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Sep 30, 2010 4:36 pm


YVONNE HITCHENS ATE BITTER



Yvonne Hitchens ate bitter and the teeth of her sons, Christopher and Peter, are on edge. What else can the teeth of children, whose mother first concealed her identity and then committed suicide, be?

Atheist Christopher may rage at the injustice of punishing the sons for their mother's sins and deny the existence of so unjust a G-d. Born again Anglican Peter may see her experience as proof of the need for religiously based morality, as long as it not the one his anger at his mother made so abhorrent to him.

Jewish me sees the family tragedy as the inevitable consequence of deception. The Torah simply assert the eternal truth that the actions of parents cannot but have consequences for their children. As those consequences will inevitably include many unintended ones, immoral actions are bound to have evil ones. In the case of Yvonne Hitchens awareness that the son she had such high hopes for, turned against her people may just have been too painful to bear.

The moment I heard that Christopher Hitchens' mother was a Jew who denied her origin in order to make him into"a real English Gentleman" I could not but think (as, apparently, Hitchens did) about George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. But it was only when I read his memoir, Hitch - 22, that I realized that their myriad of differences not withstanding, both mothers were deeply shaken by the discovery of an anti-Semitic streak in their sons.

Daniel Deronda's mother decided to reveal to him his identity because she found out that"he turned into a proud Englishman, who resented being touched by a Jew." The last telephone conversation between Chris and his mother focused on his anti-Israeli stance. It was around the time of the Yom Kippur War. A recent visit led her to so admire Israel that she wished to move there. He mocked her and expressed his identification with Israel's mortal enemies. Yvonee probably understood instinctively what he still refuses to acknowledge - his leftist"anti-Zionism" was nothing but the latest form of Antisemitism. But I didn't know, he whines:

I completely misinterpreted this as another quasi-spiritual impulse ("Oh, Mummy, Honestly" . . . ) and my impatience earned me a short lecture about how Jews had made the desert bloom and were exerting themselves in a heroic manner.

We were perhaps both at fault: I ought to have been less mocking and dismissive and she might have decided now if ever was the moment to tell me what she'd been holding back about our ancestral ties. Anyway, I counseled her against removing herself to a war zone, let alone someone else's bleeding holy land, on top of her other troubles, and though I didn't know it, we bid farewell. I would give a very great deal to be able to start that conversation over again.

In other words, he knows he broke her heart. She committed suicide shortly thereafter. Hitchens chooses not to quote from the suicide note she left merely writing that"she gave the impression of believing this was best for all concerned, and that it was in some way a small sacrifice from which those who adored her would benefit in the long run." His repeated preoccupation with his response to her wish to live in Israel leads one to wonder whether she might have made some oblique reference to the Israeli issue. I doubt it. She loved her son too much. She probably blamed herself. After all, she had created the anti-Semitic"monster."

If the conversation pains Christopher, it is because he is bright enough to get it though too stubborn to let it make a real difference. Hitchens reports that unlike Deronda, he was confused more than glad to have found out that he was, indeed, a Jew. Still, his best friends were also Jewish and even Martin Amis, who was not, claimed to envy him. Indeed, he writes self righteously that any denial of Jewish ancestry in his family at least, would end with him.

After all, by the time he found out he was Jewish, he was spreading his plumes amongst the American leftist Jewish intelligentsia rather than amongst the thinly veiled British Antisemitic one. Moreover, being a real English snob and a consummate name dropper, he delighted to discover and claim ownership of all the important Jewish intellectuals that originated not only from his relations but from the same entire region from which his mother's family hailed. Indeed, the man who denies any belief in G-d, had few qualms about using his newly discovered religious affiliation to secure the services of the Rabbi who married Arthur Miller and Marylin Monroe for his second marriage ceremony.

At one time, if not prior to her suicide, his social climbing mother would have been proud. For Chris Hitchens was no Daniel Deronda. He did not feel any responsibility towards his newly discovered religion or brethren. The opposite is true. He used his Judaism to reaffirm his opposition to the Jewish state secure in the knowledge that he can use it to protect himself from any charges that he was a closet Antisemite. I suspect that deep down he never forgave the Jewish state for capturing the heart of his mother. To make sure that he does not follow in his mother's footsteps, he asked none other than a well known Israel hater Edward Said to give him a tutorial about George Eliot and Daniel Deronda. In the end, he defended Eliot from Said's charges of myopia but he ends up asserting that Jews do not need a state and that Israel is just another diaspora.

Chris could no more forgive G-d than he could forgive Israel for that fateful phone conversation that pushed his mother over the edge. His atheism is too passionate to be real. Not only does he insist that his current battle with cancer has merely reaffirmed his Atheism but he wishes to insure that no one could give any credit for his ongoing life to G-d.

And yet, Interestingly, his first written exposition of the discovery includes this telling story:

My initial reaction, apart from pleasure and interest, as the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along. Well used to being taken for English wherever I went, I had once or twice been addressed in Hebrew by older women in Jerusalem (where, presumably, people are looking for, or perhaps noticing, other characteristics). And, though some of my worst political enemies were Jewish, in America it seemed that almost all my best personal friends were. This kind of speculation could, I knew, be misleading to the point of treachery, but there it was.

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 miniyan? 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.

What can one say but that Yvonne Hitchens had done wrong and that her sons are paying the price. It is not that a vengeful G-d seeks to punish them for her sins but because actions have consequences. Following the laws of Jewish monotheism, Chris so vehemently rails against, would have prevented his mother from worshiping an idol called"an English Gentleman" or teaching her sons to do the same. That is what the Jews he so derides, the ones who prayed Kol Nidrei in Auschwitz, understood and that is what Chris still fails to understand. For as the rabbis said, more than Israel protected the Torah, the Torah protected Israel. That is the reason despite all the difficulties, Jews continue to study and celebrate so joyously receiving the Torah. And that is the reason some Christians travel to Israel to help them do so.

Happy Simchat Torah.



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