Making Sense of Leonard Woolf’s “Three Jews”

by | Jul 29, 2021 | What I'm Reading | 0 comments

While researching the atmosphere of Britain in the interwar years, I learned that the first book printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Two Stories, included one by each of the husband-and-wife team. Leonard’s was titled “Three Jews.” Since I’m trying to understand British anti-Semitism in this era, I was especially interested in reading this one, even though Leonard’s reputation as a writer is nowhere near equal to that of his wife.

You can read it yourself in a facsimile edition on the British Library site. Easier to read, however, is the Project Gutenberg version. Both versions includes the lovely woodcuts created by artist Dora Carrington for this first Hogarth Press book.

So what happens in “Three Jews” and what does it tell us about anti-Semitism in Britain at the time? The unnamed narrator takes a table in a crowded outdoor cafe on a lovely spring day. The author makes a point of telling us that it is an English spring. The narrator is approached by a man with, in his words, a “dark fat face” and a “sensual mouth.” He describes the man’s “clever face” as  “dark and inscrutable, with its large mysterious eyes and the heavy lids which went into deep folds at the corners.”

Keep in mind that Leonard Woolf, the author of this story, was Jewish. Does this description reflect Woolf’s own anti-Semitism toward his own people? Or is it an effort to create a character (the narrator), who has internalized this anti-Semitism? Or is it simply an accurate description?

The two men sit together and talk about the fact that they recognized in one another as fellow Jews. They speculate on exactly what it means to be a Jew in present-day (1917) Britain: Does the beautiful English spring belong to them? Do they belong to it? Or do they belong to Palestine? Neither are observant. Neither are believers. And yet, the second man claims, they belong to Palestine.

He proceeds to tell a story about a man he met, a cemetery-keeper, who he says couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a Jew. Over the course of a few years, he meets this man again and again, and learns about how the man ended up in this low-paying position following financial setbacks. But the cemetery-keeper is philosophical about his situation. The story teller feels some sympathy for the man, despite what he regards as some unappealing characteristics—his attitude toward his elder son’s “eye for the petticoats,” for example.

But in his last visit, the storyteller learns that the man has disowned his son because of his marriage. “I might have received his wife, even though she was a Goy. But a servant girl who washed my dishes! I couldn’t do it. One must have some dignity,” the cemetery-keeper says.

“I couldn’t offer him a shilling [as he has done in the past]; I shook his hand, and left him brooding over his son and his graves.” This is the final sentence of the story—a line spoken by the storyteller. Our narrator makes no comment.

What are we to make of this story? Does the storyteller say he couldn’t offer the cemetery-keeper a shilling because he no longer sympathizes with him? Or because he now sees him as his equal, and therefor a tip is no longer appropriate. The storyteller has claimed that the cemetery-keeper, like the narrator and himself, “belong to Palestine.” Is he saying that an indelible characteristic of a Jew is his sensitivity to class status? That would have been a ridiculous claim, even in 1917, as there must have been numerous Jews then, as now, who married people with fewer economic resources than they had.

The story leaves me mystified. If anyone reading this blog has some insight to offer, I’d love to hear from you.