My mother, though Jewish, was not a "Jewish mother". Quite the reverse. She never in her life cooked a meal, as far as I am aware. She was reserved and austere. She disliked all displays of emotion. She often criticised and rarely praised. She was not in the least maternal. I was her only child, but she had wanted a boy, as she often told me — and others in my hearing. In her opinion, most women were frivolous and intellectually inferior. She was a short, slim woman with cropped hair and very good legs. She wore elegant, mannish clothes and glasses. Despite all this, she seemed to be very popular among her peers and she was attractive to men. How otherwise could she have captured my handsome father? When I was in my twenties, she became a high court judge in Germany.
Daddy's girl: Miriam Gross with her father, Kurt May, in Jerusalem
I was born in Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. My parents had met there (my mother was married to someone else at the time), both having left Germany in 1933 soon after Hitler came to power. My mother, who was half Russian and half German, had had to abandon her legal studies in Berlin when the Nazis decreed that Jews could no longer practise law. My father (who was ten years older) had chosen not to work for the family retailing business and was at that time already a successful lawyer. He was exempt from the Nazi ban because he had won an iron cross in the First World War. However, he had defended a Social Democrat, accused of being a communist, in a high-profile court case: defending communists, whether you were Jewish or not, also disbarred you, under Hitler's new rules, from continuing as a lawyer. Not that he would have stayed in Germany. Both my parents, like many German Jews who could afford to start a new life, left their families behind and set off for Palestine. They married there in 1937.
Neither of my parents were Zionists. On the contrary, my father's wartime experiences had put him off all forms of nationalism. My mother, too, was at that time doubtful about the idea of a Jewish state. But they wanted to live in a place where Jews were free. Nor were they religious. In common with many German Jews, they did not observe Jewish customs or traditions in any shape or form. Throughout my childhood, I never once entered a synagogue — I barely knew there were such places — and I was brought up in total ignorance even of the most basic tenets of Judaism.
I have often wondered what effect, if any, such a totally secular upbringing has on the development of character. Secular people have never seemed to me less good or kind or honest than believers. But then of course we are all brought up in a Judaeo-Christian culture, so there's no way of telling what we would be like without it. Equally, though I've always been aware of a "God-shaped hole", religious faith of any kind seems to me to be completely irrational and self-deluding. Would I have felt differently if I'd had a religious upbringing? Impossible to know.
When he arrived in Jerusalem my father — whose family owned a department store in Meiningen, a small town in Thuringia — set up what became the largest women's fashion store in Jerusalem. All the installations for the store were shipped in from Germany (which was still possible in the early 1930s), with the help of my father's brother, who was at the time running the family business. The large glass panes for the shop-front windows were transported from Belgium and apparently caused much trouble by breaking several times.
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