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A Jew Is a Jew Is a Jew

Novelist and critic Clive James and theater director Jonathan Miller, who died within days of each other this fall, shared breadth of passions and influential cultural positions. One was Jewish. The other was not—but he understood Jews better.

Howard Jacobson
December 11, 2020
Radio Times/Getty Images
Jonathan Miller, circa 1975Radio Times/Getty Images
Radio Times/Getty Images
Jonathan Miller, circa 1975Radio Times/Getty Images

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew, a Liberal Jew, a Rootless-Cosmopolitan Jew, and a Zionist Jew, walk into a bar. Half an hour later they walk out again. None has had a drink.

On Nov. 24, 2019, Clive James, the Australian writer, critic, poet, and novelist, died aged 80. Three days later, Sir Jonathan Miller, theater and opera director, doctor, comedian, sculptor, and much else besides, died aged 85. To my generation this was like an evisceration of our culture in a single week. Because both brought their genius to television they were better known and therefore more influential than most writers and intellectuals of their standing. Both were inexhaustibly curious and lavishly talented. Both were accused of spreading those talents too thinly. One seemed to possess the gift of happiness, one didn’t. One was a friend of the Jews, one wasn’t. Miller was Jewish—ish being the operative word. “I’m not really a Jew; just Jew-ish,” he famously declared in the 1960s revue, Beyond the Fringe. James wasn’t. James was the one who liked Jews.

I called myself a friend of Clive James though I never belonged to his circle of intimates. Jonathan Miller I met only a couple of times, not all that long ago. The former made me smile, the latter—on those two occasions—made me tremble. In all the time I knew Clive James—a period spanning more than 30 years—I don’t think I ever heard him bad-mouth anyone or even swear. Stories of Jonathan Miller publicly aspersing enemies or rivals with profanities were legion. Just tittle-tattle, I thought, until I heard him at a literary festival in Charleston, near Brighton, scattering expletives for no discernible reason. He was the doctor and so would know whether bile can accumulate to such a degree that the only way the body—or do I mean the soul?—can dispel it is to say “fuck” at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places. He seemed to be gagging on something, anyway.

His own too-muchness, was it? If being Jew-ish meant being only half a Jew, was that all he felt he had room for in himself?

I first saw him talk 25 years ago or more at a conference at the Tate Gallery in London. He arrived on the platform late and in stylized disarray. He was breathless, having just flown in from an Austrian city—it must have been Salzburg—to which he had not long before that flown from an American city—it must have been New York—in the course of directing Shakespeare and Mozart and Verdi and no doubt delivering innumerable lectures such as this one. The impression he gave was of a man too busy to enjoy his life fully, and possibly too embittered to enjoy it at all. Despite being in demand everywhere, he complained of being disrespected and discounted. The fluency of his peevishness was at once mesmeric and pitiable. The greater the man, the greater the preposterousness of which he will be capable. But preposterousness is allowable if it’s owned. Clive James wrote a witty, self-knowing poem about the pleasure it gave him to see a book by his enemy remaindered. We owe our fragile egos a laugh. Miller’s seemed worn to shreds with self-pity.

I am not about to argue that Miller would have been happy had he made peace with his Jewishness. Being a Jew isn’t a panacea for anything. But his vexed relations with his Jewishness strike me as of a kind with the discordancy of his emotions in general. He seemed unable to like anything unreservedly or to connect the pieces of his own nature, especially, by his own admission, the Jewish pieces. “Although my family were Jewish and I am genetically Jewish, I have absolutely no subscription to the creed, and no interest in the race,” he told Dick Cavett in 1980. “I don’t believe in race and I find racial notions so objectionable that I can’t think of myself as being Jewish in that way. I’m Jewish for the purpose of admitting it to anti-Semites. … I’m not prepared to be Jewish in the face of other Jews.”

Clive James, 1981
Clive James, 1981Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The interview was embarrassing to watch. Miller was by then too old to be showing off. And too old not to have a better idea of how modern Jews—ish or otherwise—negotiated their beliefs. How many would have found the concept of “race” essential to the way they lived their lives or practiced their religion? Or would have described themselves as subscribing to a “creed”? Some, maybe, but the way of it for most Jews over the last century has been to dodge and feint when in the ring with their religion, rolling with the punches and at times delivering a few fair or low blows of their own. It is ironic that all or nothing should be the catchphrase of the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-irreligious alike.

I’m Jewish for the purpose of admitting it to anti-Semites. … I’m not prepared to be Jewish in the face of other Jews.

Quite what Miller supposed he achieved by refusing his Jewishness in “the face of other Jews,” or in what spirit he affirmed it only to those who hated it, is hard to fathom. But in both instances he stripped Jewishness of its amity, making it a thing of hostility and even confrontation. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to say he was a nonpracticing Jew?

Well, not if you were Alec Berman, the hero of Betty Miller’s novel Farewell Leicester Square, whose Jewishness lay like a curse on him and those who loved him. A thing “he never forgets for one moment ... it’s always there, at the back of his mind, whatever he does and wherever he is. It haunts him …” Betty Miller was Jonathan Miller’s mother. Farewell Leicester Square was written, remarkably, when she was only 22 and described the agitations of a young Jewish filmmaker in 1930s London. The London Jonathan Miller had to make his way in, 20 years later, was less hostile to Jews and so less likely to induce such paranoia as Betty Miller described. But it’s a reasonable assumption that her son read his mother’s novel at an impressionable age. He grew up in an upper-tier intellectual milieu, bristling with discomfort in the matter of being alien. Not for him, one might imagine him deciding, the enervating Jewish self-consciousness of Alec Berman.

Nothing unusual or reprehensible in that. You have to get yourself up off the canvas. But Miller continued uncomfortable and sneering. Israel displeased him in the usual, unthinking ways. To the question where else Jews could look to for refuge come the next catastrophe, he posited a sort of Darwinism of destruction: The time might have come, he said, for Judaism to die out.

Clive James sometimes gave the impression that he’d have liked to be a Jew. That’s a luxury, of course, that only a non-Jew can afford. And, unlike Miller, he was a schmoozer. I knew him well enough to benefit from his schmoozing but not so well as to get beyond it. His curiosity, though, was always genuine, as was his disappointment when he learnt I hadn’t made myself a Talmudic scholar, hadn’t learnt Yiddish, and couldn’t read more than a few words of Hebrew. He learnt Russian in order the better to read Tolstoy and would certainly not have written a novel about Jews without mastering both their ancient and their modern languages. I don’t think it was his intention to make me feel I’d failed his expectations, but I did. He was a staunch supporter of Israel and saw through the fashionable denunciations of Zionism made by people “dedicated to knowing as little as possible about the history of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” If there was one thing that tried his magnanimity it was partisanship built on ignorance. His own knowledge was formidable and principled, as witness Cultural Amnesia, his extraordinary 800-page tribute to 20th-century art and thought—not a feat anyone could have pulled off had they not liked keeping company with the imaginations of Jews. Maybe Jonathan Miller possessed as wide a store of knowledge but, if he did, he didn’t employ it to such generous purpose.

In a review of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America published in The Atlantic in 2004, James put his mind to the great novelist’s achievements and dilemmas over half a century. “To the blessed denizen of WASP Heaven, or Lindbergh Land, the noisy passions of his (Roth’s) childhood will always look like a joke. The only possible defense mechanism of the Jewish comic writer is to get in with the joke first, and time it better; it was Woody Allen, not a Jew-baiter, who stuck himself with a rabbi’s beard in Annie Hall. But to the mind in which it is operating, the defense mechanism must inevitably seem a form of concession—especially when the mind belongs to a man who has taken comic writing to the highest levels of philosophy, politics, and social analysis. Roth emerged from his borough as a full-blown sophisticate, and it is hard for the sophisticate to look back on his origins without looking down.”

Maybe James was able to enter into the dilemmas and paradoxes of a sophisticated Jewish artist from a modest background because he understood them as a half-orphaned, suburban Australian. Like Roth, he was accused again and again by those he left behind of belittling and even betraying his origins. However one accounts for it, the above passage is remarkably inward. In many ways it could be Jonathan Miller he is writing about, with this difference: Roth (“to the point of self-laceration,” in James’ phrase) went on making art out of “the anguish of an insoluble paradox,” whereas Miller—now with a bitter jest, now with a jeer—offered to have put all that behind him. That he didn’t, that he failed to lighten any burden, that he went on being intellectually and spiritually muscle-bound was, I think, evident in the unhappiness of the deracinated figure he cut in both the worlds—the cosmopolitan and the provincial—from which he increasingly felt himself to be alienated. What James, the non-Jew, seems to have understood is that unhappiness of that kind could be the only outcome of the project Miller set himself to jettison the Jew in him.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.