Reviewing one’s situation

22Sep09

omid-djalili_1438677cI have never forgotten an extraordinary documentary I saw on television some years ago about a woman whose life was irrevocably changed when she uncovered some information about her past of which she had previously been unaware. She had been raised in a Welsh Presbytarian family and had happily lived her life within that religious tradition. If I remember it correctly, she had some inkling that she was adopted since she was just old enough to remember a hasty departure from Hitler’s Germany prior to the Second World War, to live with this kindly and accommodating family in Wales.

The fact that she discovered late in life which changed her whole self-identity was that her real mother was Jewish. Suddenly this child’s quick transportation out of Germany became more comprehendible. But more than this, she learned that her father had been a Nazi, an SS Officer.

As she pieced the fragments of her parents’ life together, she began to imagine that theirs was a true and painfully impossible romance, thwarted by an ideological system that would never have allowed such a love to prosper. This imagination – both dramatic and heartwarming – was however far from the truth. She had been conceived out of wedlock, in circumstances that were not in the least romantic. Her mother had been the cleaning woman for this philandering officer and his perfectly German family.

Her discovery was devastating and had thrown her into personal turmoil, her cultural and religious identity shattered and her romantic notions about her parents’ love torn to pieces.

This kind of discovery – albeit treated in a light-hearted way – is also the premise of a forthcoming feature film starring comedian Omid Djalili, entitled The Infidel. Written by the comedian David Baddiel, it tells the story of Mahmud Nasir, a British Muslim who discovers – after his mother’s death – that his birth certificate reveals that not only was he adopted at birth but he’s Jewish: real name Solly Shimshillewitz. Tumbling headlong into a full scale identity crisis, Mahmud takes lessons in Jewishness, starting with how to dance like Topol.

Omid – who is an old friend – does Jewishness very well. I could imagine him easily playing Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof after seeing him last night in his first starring role on London’s West End stage – as Fagin in the musical Oliver! He has stepped into a role that was played by Rowan Atkinson in the first six months of the revival and he’s being succeeded in December by Atkinson’s old comedy partner from Not the Nine O’Clock News days, Griff Rhys Jones. Omid is modest about his talents and his spell in Oliver! telling me he is sandwiched between two comedy legends. Judging by his performance last night, I would aver that Omid is fast on his way to being a member of that category himself. For me, and certainly for the audience sitting around me, his Fagin is the high point of the show – commanding the whole stage as the loveable rogue, raising genuine laughs, clearly engendering a great rapport with the children in the cast and slipping into his trademark belly dancing routine at opportune moments. This Anglo-Iranian-Bahá’í – with no Jewish blood as far as I know – makes a very good Fagin, albeit slightly more sephardic than one remembers Ron Moody being in the role.

My reflections on identity were triggered by seeing the way the boy Oliver is portrayed in the show. He is depicted as a child who – despite spending his entire life in a workhouse, starved and abused and surrounded by impoverished waifs and strays – still carries with him the polite manners and upright character inherited from his mother and maternal grandfather who he eventually finds his way home to. Oliver’s good breeding is recognized to all who meet him, suggesting that – if the show is being faithful to the book – Charles Dickens was a believer that behaviour and bearing are more nature than nurture.

So is our cultural identity and behaviour inherent, inherited or acquired? Most Jewish people would argue, I imagine, that it is inherent. Even I, having never been raised in the Jewish faith, feel an instant rapport with Jewish people when I meet them. But so many other factors shape us.

The documentary film about the woman from Wales ended with her returning to the newly-reunified Berlin and a tearful meeting with a half-sister she had not known existed, born to her father within his acceptable marriage. Ultimately, it did not really matter whether she was Welsh, Presbytarian, Jewish, German or anything else. What mattered more than where she had come from was what she had made of her life.

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One Response to “Reviewing one’s situation”

  1. 1 Dad

    Excellent article. Took me ages to find it as I still can’t find my way around this machine, but worth the waiting.


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