Point of (No) Return


In July of 1998 I traveled from Jerusalem to Cambridge for a weekend, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to full membership in the University.

Arriving at noon on Friday, I spent the rest of the day walking around the town center, expecting to recapture the enchantment that the place held for me during the three years I spent there. I wanted to walk along the Backs and sit on the grass behind Trinity College, where I had first read “Andrea del Sarto” (a poem still marked in my green-leather-bound edition of Browning by a lily-of-the-valley I had picked from the river bank in 1946); to browse in the bookshops — Heffer’s, Bowes & Bowes, Deighton-Bell — where my father had generously opened accounts for me; to visit again the synagogue in Thompson’s Lane where I had devoted so much of my time as a student to the activities of the Cambridge University Jewish Society. Through serving on the Society’s committee for close on three years, I had developed my social and organizational skills, as well as my proficiency as a public speaker. In short, on that Friday afternoon I wanted to recreate and relive the past.

But as I progressed from the Garden House Hotel (now part of a chain inaptly called Moat Houses), it rapidly became clear that nothing was as it had been, even in this city of ancient buildings that had for six hundred years withstood the ravages of time.

Disconsolate, feeling old, a relic of an irrelevant past, I retraced my steps to a bench outside the Town Hall and sat down to partake of the baked potato I had purchased at a nearby stall (another innovation since my time). Here, on Market Hill (and how amused we had all been on first discovering the idiosyncratic Cambridge custom of labeling as hills several spots in this pancake-flat city) a number of us Jews had spontaneously congregated on the evening of V-E Day, immediately after hearing the radio announcement of Germany’s capitulation. Here we had begun dancing a Horah, in which, gradually, others had joined us, until hundreds of people, circle within circle, covered the entire square. “Where are they now, the old familiar faces?”

The next day, as I retraced the path I had so often taken, turning into Newnham Walk to approach the old College gates, I saw that the first group of graduates was falling in line to leave for Senate House. These were the women who had been at Cambridge before the war. Now in their 80’s and 90’s, they were going to walk the mile or so to their destination via King’s College, which had graciously permitted us to traverse its grounds by way of short-cut. I myself would be in the third and final group, composed of the last of us not to have benefited from Convocation’s 1948 decision to admit women to full membership of the University. Meanwhile, I had time before lunch to revisit the rooms I had inhabited in Clough Hall.

Sauntering through the pleasant garden, blooming and fragrant with summer flowers, I passed through Clough’s front door. I ascended the worn, stained, uncarpeted wooden stairs only to discover that both the rooms I had occupied were locked. Clearly, the days of honesty and trust, when nobody possessed a key and all were free to come and go as they pleased — entering rooms, leaving notes, even borrowing books, secure in the knowledge that there would be no thefts — those days were gone.

The only room that was open was the Common Room and as I entered it, one recollection came flooding in full force, carrying me back to a moment never to be forgotten which encapsulated my existence at college more truly than the nostalgic romanticizing of the previous day.

One morning, in 1947, I had gone up after breakfast to look, as was my wont, at the daily papers. Three of my fellow students were already there, standing around the table on which the papers were laid out each morning. When I came in, they stared at me and then, as one, turned their backs on me in a gesture of deliberate repulse and rejection. Somewhat taken aback, but puzzled, I approached the table. There, taking up almost the entire front page of the Daily Express, was a gruesome picture of three British sergeants, hanged by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Zionist “terrorist” group, in retaliation for the hanging by the British authorities of three of its members. I did not stay to read the report. The headline was enough for me. Without a word — for what was there to say? — I hastened from the room.

Though this was my most intense, distressing experience of being an outsider at Newnham, I had always felt alien there, even from the very day early in 1944 on which, having passed the written examination, I traveled to Cambridge for the interview that determine whether or not I would be accepted. Unlike most of the other candidates, I was the only one from my school and knew nobody at the college. We new arrivals compared notes on the written examination and I was taken aback to learn of the amount of special coaching my rivals had received from teachers with years of experience in preparing their pupils precisely for this critical stage in their academic progress. I myself had been almost actively discouraged by most of my teachers who, themselves graduates of London and other “provincial” universities, had little sympathy for my insistence on applying to Cambridge. Even my clothes betrayed my lack of savoir-faire. Clad in a navy blue skirt that was rather baggy at the seat and a matching sweater I had knitted myself, I commented admiringly on the stylish grey-green tweed coat and skirt worn by one of the candidates. “Oh, this!” she replied in a tone of dismissal. “It’s just our school uniform.” She was, it emerged, a pupil at Roedean, the British girls’ equivalent of Eton and Harrow.

When I went into the interview, anxious and self-conscious, the don examining me asked why, in answer to a question in the examination, I had chosen Virgina Woolf’sOrlando as one of the three books I would take with me to a desert island. I answered, quite truthfully, that what I would really have liked to take was the Bible, but that — and Shakespeare — had been explicitly ruled out by the examiners. I refrained from adding that I would also have chosen Margolis and Marx’s History of the Jews and, perhaps, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which my older brother was urging me to read. I explained that I had found Orlando hard to understand and thought that, in the seclusion of a desert island, and with little other reading matter, I might ultimately discern its meaning. I was particularly puzzled by the protagonist’s sexual transformation from male to female.

My interviewer seemed amused. “Of course you know it’s really about Vita Sackville-West,” she half-explained, half-queried. No, I hadn’t known that. “It’s on the cover,” she pointed out, taking a copy of the book from the shelf. Overwhelmed by embarrassment and feeling utterly foolish, I could not bring myself to confess that I did not possess a copy of the book but had borrowed it from Boots’ Lending Library in Aylesbury, where dust jackets were promptly removed when a new book arrived.

Utterly dejected by what I was sure had been an ignominious failure to make a favorable impression, I toured the town, visiting the colleges one by one, traversing the beautiful courts with their ancient buildings, opening the great oak doors that led into the halls hung with portraits of illustrious past students — Milton, Newton, Byron — the great and famous whose works I had studied and whom I so wished to emulate. I desperately hoped to be accepted and yet, at one and the same time, I feared it. The experience of the two days at Newnham had brought home to me all too forcefully that I was not like the other girls. I was alien, not only Jewish but a foreigner, and though my flawless accent did not betray my foreign birth, my ignorance of and inexperience in upper-class British traditions and mores would.

One morning during my first term, arriving at breakfast later than usual, I found there was room only at what was known as the “bottom table.” According to an unwritten law which had early on been imparted to us, the “bottom table” was reserved for the crème de la crème of Newnham society — the “county” set, the daughters of wealthy, sometimes titled, landowners who, were it not for the war, would be participating in the London “season,” perhaps even being presented at court.

Having no other option, I took my rations of butter, sugar and marmalade from the central trolley on which they were kept and seated myself at the sacrosanct table. All our ration jars bore identifying labels with our names on them. These I duly set out in front of me. Suddenly a beringed hand reached across the table and the young woman opposite me turned my sugar jar so as to be able to decipher my name. “Margulies,” she drawled haughtily, “That’s not an English name, is it?” I could not resist following suit. Reaching across the table, I turned one of her jars around and retaliated in kind: “O’Brien! That’s not an English name, is it?” I had scored a point, but I never again ventured to sit at the bottom table.

I did, however, frequently sit at the high table, to which four undergraduates were invited each evening, to dine with the dons and afterwards repair for coffee to the room of one of our tutors. I found myself listed with extraordinary frequency. The only other student thus singled out was Princess Aida Desta, the daughter of the exiled Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie. Like myself, she was reading English and she occupied a room near mine, so we had ample opportunity for meeting. We were also usually invited to High Table together. Once, as we were waiting for the dons to arrive so that we could ascend the dais, she asked me why, in my opinion, we were so frequently honored. I secretly thought that we were both regarded as strangely exotic — unknown quantities that aroused curiosity and therefore needed to be closely studied, like some rare species of tropical plant that had found its way into an English garden.

I soon discerned the difference in attitude towards Aida and myself for while she was clearly respected and deferred to, in a manner appropriate to her royal status, I was subjected to a barrage of questions. “Miss Margulies, why are you eating that cheese?” my neighbor enquired, carving the lamb chop on her own plate as she peered curiously at the small yellow square resting on mine. I had to explain that Jewish dietary laws precluded my eating meat. “I see, so Jews are vegetarians. How interesting!” Not quite, I should have said, but I was too embarrassed at the thought of having to go into lengthy explanations.

Miss Chrystal, my tutor, knew all about Judaism, but what she knew she did not like. Her field was Semitic languages; profoundly philo-Arab, she was equally profoundly anti-Zionist. At our very first meeting she had elicited from me the fact that my father was a leader of religious Zionism in England and she apparently felt it her duty, in loco parentis, to ensure that such dangerous tendencies, which I presumably shared, should be shaken out of me.

And so, after each of my command performances at High Table, as we partook of coffee in her room, she would deliberately turn the conversation to the troublesome clashes between Arabs and Jews currently taking place in Palestine. My own loyalties were firmly, undividedly, Zionist, but I was too intimidated by authority to dare speak out against the hostile tirades of Miss Chrystal, who may thus have construed my cowed silence as acquiescence.

Though I tried hard not to express my religion or my politics too blatantly, the very fact that all the posters advertising activities of the Jewish Society and of its Zionist Circle, which hung on the college noticeboards bore my signature as college representative, betrayed my identity and my sympathies. Hence, the response of my three fellow students after the hanging of the sergeants.

I was also stung by Miss Chrystal’s response when, in duty bound, I reported to her that I had become engaged. On being asked my fiancé’s name, I told her it was Sonny Bornstein. “Sonny isn’t a name,” she retorted and I then admitted that, though this was what everyone called him, his full given name was Israel Isaac. “That’s better,” she said with satisfaction, to which I felt impelled to respond that he did not look like an Israel Isaac. To me these were inappropriately patriarchal names for so young a man. “Oh yes he does,” she insisted emphatically, with clear reference to his undoubtedly Semitic appearance. So far as she was concerned, his name might as well have been Shylock or Barabbas.

From the end of my second year I made little further effort to ingratiate myself with my gentile fellow-students. In Hall, I always sat with the other Jewish girls, and my extra-curricular activities focused more and more on the Jewish Society, where — in addition to serving on the committee — I attended Friday evening festive dinners, Saturday morning services at the student-operated synagogue, Saturday evening meetings of the Zionist Study Circle and Sunday evening guest lectures by well-known figures of the Anglo-Jewish community. In that ghetto, which was, however, an integral and undeniable part of the greater Cambridge culture that surrounded it, I was able to a certain degree to reconcile my Jewish and my “British” self.

By the beginning of my third, final, year, I was firm in my intention of going to Palestine, the Land of Israel, as soon as possible. I took Hebrew lessons, hummed Hebrew songs as I walked through the Newnham corridors, and metaphorically turned my back on perfidious Albion.

At Newnham in July 1998, I searched in vain for any of my Jewish friends, disappointed that not a single one had chosen to come. Moreover, at lunch, where we were seated according to the initials of our surnames, I observed how limited my acquaintance with my contemporaries had been. I could see nobody I recognized and resigned myself to becoming belatedly familiar with those at my table.

Soon it was time for us, too, to congregate at the college gate, bedecked in the gowns we had never been permitted (or, one might put it, like the men compelled) to wear. Mine sported long red panels at the front edges as a sign that I had attained a doctorate. Suddenly I found myself overwhelmed by an awareness of my membership in a privileged group, the elect few who had enjoyed the advantage of education at an ancient and esteemed university, a place graced with beauty and renown.

It was a bright and sunny day. We marched down Sidgwick, across to the Backs, over King’s College bridge, past its graceful Gothic chapel and under the arch where swallows nested among the painted heraldic crests, emerging on to King’s Parade to the sound of bells pealing tumultuously, joyfully, from the steeple of Great St. Mary’s and the totally unexpected applause of a crowd of people who awaited us on the pavement outside. Gratified by this recognition of our achievements, I felt that we should, like members of the royal family, acknowledge the cheering with a gracious bow and wave of the hand. It was an extraordinary moment of pride and happiness: justice was at last being done, women’s attainments — our attainments — officially recognized.

That feeling was intensified as we entered the stately neoclassical portals of the Senate House, where I had never before set foot, to be greeted by a fanfare of trumpets that echoed around the marble interior.

The British excel at ceremony. As we stood for the entry of the Vice-Chancellor’s procession, I noted the ancient emblems of power and authority — the mace, book, and huge keys — carried by functionaries in their brightly colored hoods. All was stately pomp, outmoded yet impressive customs, and now I was part of it. If I so desired, I could in future participate in votes such as the one which, in 1948 — after long years of struggle and despite continued fierce opposition — had finally made possible my presence in the Senate House fifty years later.

Cambridge did us proud that day. After the ceremony, we were feted with champagne and an impressive range of delicacies and it was in the marquee, on the lawn outside the Senate House, that I finally came face to face with two of the women who had, like myself, studied English at Newnham. I should never have recognized them had they not been wearing the name tags that identified one as Margaret Willey and the other as E. M. Quigley. Margaret was the daughter of Professor Basil Willey, a scholar whose lectures I had attended. Without pausing to exchange platitudinous greetings, I seized this opportunity to ask a question the answer to which I had been seeking in vain for fifty-four years. “What was the game we played at your home when you invited some of us over one evening?” I enquired, still vividly recalling the embarrassment, confusion and humiliation that had paralyzed me as all those present — Margaret’s parents and siblings, the five or six other Newnhamites and a number of Professor Willey’s Pembroke charges — suddenly began running round and round the large dining room table, engaged in something which, to my uninformed eyes, resembled nothing so much as the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland. Ashamed of confessing ignorance of the rules, I had pretended my leg hurt and stood aside, excluded from the boisterous jollity, hoping that by watching what was going on I might glean some insight and be able, belatedly, to join in. But the general confusion made this an impossible mission.

Margaret was at a loss as to what I was referring to, but after a brief description of what I recalled of the players’ movements, both she and the others in the group simultaneously broke out with “Oh, you mean ping-pong.” Ping-pong? It was my turn to look puzzled. An explanation followed: this was ping-pong on the move, the entire group being expected to return the ball from one side to the other, while running around the table. No wonder I had withdrawn, perplexed, at the very outset. Apparently everybody else in that room that evening had been initiated in the game from early childhood on.

As for E. M. Quigley, better known as Isabel, she was extraordinarily pleased to see me. I had from time to time since leaving Cambridge read book reviews she had contributed to the Observer and other London publications but we had not met since 1947. Now she unexpectedly delighted me by crying out “Oh, I remember your father. He was such a nice man! So kind.” And at once, gratified that she so clearly recalled the occasion, I was back at Liverpool Street Station, on the spring day in 1944 when my father had accompanied me to London to see me safely on the train to Cambridge. He had rejected my own inclination to seize the first available seat and, despite my protests, had continued walking along the platform, peering into every carriage until he found one in which a young woman of about my own age, elegantly hatted and gloved, occupied a corner seat by the door. To my intense embarrassment, he leaned towards her and asked if she, too, were traveling to Cambridge for an interview. On receiving an astonished but polite reply in the affirmative, he told her my name, asked for hers, entrusted us to each other’s company, wished us both a safe journey and much success and stayed on the platform to wave farewell as the train moved off.

All this Isabel clearly recalled, despite the passage of fifty-four years during which she had never again set eyes on my father. What she had forgotten, though I had not, was that on the journey, talking about the written examination we had both taken, she had — in response to my query as to which works she had selected for her desert island sojourn — quickly replied “Oh, all three parts of the Divina Commedia. In Italian, of course. Otherwise I’d finish it far too quickly.”

Overawed, I had not dared to venture the information about Orlando. As we progressed towards Cambridge, I gradually learned more about the small, exclusive, expensive school she had attended, Mrs. Godolphin’s, where there was one-on-one coaching for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance tests and where nobody ventured to suggest that London University was quite good enough.

The more she told me, the more what little self-confidence I had set out with dwindled. How could I compete with the vast fund of knowledge, with the sophistication, the savoir-faire, the intellectual and academic excellence displayed by my traveling companion? From that moment on, I experienced the profound sense of inferiority, of alienation and rejection, which remained with me throughout my three years at Newnham.

Suddenly, standing in the marquee, champagne glass in hand, I realized that the emotional and psychological scars inflicted by the humiliation of my undergraduate years had been reopened the previous afternoon. That rush of feeling, combined with my distress at the changes in the town, had aroused in me a dejection so profound as almost to make me wish I had not undertaken this sentimental journey. Despite the heightened spirits induced by the pomp and ceremony of the procession, the church bells, the trumpets, I still felt essentially alien among my British contemporaries.

But now here was an unquestionably English member of the elite, the intelligentsia, with undisguised admiration recalling my father, whose over-fond and excessive solicitousness, extremely un-English lack of reserve and distinctly foreign accent had so frequently embarrassed me and made me at times almost ashamed to acknowledge our relationship.

My father had never wanted to be anything other than what he was — a proud Jew. His refugee status may have precluded acceptance into English “society,” but he never sought such acceptance. Generous almost to a fault, ever ready to fight for justice and help the unfortunate, he lived his life according to a clear and ancient ethical code, one which had to its credit what are undoubtedly among the most remarkable values of western culture: monotheism; the humane concept of a Sabbath, a weekly day of rest from mundane labors; the principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself; pursuit of justice.

Through the warmth and enthusiasm of Isabel’s unexpected recollection of my father I felt myself and my own sense of difference from those around me, my outsider status, my “otherness”, no longer a source of shame. As a woman, I was at last accepted into the establishment, but as a foreigner and a Jew I would never be part of it. Still, just as I had over the years come to value and admire my father’s qualities, I now could accept my difference and be proud.

Born in Germany in 1926 and educated in England, Alice Shalvi immigrated to Israel in 1949. She taught in the Department of English Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was the founding chairwoman of the Israel Women’s’ Network. She also headed Pelech, an Experimental High School for religious girls. Among the numerous honors and prizes she has received is the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, awarded to her for her social activities and her contribution to the advancement of women in Israel.

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