I was born in England during the Second World War. I didn’t know I was Jewish for many years. My parents were refugees from Vienna, Austria. They were friends in Vienna, who like many other young Jews, were influenced by the artistic, cultural and intellectual movements of the times. Apparently, wanting to assimilate in Vienna, they repudiated their Jewish roots, each in their own way. For example, my father registered with the authorities as an atheist. and my mother told her mother not to speak Yiddish to her in public. And, supposedly they made a point of going to a public cafe during Kol Nidre services. They were able to escape the Nazis through different routes and were reunited in England in 1940. Had Hitler not come along, they probably would have not been married, since they were from very different backgrounds. However, the war brought them together and they were married in Oxford in 1940. I was born in Birmingham in 1944. A few years later we moved to London.
I was given the name Michael Stephen. When I was older, I was told that I was named Michael after my maternal grandmother, Malka, who was missing during the war and presumed to be dead. However, after the war ended, she was found to be alive in an institution for Jewish seniors in Brussels created by the Belgian Queen Mother Elizabeth. Apparently sometime in 1939 Malka had missed the last boat out of Antwerp and had to fend for herself. At that time, she was already 73 years old. We don’t really know how she survived. She probably gained some survival skills growing up in a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. When she was found in Brussels, she was brought to England to be reunited with her two daughters and her grandchildren. How often does a Jew see someone who is named after them? Here’s a photo of a family wedding attended by Malka and me after the war. She is the little woman wearing a hat and I am the boy, lower left, looking up at the group.
My middle name had been my paternal grandfather’s name. He was an assimilated Jew who taught Roman Law at Vienna University. Although he and his wife had affidavits to come to America, they were unable to leave and they were deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. They weren’t exterminated, but died of illnesses caused by the deplorable conditions at the camp. My wife and I have visited the site of the camp. I have prepared a video presentation about Terezin (Theresienstadt) and have presented it in Jewish day schools.
At some point during the 1950’s my parents separated and eventually divorced. My mother and I emigrated to the United States where we first lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was there that I started developing a Jewish identity. We joined Kesher Zion Synagogue where I attended Hebrew School and had my Bar Mitzvah. It meant a lot to me that the rabbi, cantor and teachers took an interest in my welfare.
I met my wife at Temple University and once we had children, we became full-fledged members of the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish community. We sent our children to a Jewish nursery school, joined a synagogue and then sent our children to the local Solomon Schechter day school. We became very involved in both institutions, feeling that we should set an example for our children. We practiced many of the Shabbat rituals and had regular Shabbat dinners with friends and their children.
We were very active at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, my wife in the sisterhood and me in the men’s club and congregation. I became men’s club president in the 1983, regional president in 1990 and then held various positions within the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs for over a decade. My experiences within the men’s club movement were significant influences on my journey to finding my Jewish identity. The sense of being part of a dynamic, innovative Jewish organization as well as the camaraderie were very gratifying and fulfilling.
These events and experiences have contributed to the development of my Jewish identity. I have no doubt that I am a Jew and I am proud that I have fulfilled my responsibility as a “link on the chain” of Jewish continuity. Our son and his family belong to a conservative synagogue in Florida and our daughter’s family is connected to the local orthodox movement.
However, I am still trying to figure out the religious aspect of my Jewish identity. I went to college in the 1960’s where we were taught to not accept anything without questioning its validity. As many others, I am still searching for my place on the religious spectrum.
Everyone has a different journey. Some are straightforward. Others are circuitous. This has been my journey and apparently it’s not completely over!