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A Moment With . . . Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Interfaith marriage

Friday 25 August 2006, by Nonna GORILOVSKAYA

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary honor, in 1975 for her novel Heat and Dust. A German Jew whose family fled the Nazis, she grew up in London and moved to New Delhi with her husband, the Parsi architect Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala.

Reprinted with permission of Moment Magazine. Visit momentmag.com.

Ruth Prawer JhabvalaIndia was the author’s home for over two decades and the setting of her many works, including Heat and Dust. Jhabvala’s collaboration as a screenwriter with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory earned her two Oscars for A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992). Her latest work, My Nine Lives (2005), a collection of short stories, has been warmly received by critics and called “the most autobiographical of her works”. Jhabvala, who turned 79 this year, spoke to Moment’s Nonna Gorilovskaya from her New York City home.

- What does being Jewish mean to you? How has it shaped your work?
Well, to tell you the truth, I never think of it. I mean I am Jewish and that’s it. I really don’t know. I mean whatever has gone into my work is also my Jewishness. Of course, mixed in with a whole lot of things because I’ve moved around a lot. But there’s absolutely no question, I never have to think of it. If somebody asks me what are you, I know what I am. That’s it.

- So when somebody asks you what you are, what do you say?
I say I’m Jewish. That’s the only certainty I have.

- What do you remember most about Germany and fleeing it?
What I most remember is not wanting to remember it.

- What was it like growing up as a Jewish teenager from Germany in London during World War II and afterwards?
Well, you know, once you left your own background, your own community and your own family — which was left behind, it was only us in England — you’d really lost any kind of social basis of your life. And even though, you may still go to a synagogue — my mother still went to a synagogue on High Holidays — it did not mean that much. It was not her community at all. So being Jewish wasn’t very much any more for us. You’ve lost your community, that’s it. And you came much more into English life. We went to university, my brother and I. We studied literature. We were integrated into a sort of English intellectual life.

- In My Nine Lives, a lot of your characters are secular Jews. Was your family secular?
Oh yes. Actually, my grandfather was a cantor of a big Jewish synagogue in Cologne, but he was a very secular character at the same time. He used to have a lot of debates with Christian clergymen. He was close to the mayor of Cologne at that time, [Konrad] Adenauer, who became the chancellor. He was a man of the world, but he was a Jewish cleric also. Well, there is a cosmopolitan background and a very Jewish background, up to 1933. After then, I suppose everything must have changed. I don’t know; I was too young.

- In My Nine Lives, is there a life that is closest to your own?
No, no, none of them are all that close. All of them are a bit close, none of them are very close.

- What was it like living as a Jew in India? Or did you think of yourself more as a foreigner?
In India, nobody really knew what a Jew was. The question just never came up at all. They did not even know what it was. And there were so many religions, it was just one more. I remember some Americans came and they asked us: «Oh, is there anti-Semitism in India?» There just couldn’t have been.

- A lot of Jews are intermarried, but few are married to Parsis. If you had to generalize, are there any similarities between the two groups?
Oh, absolutely. Parsis are known as the “Jews of India”. First of all, they are not really quite Indian, they are originally from Iran. They still look different, they live differently. They look Jewish actually. They often take me for a Parsi. It’s the closest thing that you can get, I think. They have the same sense of humor also, but then many Indians have, not only Parsis.

- You’ve divided your life between three continents. Which one feels most like home?
Home is only where the people I want to be with are. And I only go to these three places: Delhi, where I have one daughter; England, where I have another daughter; and here in America, where I have a third daughter. So that’s it.

Forum posts

  • Dear Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, I have seen many of your Merchant Ivory Productions while living in Scotland and Arizona. I have also read some of your works. As I talked to family members they pointed out that you are related to us. My great grandmother and father were 1st cousins and moved to the U.S from Vilna in Poland. They were the Horwitz. Many years ago my father had mentioned you and so did his cousins in the U.S. They also said you had met my father who was on the J.I bill in Paris after serving in Korea. His name was Gerald Neil Robbins, You may have seen him in Paris or London in the late 40s or early 50s. He lived abroad most of his life 10 years in Paris then Spain, Turkey, Greece and other countries in Europe. I think the family started with 6 sisters coming out of Poland, They all went to Germany, then 2 went theU.S to Brooklyn N.Y, one to South Africa, one to Israel, two stayed in Germany, however oneof the sisters moved to London before the second world war. It maybe that your family is the one sister that stayed. The family is still in touch with the Israil section.I am Clio Robbins, My Great Grandmother was Mini Horwitz and my Grandmother was Anna Horwitz. I grew up in Turkey until age 14, then lived in Scotland for many years, as my mother is Scottish and met my Dad Gerald Neil Robbins at the Sorbonne University in Paris. I now live in Tucson Arizona with the Horwitz family who grew up in Brooklyn N.Y. They say you look very much like my Great Grandmother Mini Horwitz. I was wondering if you remember meeting or being with any of the sisters in Germany and if you remember meeting my father after the second World War? I was also wondering since you live in New York City if you have researched were you ancestors lived in N.Y? My cousin in Tucson who grew up in Brooklyn are in their 70s and always tell us many stories about growing up in the Jewish communities in Brooklyn. I was wondering as a writer if you were interested n the older generation that came here at the beginning of the 20th century and how they have dispersed around the world since? Thank You Kind Regards Clio Cassandra Robbins

  • Dear Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, I have read many of your works while studying English Language and Literature in university and translating short stories and novels. I have also discussed some of your works. I grew up in Tehran and I have never been abroad except for a short term period and contemporary visit to Turkey and Suleimanieh province in Iraq attending a Kurdish literary gathering. I now live in Tehran with my family. I have translated your story ,Innocence into Farsi.I got it from Newyorker magazine.It is a very well crafted short story. I am looking for an address to send you a hard copy of the magazine. Cordially Asadollah Amraee

    View online : a message for Ruth

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