Why I became an English Professor

For a child of Holocaust survivors, Shakespeare is a refuge

A child named Elizabeth accompanies her aunt to the dentist in Worcester, Massachusetts, in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” When her aunt’s cries suddenly burst forth from an unseen examining room, Elizabeth experiences a kind of identity crisis: “I said to myself three days/ and you’ll be seven years old./ I was saying it to stop/the sensation of falling off/ the round, turning world/ into cold, blue-black space.” Elizabeth understands that her youthful frivolity is a prelude to a world of adult pain.

At 30, I too would find myself in Worcester, Massachusetts, beginning my first year as an assistant professor of English literature. Recruited to be the new Shakespeare scholar and armed with the requisite lectureships, publications and conferences, I felt confident and well groomed for the job. My preparedness came not just from years spent curled up with the Western canon but also from my particular experience as a child of Holocaust survivors. I brought to academia a desire to talk, however indirectly, about adult pain and family tragedy. In Shakespearean calamity, conveniently far removed and fictional, I found an emotional outlet for my ambivalent attachment to my family’s fraught history and its own body of tragic narratives.

As an adult, I have become increasingly intrigued by my parents’ escape from Germany in 1939: each was eight years old, leaving behind houses, relatives, and friends. When my father and mother later came to America from Manila and London, respectively, each brought sharp memories of public humiliations, harrowing escapes, and the family members they would never see again. Like Hamlet, for whom the standard “trappings and suits of woe” do not adequately express his grief for his father, my parents could not convey—neither to me nor to their new communities in America—the realities of what they had felt and seen.

In Washington I grew up surrounded by Jews, yet the most Jewish aspect of my life differentiated me from my friends, for whom the Holocaust surfaced only in Hebrew school lessons and on the covers of their parents’ somber coffee table books. In my house, there were no such deliberate, conscientious displays: the war was a heavy, absent presence, its magnitude demonstrated and compounded by silence. Our house exuded a gravity overseen by the shadowy pictures of our family’s dead on the living room mantel.

Although “Holocaust” was rarely said aloud, it provided the key explanation for my disparate family members: my cousins in Israel who spoke broken English; my father’s parents in San Francisco whose thick accents and affection for marzipan betrayed a connection to the country they never mentioned; and my own parents, who whispered to one another in German late at night. While my relatives had found everything from black hat Orthodoxy in Toronto to militant secular Zionism in Tel Aviv, my parents and I found it difficult to find our place as Jews in America. My mother, the youngest of five daughters, had rejected her Orthodox upbringing, and my father, an assimilated West Berliner, acquiesced when I insisted on buying a “Hannukah bush” and joining a nearby WASP country club. We clearly did not “fit in” at the country club, but the Conservative shul was no less alien. I was the only one in my Hebrew school class not to have a bat-mitzvah, a decision informed by my parents’ mutual disinterest in religious faith. Yet outside the synagogue, I found the cultural trappings of Last Coast American Judaism—the intimidating intellectualism, Cape Cod houses, Chinese food and Woody Allen movies—just as enviable and elusive as the girls with blond ponytails at my tennis lessons.

Though we tried to push it aside, the Holocaust functioned as a cord that made sense of every family crisis. When our house was burglarized when I was twelve, the sight of the empty patches once occupied by sundry televisions, jewelry, and silver-plated cutlery moved my mother to sit hunched on the edge of her bed for hours like an angry little girl, her hands clenched around bunches of her skirt, inconsolable even as my father reassured her that her mother’s charm bracelet, her prized possession, was safe at the bank. Everything is gone, she cried, and the only things left are worthless crap.

The mental devastation of those who have witnessed and survived the Holocaust resonates throughout the generations that come after although I lack the experience of “witness,” the potent reverberations of the past have pushed me to seek emotional catharsis. Oddly, I have found it possible to engage most openly with the Holocaust in the academy, in a profession often cited for its disinterested analyses, where violations of “critical distance” are usually considered taboo.

Over coffee during my first week in Worcester, a Jewish colleague remarked, as many have, about the unusualness of my situation: my youth, my parents’ fortuitous—and almost improbable— late departure from Germany, and their chance meeting at a cocktail party in their late thirties. Yet he expressed greatest surprise at my choice of profession. Most children of survivors, he pointed out, entered “helping” professions, such as psychotherapy and social work. We provide salvation because we could not save our parents from persecution; most of us are not inclined to reside in the ivory tower giving rousing lectures on Shakespearean comedy and Elizabethan sonnet sequences.

But for me, the academy works well as a place to vindicate the trauma of loss and to enact a type of recovery. Despite its claim to objectivity, literary criticism provides license to make interpretive leaps that are inspired by one’s own personal perspective. In the classroom, my lectures have been charged with the parallels I imagine between Shakespearean narratives and my own family stories. In Hamlet’s grief and Shylock’s lament for his dead wife and for his daughter, Jessica, who rejects him to marry a Christian in The Merchant of Venice, I find familiar themes of loss and assimilation. In Hermione’s long separation from her daughter Perdita in The Winter s Tale, I recall all my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles estranged from me by tragic circumstances.

With the recent Hollywood film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, which stars Al Pacino as Shylock, I am reminded once again of how intimate these stories fee! to me. Although I cannot claim “witness” to the Holocaust, I may speak authoritatively as a scholar with regard to another era of ethnic erasure. I am currently at work on a book about why literary representations of Jewish women were important during Shakespeare’s lifetime, even though Jews had been legally banned from England since 1290. In this work, too, I am guided by personal perspective. Productions of The Merchant of Venice often portray Jessica as unmoved by her father’s anguish. This strikes me as entirely wrong; instead, I interpret Jessica’s rejection of her father as a crisis of religious faith, rather than as a blatant disavowal of her Judaism. Through such work, I bring to life Jewish women from sixteenth-century manuscripts and plays and present them on the pages of academic journals, reversing the process of erasure enacted upon my family.

At times, 1 still find myself like Elizabeth in the waiting room, afraid to face the full impact of loss and pain. But for me, the recognition of these experiences, whether in the context of the family or in the words of Shakespeare, provides a kind of permanence in a world that always threatens to be stolen. In the library, with neon sticky tabs and index cards, I link together the past and the present, academic research and private history.

Michelle Ephraim is Assistant Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic institute. She is currently working on a book entitled Deborah’s Kin: Playing the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage, 1558-1603.