The George Allen kerfluffle sort of reminded me of Howard Stern's old "Guess Who's the Jew" bit. It was the kind of radio skit that left you in a Jesuitical ethical bind over whether to be more horrified by the eagerly anti-Semitic participants, Stern for putting it on, or you for listening to it.

The current version in U.S. politics has the left fixated over Allen's defensiveness about his revealed Jewish ancestry and the right aghast at the brazen crassness of the reporter's question:

"You've been quoted as saying your mother's not Jewish, but it had been reported her father, your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebearers include Jews, and if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?"
I tend toward the right on this one; it surpassed Bernie Shaw's 1988 Dukakis cheap shot, but the excuse for Bernie, which I've made, is that, by being an ass, he let the voters see something about Dukakis we might otherwise have overlooked. I'm not sure this Allen thing is in that category, though some clearly wish it to be and we'll concede the point.

Now we learn some of the back-story.

Henrietta "Etty" Allen said Wednesday that she concealed her upbringing as a Jew in North Africa from her children, including Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), until a conversation across the dining room table in late August.

She said Allen asked her directly about his Jewish heritage when he was in Los Angeles for a fundraiser. "We sat across the table and he said, 'Mom, there's a rumor that Pop-pop and Mom-mom were Jewish and so were you,' " she recalled, a day after Allen issued a statement acknowledging and embracing his Jewish roots as he campaigns for a second term in the U.S. Senate.

At the table in Palos Verdes, Calif., Allen's mother, who is 83, said she told her son the truth: That she had been raised as a Jew in Tunisia before moving to the United States. She said that she and the senator's father, famed former Redskins coach George Allen, had wanted to protect their children from living with the fear that she had experienced during World War II. Her father, Felix Lumbroso, was imprisoned by the Nazis during the German occupation of Tunis.

"What they put my father through. I always was fearful," Etty Allen said in a telephone interview. "I didn't want my children to have to go through that fear all the time. When I told Georgie, I said, 'Now you don't love me anymore.' He said, 'Mom, I respect you more than ever.' "

This won't change anything. Because it emerges that Allen and his mom had this conversation shortly before the debate where the question came up, but in answering the question Allen said the same thing he had said before about the matter: "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."

To his opponents, this brands him a liar about his own past, even as it entangles them in a racial "outing" of a Semite that can't help but look slimy to everyone but themselves. To his defenders, Allen's mother's comment to the Post that she had sworn him to secrecy on the matter makes him an honorable man who rates family love higher than snooping reporters.

"I said, well, I just didn't want anyone to know," she explained. "I had said, 'Please don't tell your brothers and sister and your wife.' The fact this is such an issue justifies my actions, and my behavior."
Of course, it's possible (and I don't have the stomach to go trolling for it, but I bet it's out there in Loonyleftland) some people will smell a rat in this whole WaPo story and see the interview with mom and her explanation as something ginned up after the debate (by the right-wing corporate media? by Allen? by Karl Rove in the black helicopter? by the stars of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion?").

But I can tell you, such things do happen. They happened in my own family. I wrote about it in December, with reference to my feelings about the film "Munich":

My mother's family always was the one we knew least about. My grandfather was a big, gruff self-made man, born in the waning days of the 19th century, who had lifted himself out of the slums of Philadelphia by sheer will and work. Arbeit macht frei, and for him, in America, it was true. He survived the tuberculosis that cut a swath through his family and he survived the Great Depression and he raised a family in comfort.

We loved him, because he was Pop-Pop. But when I stand back and think about him, as I approach the age he was when I first knew him, I realize he was not especially a nice man. Nor do I think he'd ever have wanted to be known as one. They were a tough brood, his clan, and they nursed grudges and even though he had ten siblings, seven of whom survived to adulthood, he was estranged from the families of all but one of them by the time I knew him.

And he rarely talked about his family or his past. We knew little beyond his odd family name, "Goodfriend," that he had and bequeathed to my mother as her middle name. Nobody else we knew, growing up in the Pennsylvania countryside, had that name. It had a firm, warm, familial quality that seemed to ill-suit the clan that bore it. My grandfather had been raised in a Catholic home, we knew, but my grandparents on that side never attended any sort of religious service, except for weddings and funerals. Their children married in the local Schwenkfelder church, because it was local.

Bill Goodfriend had thick, wiry dark hair and a dark complexion, which he also bequeathed to my mother. She often was mistaken for Italian.

Later, when I was in college, my mother had a career in social work in Philadelphia. There, lo and behold, she met another Goodfriend, from an extended family. They got to talking about the name, trying to determine a connection, and the woman asked my mother something that implied she was Jewish.

"I'm not Jewish," my mother answered.

"We're all Jewish; all the Goodfriends are," was the reply.

So that night my mom called her parents, who still were living then, and they confirmed it. Yes, in fact, my grandfather was Jewish on his father's side. He never talked about it. He was not fond of his father, and he also knew that his ancestry, if it were known, might hold him back in his relentless march up the ladder of the American Dream. He was a suspicious man, but I wonder if his suspicions weren't valid in this case. Would a known Jew have been promoted to foreman tool maker at Hunter Pressed Steel Co. in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, in 1930?

They never told my mother, because they didn't think it mattered. By the time I found out I was part Jewish, I was 22, and it didn't matter much to me, either. The irony was, the public high school I had attended was largely Jewish, and at the time I couldn't date the pretty Jewish girls I knew because it would have offended their grandparents if they brought home a goy.

But knowing my grandfather's secret shed some light on some incidents in my mother's history: the way she sometimes felt herself singled out or rejected without reason in some institutions, and her father's fierceness in response when that happened.

Later we pieced together the family. The Goodfriends were a thriving and learned New York Hungarian-Jewish family, and my grandfather's father, David, was the "black sheep" of the family, a designation he earned permanently by marrying an Irish Catholic girl and moving to Philadelphia.

The family name, which we had assumed was a pure Ellis Island creation, appears in Europe as Gutfraind or Gutfreund. There are not many of them, and it's a fair bet that most of us are related on some level.

If learning I had some Jewish in me didn't make any difference in my daily life, it did slowly change the way I knew, and felt, the history of the Jews. After all, that drop of blood I inherited from my Pop-Pop would have been sufficient to send me to Sobibor in another time and place.

Since then, I've read of other Goodfriends, including some who survived the Holocaust, and some who didn't.

And I read of Yossef Gutfreund, a tall, burly man like my grandfather. Yossef was a wrestling referee, 40 years old, when he accompanied the small Israeli team to Munich in 1972.

... Gutfreund apparently heard the rattling of the door at the threshold of that ground-floor duplex, the apartment the other Israelis called the Big Wheels' Inn because it housed senior members of the delegation. When the door cracked open in the darkness, he could make out the barrels of several weapons. He threw his 290 pounds against the door and shouted a warning: "Danger, guys! Terrorists!" For critical seconds Gutfreund succeeded in staying their entrance, allowing his roommate, weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolovsky, to shatter a rear window and flee to safety through a backyard garden. But the terrorists, using their rifle barrels to crowbar their way inside, soon had Gutfreund subdued on the floor.
In the iconic images of that tragedy, Gutfreund is the body you see in the shattered helicopter cockpit, torn and bleeding and dead and still strapped upright in the seat.

In honor of him, cousin on some level to my grandfather and my mother and my son and me, I will be remembering what one almost forgotten root of my family tree endured in Europe, and I won't be seeing Munich the movie.

I can't vote in a Virginia election and I haven't been following this one. But the more I learn about the push-and-pull of it, the more I find my personal, if not political, sympathies in Allen's corner.


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© September 21, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"