The Imaginary Jew

John Berryman

From The Kenyon Review, Autumn 1945, Vol. VII, No. 4

The second summer of the European War I spent in New York. I lived in a room just below street-level on Lexington above 34th, wrote a good deal, tried not to think about Europe, and listened to music on a small gramophone, the only thing of my own, except books, in the room. Haydn’s London Symphony, his last, I heard probably fifty times in two months. One night when excited I dropped the pickup, creating a series of knocks at the beginning of the last movement where the oboe joins the strings which still, when I hear them, bring up for me my low dark long damp room and I feel the dew of heat and smell the rented upholstery. I was trying as they say to come back a little, uncertain and low after an exhausting year. Why I decided to do this in New York—the enemy in summer equally of soul and body, as I had known for years—I can’t remember; perhaps I didn’t, but was held on merely from week to week by the motive which presently appeared in the form of a young woman met the Christmas before and now the occupation of every evening, not passed in solitary and restless gloom. My friends were away; I saw few other people. Now and then I went to the zoo in lower Central Park and watched with interest the extraordinary behavior of a female badger. For a certain time she quickly paced the round of her cage. Then she would approach the sidewall from an angle in a determined, hardly perceptible, unhurried trot; suddenly, when an inch away, point her nose up it, follow her nose up over her back, turning a deft and easy somersault, from which she emerged on her feet moving swiftly and unconcernedly away, as if the action had been no affair of hers, indeed she had scarcely been present. There was another badger in the cage who never did this, and nothing else about her was remarkable; but this competent disinterested somersault she enacted once every five or ten minutes as long as I watched her,—quitting the wall, by the way, always at an angle in fixed relation to the angle at which she arrived at it. It is no longer possible to experience the pleasure I knew each time she lifted her nose and I understood again that she would not fail me, or feel the mystery of her absolute disclaimer,—she has been taken away or died.

The story I have to tell is no further a part of that special summer than a nightmare takes its character, for memory, from the phase of the moon one noticed on going to bed. It could have happened in another year and in another place. No doubt it did, has done, will do. Still, so weak is the talent of the mind for pure relation—immaculate apprehension of K alone—that everything helps us, as when we come to an unknown city: architecture, history, trade-practices, folklore. Even more anxious our approach to a city—like my small story—which we have known and forgotten. Yet how little we can learn! Some of the history is the lonely summer. Part of the folklore, I suppose, is what I now unwillingly rehearse, the character which experience has given to my sense of the Jewish people.

Born in a part of the South where no Jews had come, or none had stayed, and educated thereafter in States where they are numerous, I somehow arrived at a metropolitan university without any clear idea of what in modem life a Jew was,—without even a clear consciousness of having seen one. I am unable now to explain this simplicity or blindness. I had not escaped, of course, a sense that humans somewhat different from ourselves, called “Jews,” existed as in the middle distance and were best kept there, but this sense was of the vaguest. From what it was derived I do not know; I do not recall feeling the least curiosity about it, or about Jews; I had, simply, from the atmosphere of an advanced heterogeneous democratic society, ingathered a gently negative attitude towards Jews. This I took with me, untested, to college, where it received neither confirmation nor stimulus for two months. I rowed and danced and cut classes and was political; by mid-November I knew most of the five hundred men in my year. Then the man who rowed Number Three, in the eight of which I was bow, took me aside in the shower one afternoon and warned me not to be so chatty with Rosenblum.

I wondered why not. Rosenblum was stroke, a large handsome amiable fellow, for whose ability in the shell I felt great respect and no doubt envy. Because the fellows in the House wouldn’t like it, my friend said. “What have they against him?” “It’s only because he’s Jewish,” explained my friend, a second- generation Middle European.

I hooted at him, making the current noises of disbelief, and went back under the shower. It did not occur to me that he could be right. But next day when I was talking with Herz—the coxswain, whom I found intelligent and pleasant—I remembered the libel with some annoyance, and told Herz about it as a curiosity. Herz looked at me oddly, lowering his head, and said after a pause, “Why, Al is Jewish, didn’t you know that?” I was amazed. I said it was absurd, he couldn’t be! “Why not?” said Herz, who must have been as astonished as I was. “Don’t you know I’m Jewish?”

I did not know, of course, and ignorance has seldom cost me such humiliation. Herz did not guy me; he went off. But greater than my shame at not knowing something known, apparently, without effort to everyone else, were my emotions for what I then quickly discovered. Asking careful questions during the next week, I learnt that about a third of the men I spent time with in college were Jewish; that they knew it, and the others knew it; that some of the others disliked them for it, and they knew this also; that certain Houses existed only for Jews, who were excluded from the rest; and that what in short I took to be an idiotic state was deeply established, familiar, and acceptable to everyone. This discovery was the beginning of my instruction in social life proper—construing social life as that from which political life issues like a somatic dream.

My attitude toward my friends did not alter on this revelation. I merely discarded the notion that Jews were a proper object for any special attitude; my old sense vanished. This was in 1933. Later, as word of the German persecution filtered into this country, some sentimentality undoubtedly corrupted my no-attitude. I denied the presence of obvious defects in particular Jews, feeling that to admit them would be to side with the sadists and murderers. Accident allotting me close friends who were Jewish, their disadvantages enraged me. Gradually, and against my sense of impartial justice, I became the anomaly which only a partial society can produce, and for which it has no name known to the lexicons. In one area, but not exclusively, “nigger-lover” is cast in a parallel way: but for a special sympathy and liking for Jews—which became my fate, so that I trembled when I heard one abused in talk—we have no term. In this condition I still was during the summer of which I speak. One further circumstance may be mentioned, as a product, I believe, of this curious training. I am spectacularly unable to identify Jews as Jews,—by name, cast of feature, accent, or environment,—and this has been true, not only of course before the college incident, but during my whole life since. Even names to anyone else patently Hebraic rarely suggest to me anything. And when once I learn that So-and-so is Jewish, I am likely to forget it. Now Jewishness may be a fact as striking and informative as someone’s past heroism or his Christianity or his understanding of the subtlest human relations, and I feel sure that something operates to prevent my utilizing the plain signs by which such characters—in a Jewish man or woman—may be identified, and prevent my retaining the identification once it is made.

So to the city my summer and a night in August. I used to stop on Fourteenth Street for iced coffee, walking from the Village home (or to my room rather) after leaving my friend, and one night when I came out I wandered across to the island of trees and grass and concrete walks raised in the center of Union Square. Here men—a few women, old—sit in the evenings of summer, looking at papers or staring off or talking, and knots of them stay on, arguing, very late; these the unemployed or unemployable, the sleepless, the malcontent. There are no formal orators, as at Columbus Circle in the Nineteen-thirties and at Hyde Park Corner. Each group is dominated by several articulate and strong-lunged persons who battle each other with prejudices and desires, swaying with intensity, and take on from time to time the interrupters: a forum at the bottom of the pot,—Jefferson’s fear, Whitman’s hope, the dream of the younger Lenin. It was now about one o’clock, almost hot, and many men were still out. I stared for a little at the equestrian statue, obscure in the night on top of its pedestal, thinking that the misty Rider would sweep again away all these men at his feet, whenever he liked,—what symbol for power yet in a mechanical age rivals the mounted man?—and moved to the nearest group; or I plunged to it.

The dictator to the group was old, with dark cracked skin, fixed eyes in an excited face, leaning forward madly on his bench towards the half-dozen men in semicircle before him. “It’s bread! it’s bread!” he was saying. “It’s bitter-sweet. All the bitter and all the sweetness. Of an overture. What else do you want? When you ask for steak and potatoes, do you want pastry with it? It’s bread! It’s bread! Help yourself! Help yourself!”

The listeners stood expressionless, except one who was smiling with contempt and interrupted now.

“Never a happy minute, never a happy minute!” the old man cried. “It’s good to be dead! Some men should kill themselves.”

“Don’t you want to live?” said the smiling man.

“Of course I want to live. Everyone wants to live! If death comes suddenly it’s better. It’s better!”

With pain I turned away. The next group were talking diffusely and angrily about the Mayor, and I passed to a third, where a frantic olive-skinned young man with a fringe of silky beard was exclaiming:

“No restaurant in New York had the Last Supper! No. When people sit down to eat they should think of that!”

“Listen,” said a white-shirted student on the rail, glancing around for approbation, “listen, if I open a restaurant and put The Last Supper up over the door, how much money do you think I’d lose? Ten thousand dollars ?”

The fourth cluster was larger and appeared more coherent. A savage argument was in progress between a man of fifty with an oily red face, hatted, very determined in manner, and a muscular fellow half his age with heavy eyebrows, coatless, plainly Irish. Fifteen or twenty men were packed around them, and others on a bench near the rail against which the Irishman was lounging were attending also. I listened for a few minutes. The question was whether the President was trying to get us into the War,—or rather, whether this was legitimate, since the Irishman claimed that Roosevelt was a goddamned warmonger whom all the real people in the country hated, and the older man claimed that we should have gone into the f..ing war when France fell a year before, as everybody in the country knew except a few immigrant rats. Redface talked ten times as much as the Irishman, but he was not able to establish any advantage that I could see. He ranted, and then Irish either repeated shortly and fiercely what he had said last, or shifted his ground. The audience were silent—favouring whom I don’t know, but evidently much interested. One or two men pushed out of the group, others arrived behind me, and I was eddied forward towards the disputants. The young Irishman broke suddenly into a tirade by the man with the hat:

“You’re full of s. Roosevelt even tried to get us in with the communists in the Spanish war. If he could have done it we’d have been burning churches down like the rest of the Reds.”

“No, that’s not right,” I heard my own voice, and pushed forward, feeling blood in my face, beginning to tremble. “No, Roosevelt as a matter of fact helped Franco by non-intervention, at the same time that Italians and German planes were fighting against the Government and arms couldn’t get in from France.”

“What’s that? What are you, a Jew?” He turned to me contemptuously, and was back at the older man before I could speak, “The only reason we weren’t over there four years ago is because you can only screw us so much. Then we quit. No New Deal bastard could make us go help the goddamned communists.”

“That ain’t the question, it’s if we want to fight now or later. Them Nazis ain’t gonna sit!” shouted the redfaced man. “They got Egypt practically, and then it’s India if it ain’t England first. It ain’t a question of the communists, the communists are on Hitler’s side. I tellya we can wait and wait and chew and spit and the first thing you know they’ll be in England, and then who’s gonna help us when they start after us? Maybe Brazil? Get wise to the world! Spain don’t matter now one way or the other, they ain’t gonna help and they can’t hurt. It’s Germany and Italy and Japan, and if it ain’t too late now it’s gonna be. Get wise to yourself. We shoulda gone in—”

“What with?” said the Irishman with disdain. “Pop pop. Wooden machine-guns ?”

“We were as ready a year ago as we are now. Defence don’t mean nothing, you gotta have to fight!”

“No, we’re much better off now,” I said, “than we were a year ago. When England went in, to keep its word to Poland, what good was it to Poland?” The German Army—”

“Shut up, you Jew,” said the Irishman.

“I’m not a Jew,” I said to him. “What makes—”

“Listen, Pop,” he said to the man in the hat, “it’s OK to shoot your mouth off but what the hell have you got to do with it? You aren’t gonna do any fighting.”

“Listen,” I said.

“You sit on your big ass and talk about who’s gonna fight who. Nobody’s gonna fight anybody. If we feel hot, we ought to clean up some of the sons of bitches here before we go sticking our nuts anywhere to help England. We ought to clean up the sons of bitches in Wall Street and Washington before we take any ocean trips. You want to know something? You know why Germany’s winning everything in this war? Because there ain’t no Jews back home. There ain’t no more Jews, first shouting war like this one here”—nodding at me—“and then skinning off to the synagogue with the profits. Wake up, Pop! You must have been around in the last war, you ought to know better.”

I was too nervous to be angry or resentful. But I began to have a sense of oppression in breathing. I took the Irishman by the arm.

“Listen, I told you I’m not a Jew.”

“I don’t give a damn what you are,” he turned his half-dark eyes to me, wrenching his arm loose. “You talk like a Jew.”

“What does that mean?” Some part of me wanted to laugh. “How does a Jew talk?”

“They talk like you, buddy.”

“That’s a fine argument! But if I’m not a Jew, my talk only—”

“You probably are a Jew. You look like a Jew.”

“I look like a Jew? Listen,” I swung around with despair to a man standing next to me, “do I look like a Jew? It doesn’t matter whether I do or not—a Jew is as good as anybody and better than this son of a bitch—” I was not exactly excited, I was trying to adapt my language as my need for the crowd, and my sudden respect for its judgment, possessed me—“but in fact I’m not Jewish and I don’t look Jewish. Do I?”

The man looked at me quickly and said, half to me and half to the Irishman, “Hell, I don’t know. Sure he does.”

A wave of disappointment and outrage swept me almost to tears, I felt like a man betrayed by his brother. The lamps seemed brighter and vaguer, the night large. Looking around I saw sitting on a bench near me a tall, heavy, serious-looking man of thirty, well dressed, whom I had noticed earlier, and appealed to him, “Tell me, do I look Jewish ?”

But he only stared up and waved his head vaguely. I saw with horror that something was wrong with him.

“You look like a Jew. You talk like a Jew. You are a Jew,” I heard the Irishman say.

I heard murmuring among the men, but I could see nothing very clearly. It seemed very hot. I faced the Irishman again helplessly, holding my voice from rising.

“I’m not a Jew,” I told him. “I might be, but I’m not. You have no bloody reason to think so, and you can’t make me a Jew by simply repeating like an idiot that I am.”

“Don’t deny it, son,” said the redfaced man, “stand up to him.”

“God damn it,” suddenly I was furious, whirling like a fool (was I afraid of the Irishman? had he conquered me?) on the redfaced man, “I’m not denying it! Or rather I am, but only because I’m not a Jew! I despise renegades, I hate Jews who turn on their people, if I were a Jew I would say so, I would be proud to be: what is the vicious opinion of a man like this to me if I were a Jew? But I’m not. Why the hell should I admit I am if I’m not ?”

“Jesus, the Jew is excited,” said the Irishman.

“I have a right to be excited, you son of a bitch. Suppose I call you a Jew. Yes, you’re a Jew. Does that mean anything?”

“Not a damn thing.” He spat over the rail past a man’s head.

“Prove that you’re not. I say you are.”

“Now listen, you Jew. I’m a Catholic.”

“So am I, or I was born one, I’m not one now. I was born a Catholic.” I was a little calmer but goaded, obsessed with the need to straighten this out. I felt that everything for everyone there depended on my proving him wrong. If once this evil for which we have not even a name could be exposed to the rest of the men as empty—if I could prove I was not a Jew—it would fall to the ground, neither would anyone else be a Jew to be accused. Then it could be trampled on. Fascist America was at stake. I listened, intensely anxious for our fate.

“Yeah?” said the Irishman. “Say the Apostles’ Creed.”

Memory went swirling back, I could hear the little bell die as I hushed it and set it on the felt, Father Boniface looked at me tall from the top of the steps and smiled greeting me in the darkness before dawn as I came to serve, the men pressed around me under the lamps, and I could remember nothing but visibilum omnium . . . et invisibilium?

“I don’t remember it.”

The Irishman laughed with his certainty.

The papers in my pocket, I thought them over hurriedly. In my wallet. What would they prove? Details of ritual, Church history: anyone could learn them. My piece of Irish blood. Shame, shame: shame for my ruthless people. I will not be his blood. I wish I were a Jew, I would change my blood, to be able to say Yes and defy him.

“I’m not a Jew,” I felt a fool. “You only say so. You haven’t any evidence in the world.”

He leaned forward from the rail, close to me. “Are you cut?”

Shock, fear ran through me before I could make any meaning out of his words. Then they ran faster, and I felt confused.

From that point, nothing is clear for me. I stayed a long time—it seemed impossible to leave, showing him victor to them—thinking of possible allies and new plans of proof, but without hope. I was tired to the marrow. The arguments rushed on, and I spoke often now but seldom was heeded except by an old fat woman, very short and dirty, who listened intently to everyone. Heavier and heavier appeared to me to press upon us in the fading night our general guilt.

     • •

In the days following, as my resentment died, I saw that I had not been a victim altogether unjustly. My persecutors were right: I was a Jew. The imaginary Jew I was was as real as the imaginary Jew hunted down, on other nights and days, in a real Jew. Every murderer strikes the mirror, the lash of the torturer falls on the mirror and cuts the real image, and the real and the imaginary blood flow down together.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter