function” to or for non-Jews.

After reading an essay from Jewish Ideas Daily about Hitchens’ own lifelong feelings on Judaism and Zionism – Hitchens’ waxed highly vitriolic with some of the most ancient of Christian anxieties about Jews – and then reading this essay AND the Wikipedia bio, I’ve come to see Hitchens as skilled with the pen and with wit but troubled and stunted in his sense of history. He, like many who’ve grown up in Christian or nominally-Christian homes since Christianity became the ideological force that assumed control of what remained of the Roman Empire and the surrounding area, was ideologically imbued with at least some of the obsession over Israel and the Levant that historically resulted in such misadventures as the Crusades. As a result, Jews were pigeonholed by him well before ever finding about his descent from a practitioner. “Good Jew”, “Bad Jew”, “Revolutionary Jew”, “Fascist Jew” and all that.

Other places, like India or China, in which neither Christianity nor Islam were ever major religions have not had this ideological issue of obsession over Israel or pigeonholing/stereotyping Jews until recent.

It’s also reminded me of my own perception of “atheism” as opposed to it as defined by those who view it as an ideology rather than as an absence of at least one ideology: One can doesn’t have to believe in a deity to be overly obsessed with a particular place or culture, or to inherit ancient bigotries, or to inspire fanatic devotion or a general sense of supremacy. I’m worried about all those, and Hitchens is another example of a life which I don’t want to live, no matter its works.

“Must Hitchens have been Jewish”

What the he’ll does this even mean? I literally have no idea.

Peter Painter says:

Hitchens was explicit about his heroes: they included Jefferson, Paine and Burke, but (apart from literary figures such as Joyce) his most unqualified praise was for Orwell.

If Hitchens had formative influences they were therefore Anglo radicals. To claim him for Jewry on the basis of a supposedly shared uppitiness is vulgar, self-aggrandising and encourages the kind of ethnic stereotyping that Jews have good reason to distrust.

In an article for Slate magazine, and elsewhere, Hitchens mused that Israel’s creation might have been a terrible mistake.

I doubt that Mr Tracy is ready to celebrate that degree of “independent thought”.

Peter Painter says:

PS: The New York Times’s silliest columnist, Roger Cohen, today has a piece entitled “Hitchens the American”. Now that he’s safely dead it seems like everyone wants a bit of Hitch.

Jermaine says:

It is ridiculous, self-aggrandizing and hypocritical to describe how being Jewish shaped the thinking of a man like Christopher Hitchens, who was at most one-quarter Jewish and a lifelong atheist. If someone made a similar argument about say, Paul Wolfowitz, they would be instantly denounced as a anti-semite.

tantelaeh says:

Carole Middleton is Jewish. A Goldstein with 4 grandparents all Jewish. What does that make of the King or Queen that reigns after William? It makes her/him a Jew when less than 4 generations have not yet passed.

She/he can put on a tallis and become the tenth person in any minion.

Bob Schwalbaum says:

Let me get this straight.. I presume Hitch’s mother was half-Jewish. So i can see there may have some ambiguity in his “Jewishness”

Am I correct?

I’ve no problem.. both my parent were full Jews.. certainly makes life simpler.. if not easier.

Marc Tracy says:

@Bob Hitchens’ mother was the daughter of a Polish-Jewish woman and an Englishman who converted to Judaism, so she was fully Jewish, and Hitchens was fully half-Jewish, as well as matrilineally so.

The Questioner says:

Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.

Anyway, I find the postmortem deification of Christopher Hitchens by Jewish intellectuals strangely disconcerting, to say the least. Even without his disturbing flirtations with David Irving and other Holocaust deniers, from my vantage point Hitch didn’t appear to identify with Jews or Jewishness all that much. Atheism has nothing to with it; many of the great Jewish intellectual minds were nonbelievers. But Hitch talked to us and about us like he was apart from us, almost like an anthropologist studying a culture he sees as exotic or confusing. Even after he came out as a Jew, I don’t think he ever really saw himself as one of us. For the life of me, I don’t understand why so many Jewish thinkers (male Jewish thinkers in particular) identify with him.

Are we as Jews really that starved for intellectual heroes? And in our rush to deify The Hitch, whose voices in our community are we dis/missing? For example, I have yet to see any female Jewish intellectual—living or dead, religious or secular—lauded for her genius the way Hitch has been since his death. Certainly no Jewish thinker of color would get this treatment, even if s/he were steeped in yiddishkeit from birth. But yet a snooty, Oxford-educated Englishman who found his Jewishness late in life by accident is our ultimate gadol? What does that say about us?

“Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.”

I’ve always found it odd that Jewishness in this sense is something ascribed by another, not by any sort of self-identification. I also find it somewhat absurd to consider yourself Jewish, though never practicing any faith, solely because you discovered that your mother was Jewish. I’m surprised that he’d permit religious tradition (Jewishness passing down through mothers) to have any effect on how he views himself. That to me seems very un-Hitchenslike.

R. Miller says:

Jamie makes a good point on being ‘Un-Hitchens-Like’ But, one could argue since he did not find out until later in life and then years later finding out he had cancer – it stirred something within him. He was always an iconoclast, a polarizing figure but finding out you have terminal cancer maybe made Hitch and his readers (like myself) wonder if he missed out on well, belonging – being part of a ‘people’ an identity.

What I would loved to have known is that before his brother told him he had Jewish roots – did he feel something had been missing. And, when he did bring the topic up from ime to time – was he just grateful to be a part of something besides a very WASPy/Enlish lineage – something more nuanced – like well, Hitch himself. . .

Michael E says:

Thanks for a brilliantly written piece by Marc Tracy. A noted Orthodox Rabbi once observed, “A Jew is someone who “must keep both feet planted firmly in the air”. Hitchens did not torture himself with the paradoxes in his life but, instead, embraced them. This made him both an iconoclast and one who was not afraid to express what what would appear superficially to be inconsistent viewpoints. This was,unbeknownst to him at the time, a product of his Jewish heritage which was transmitted to him in his mother’s milk, as it were. This excellent articl moves me to revisit Homerand Joyce, and to read Hitchen’s memoir for the first time. Thank you. I will be a regular reader of Tablet.com.
Michael Engel

Dan T. Wallace says:

Mazel tov to Mark Tracy on the exceptionally fine writing in the acute study of Hitchen’s mind, especially in “Hitch-22.” Hitchens is the kind of entertaining “rash” intellectual who makes the World of the Mind his own hunting ground seeking to target “the truth,” that often chimerical notion, a touch of Voltaire joshing the best of all possible worlds.

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The Tenth Man

The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place