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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)

Then, most provoking and beguiling of all, there was the dream. Nothing bores me more than dream stories, so I had kept this one to myself. But it was the only one that counted as recurrent, and I had also experienced it as a waking fantasy. In this reverie, I am aboard a ship. A small group is on the other side of the deck, huddled in talk but in some way noticing me. After a while a member of the group crosses the deck. He explains that he and his fellows are one short of a quorum for a prayer. Will I make up the number for a minyan? Smiling generously, and swallowing my secular convictions in a likable and tolerant manner, I agree to be the tenth man and stroll across the deck.

As it turned out, Hitchens, the very model of the lone iconoclast, wished to belong; wanted to be part of a group, a movement, a thing larger than himself, even while disbelieving in the very existence, the very possibility of the existence, of such a thing. The unapologetic dissident, the idiosyncratic idol-destroyer, the casual hurler of insults and degrader of lesser intellects was also a man who valued family and friends (the latter to a highly unusual degree) and to the end proclaimed himself in the trenches with the Marxists and the atheists. That is his Hitch-22. And in his Jewishness—which makes heavy demands upon the individual to observe the rites and maintain the conscience even as, with the minyan and other particulars, it requires a community—he found the closest thing to a solution, a passage between Scylla and Charybdis.

***

“My initial reaction,” Hitchens would recall of learning that he was Jewish, “apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along.” This is also what he was telling me when he cited Chapter 9 and, implicitly, his identification with Stephen Dedalus. For Dedalus, too, learns in the middle of his life that he has a claim on Judaism, and this, too, gives him the tools to become a complete person.

Wait, you say: Isn’t Bloom the Jew in Joyce’s story? Actually, Bloom isn’t Jewish. His father was a Hungarian Jew named Rudolph Virag (another suicide, it so happens); his mother was named Ellen Higgins, and was from Ireland. Bloom has even been baptized—three times (one of these times admittedly “under a pump in the village of Swords”). For literary purposes, Bloom is a Jew, and at certain crucial moments he bravely and significantly self-identifies as one. But for practical ones, he is just another Irish Catholic.

Stephen is just another Irish Catholic too, if one who renounced his faith. In a mystical sense, though, Stephen has a larger claim to the Jewish inheritance than Bloom. The central reconciliation in Ulysses comes when Bloom takes Stephen under his wing, adopting him as a son. In this important sense, then, Stephen is Leopold and Molly Bloom’s son. And any son of Leopold and Molly Boom would indeed be Jewish, because Molly is Jewish, a native of Gibraltar whose mother was named Lunita Laredo, commonly read as Sephardic. “There can be no reconciliation if there has not been a sundering,” Stephen says that night. In his newfound Jewishness, he found his way back to amor matris.

Hitchens’ sundering was even more violent. Hitchens traveled to Athens, witnessed something unspeakable and for a very long time unwriteable, and spent the rest of his life proclaiming his love of the Athenian traits of rationalism and democracy and pointedly ignoring the place’s mystical, religious elements. Athens is Reason, Leo Strauss said, and Jerusalem is Revelation, and for a time, Hitchens maintained the dichotomy. But in 1987-1989, Hitchens’ mother finally let him be and let him live, allowing him to commence the third and final act of his life. What becoming Jewish did was allow Hitchens to seize upon Judaism’s rationalist strain—Spinoza, not Abraham; Moses Mendelssohn, not Moses Maimonides (and not one-word Moses); and the Haskalah, not the Enlightenement. He was orphaned and made Jewish almost simultaneously, departing a small affiliation while joining a much larger one, and, as one can imagine Hitchens putting it with a due nod to a different Marx, joining one of the few clubs of which he may have wished to be a member.

Must Hitchens have been Jewish? Some would say no and would point as proof, first, to the fact that he lived over half his life in ignorance of his Jewishness, and second, to the fact that even the turn that defined the latter half of his career, though admittedly well-timed to his discovery of his heritage, did not contain anything explicitly Jewish about it. I would respond by gesturing at the scoreboard: Hitchens was a lifelong subversive who identified subversiveness with Jewishness; and a lifelong atheist who identified atheism with Jewishness; and, it did so happen, a lifelong Jew. That he did not know this and turned out as he did is evidence to you of chance, as it no doubt was to him, but to me it is evidence of something else.

Enough metaphysics. If Hitchens is to be believed, he will not now be reunited with his loved ones in some celestial paradise. His body is all that existed of him, just as his mother’s body is all that existed of her. In his memoir, he remembers the first time he returned home after achieving initial fame at Oxford. “I was lucky to find my mother alone in the kitchen,” he wrote. “She brilliantly rose and greeted me as if I’d been expected for some brittle and glamorous cocktail party of the sort that she always planned and never quite gave.” His life turned out to be quite the party, glamorous and not at all brittle, complete with gin in the Campari. So long, and thanks for all the Hitch.

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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

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