The thing I remember my parents arguing about most was me. For the first three years of my life, while my father was in the army, I was brought up by a triumvirate of Jewish women—my mother, her sister, and their mother—who saw in me the Messiah who for thousands of years had bilked the Jewish people of their hopes. It is beginning to look as though they were wrong, but for a while I shared their estimate of me. Make a child feel precious enough and there is no end to the fancies he will entertain. The only person who was certain I wasn’t the Messiah was my father.
“He’s not the Messiah,” shouted the late Terry Jones in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian—opening his shutters on a hysterical mob of believers—“he’s a very naughty boy.” That wasn’t my father’s position. He thought I wasn’t the Messiah and nothing like naughty enough. His objection to the adoring treatment I’d been receiving was that it was turning me into a mother’s boy (and an aunty’s boy, and a grandmother’s boy), a milksop, a namby-pamby, a Little Lord Fauntleroy, and worst of all—to use an expression of which he was particularly fond—a Kuni Lemele.
Kuni Lemele derives from Avrom Goldfaden’s Yiddish operetta Di Tzvei Kuni-Leml. Leo Rosten defines him as a yokel, a simpleton, a Chaim Yankel. But my father pronounced the name in a way that made him worse than simple. He squelched the syllables until the vowels ran with a sticky liquid to which I would not have wanted to give a name. My father’s Kuni Lemele was a blushing introvert, a boy who would never grow to be a man, a crushed centipede. Why he didn’t just say I was spoilt, I don’t know. Every Jewish boy my age was spoilt. But the effect of his hatred of what my mother and her clan were doing to me was to make them do it more.
Though I feared the justice of the picture my father painted I still sought the shelter of women’s love. Maybe I was a crushed centipede. But the world teemed with dangers and it was my mother who foresaw and took measures to preempt them. So without an imagination of disaster, was my father I sometimes wonder Jewish at all. Not that it was only the major catastrophes my mother foresaw. She had a wonderful apprehension of the small ones too. For example, thanks to her I never left the house without a flattened wad of toilet paper in the back pocket of my trousers. “Have you got ... you know?” she’d check before I went out. “Ma, I’m only going up the street to swap comics.” “Doesn’t matter. No journey’s too short a journey.”
It was thanks to my mother that on the rare occasions I did have to reach into my back pocket I knew how to lay out layers of protective sheeting on a porcelain bowl that even a sitting rhino would not have disturbed. It was thanks to my mother, too, that I was never released into the murderous world without an identifying slip of paper on my person—name; address; if found, please return to—or without the right coins to make an emergency call—such as ringing home to say I was all right—from a public phone box. I am not prepared to say how long such precautions held sway over my life, or whether I am entirely free of them even now. There are other men my age who carry an “if found please return to” card, though now it’s their daughters who make them carry it.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” my mother used to say apropos of just about anything that entailed going out. “I don’t like the sound of that,” she said when I told her I wanted to go on a school trip to Paris. “Paris! Why are you going to Paris?” The following year I went to Barcelona. “Barcelona! I don’t like the sound of that,” she said. I tried to make a joke of it. “That’s because you’re meant to pronounce it Barthelona.” But travel was no joking manner. “Where is that?” she asked. “Barcelona? Spain.” “Spain!! Why do you have to go to Spain?”
She doubled the wads of toilet paper for me to put in my pockets.
She cautioned me a thousand times against going camping with my friends. “You don’t know how to camp,” she said. “No, but they do.” “Where will you wash?” “I don’t know. In a stream.” “A stream! You can’t swim.” “I won’t need to swim. I’ll only be having a wash.” She gave me three bath towels and a bottle of disinfectant to take away with me. And a child’s life jacket. And a torch. I still haven’t figured out what the torch was for.
Of particular concern to her, because she knew it was of particular concern to me, was physical education. Our school wasn’t exceptionally Spartan but we were expected to play football in mud and do cross-country runs in rain. We had to catch balls that could break your fingers and head balls in a way that has since been proved to cause dementia. In the gym we were told to hang upside down from wall bars (which I believe is expressly forbidden in that passage in Deuteronomy that deals with monkeys) and made to run at a vaulting horse, neck first, which is so obviously an insane thing to do.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” my mother said. “What in particular?” I asked. “Any of it,” she said.
“Kuni Lemele,” I imagined my father saying under his breath, but by this time he had given up on me. My sister was more of a mensch than I was. And with her he went to watch stock-car racing and professional wrestling.
‘I don’t like the sound of that,’ my mother used to say, apropos of just about anything that entailed going out.
The long and the short of this aversion to the physical to which I’d been brought up was that I had a note glued to the inside of my wallet requesting I be excused from sports on the grounds of an allergy whose primary symptom was biliousness. “This note’s five years old,” the gym teacher once observed. I told him I was still allergic. “What sport in particular has this effect on you?” he asked. “You name them,” I said.
I did play table tennis, though it wasn’t recognized as a sport by the school, partly because it was played standing the right way up and partly because it didn’t lead to dementia. My mother asked to see the ball I played with. “It’s a bit small,” she said. “You could be blinded by it. Couldn’t you play in goggles?” I shook my head. “Or you could not notice it and slip on it,” she went on. “Don’t they have anything bigger?”
I assured her that in the history of table tennis no one had ever been injured by the ball. She sucked in air. “Yet,” she said.
I’d lied about no one getting injured. I myself put an opponent’s knee out. I’d driven him far back from the table then found the perfect drop shot. Charging in to retrieve it like a meshugeneh—he was known in the game as The Meshugeneh—he crashed into the corner of the table. Had I mentioned the ambulance to my mother she’d never have let me play again.
The first time I won a cup she cautioned against rejoicing. “You might not win it next time,” she said. So it wasn’t just the dangerousness of the physical world she wanted to protect me from; it was the snares the mind sets for itself. Next to balls that maimed and blinded, her greatest dread for me was the disappointment that follows hope. “Check the address carefully,” she cried when I showed her a letter saying I’d won a place at Cambridge, “it might not be for you.”
Against hope my mother conducted a relentless war. I met a girl. “Don’t expect too much from her,” my mother said. She discovered I was having sex. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she said. And then, “If you must, at least promise me you’ll be careful.” What she really meant was: “At least promise you won’t enjoy it.”
It was from my mother I learnt to be a compulsive checker of taps and switches. Not only did she go back into the house to make sure she’d turned the gas off, she went back in a second time to be certain she hadn’t turned it on while making sure she’d turned it off.
Thus, one way or another, was life turned into a jungle of ravening menace. And now, as though it’s something my mother had been preparing me for all my life, the entire world is being ravaged by a virus. Pestilence. The apocalypse Jews have always known is coming. She is still alive, mentally alert at 97 and living in Manchester with my sister in the house we moved into more than 60 years ago. It isn’t safe to travel at the moment so I ring her up to see how she’s managing. She’s fine, she says. I’ve never heard her so imperturbable. She detects that I am not at all fine. She wonders what the matter is. The question is so absurd I gasp audibly. I don’t have the heart to tell her the world is coming to an end. “The matter, Ma,” I say, “is that I’m deeply anxious.”
“Oh, Howard,” she says, “you’re not.”
“Of course I am.”
I wonder what this “Oh Howard stuff” is about. Oh, Howard, you always were a worrier.
“It is all getting a bit serious, Ma,” I remark.
She tuts. “I don’t know what to say,” she says.
How about goodbye, I think. But I gather my wits. “You, anyway, are all right?” I ask.
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
Is it not wonderful that having fretted and chafed her way through the easiest time to be alive mankind has ever known, manufacturing perils that aren’t there and calamities that will never eventuate, turning me into a pusillanimous alarmist who starts from every germ and hides from every ball, she finally has a catastrophe commensurate to her forebodings and takes not the slightest notice of it?
“Oh, Howard,” she says. “I wish I knew how to help you.”
I can hear what she’s thinking. How did I get to have such a Kuni Lemele for a son?
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.