THE JR INTERVIEW
TEA WITH OONA KING
When Oona K ing opens a sturdy front door and invites me into her converted M ile End pub, what I see is a mixed-race woman whose ethnicity combines both black and white genes. What I get is a black woman who is also Jewish.
Whilst Oona makes tea I look around. ‘Downstairs’ is one large room, filled with light. I sit at a table made for full family dinners and note the piano, billiard table and the original bar. now housing a kitchen sink. Floor to ceiling bookcases encase a library spanning multicultural, multilingual interests. An African print hangs near to a hamsa performing protective duties by the front door.
Oona’s diaries. House M usic have already told me that she decided to become an MP aged five, joined the Labour Party aged 14 and swept into the House o f Commons in 1997, aged 29, as the elected Labour Member o f Parliament representing constituents o f Bethnal Green and Bow.
In that 1997 photograph o f women MPs celebrating Labour’s sweeping victory with Tony Blair, Oona stands central. This particular ‘ B la ir Babe’, it becomes clear, has been absorbed by the politics o f human rights, ju stice and equality for most o f her life a passion which continues, despite being ousted from her Parliamentary seat in the 2005 election by Respect Coalition candidate, George Galloway. After dism issing the erstwhile B ig B ro th e r contestant as a
'wasted talent’ , we do not mention his name again.
Oona K in g ’s family lore comprises first-hand accounts o f overcoming poverty, persecution and prejudice. Her paternal great-great grandparents were slaves. Her father’s parents met at the Tuskagee Institute, established to teach former slaves. They produced seven highly achieving sons, one of whom was Oona’s father, Preston, whose request for a deferment from military service earned him 40 years o f exile from the United States until Oona headed a campaign and B ill Clinton revoked the injustice through a presidential pardon.
Jenny Stern. Oona's maternal grandmother, a half-Irish, half-Scottish working-class Catholic Geordie, undertook the full Jewish conversion to marry Oona’s grandfather, Sidney Stern. The Stern side o f the family had arrived family. Oona describes her Aunty Miri and mother Hazel, as “the outcasts o f the outcasts” in Newcastle’s Jewish community. Despite embracing Judaism "in a typically convert way” and “separating milchig from fleischig tea-towels and everything they w'ere looked down on.” Oona says Grandma Jenny would be thrilled to know that she was being talked about in a Jew ish journal.
Aunty Miri became a doctor and in a secret registry office wedding she married a penniless playwright (Tom Stoppard!). Then Hazel took a sim ilar route with an African-American academic and their mother Jenny turned both their photographs to face the wall. She did not speak to Miriam for two years. Oona reflects that her Grandma must have been very open-minded to have learnt Hebrew and convert to
Grandma Jenny would be thrilled to know that she was being talked about in a Jewish journal. in Newcastle circa 1908, fleeing Hungarian pogroms. Family stories float down about dire poverty in a tenement where 13 children slept head-to-toe in one bed, “girls one end and boys the other, divided by a sheet suspended from the clothes line” .
Judaism when prevailing attitudes towards Jews in Newcastle were extremely xenophobic but that openmindedness did not extend to her daughters marrying ‘ out’ .
Photos are produced and the cultural expanse o f Oona’s fam ily lies before us. Great grandmother. Z illa h Stern wears her sheitl. Husband Tiberio’s pre-war fam ily portrait shows a group sporting uniforms o f fascist Italy. K ing says, “It’s so insidious, the way that culture throws fam ilie s one way or the other. So, 1 put these pictures together, to remind me.”
In House M u s ic there is a section called ‘ The Un-chosen’ which tells about her aunt and mother growing up on the wrong side o f the social tracks, as daughters o f a convert and from a poor
Nevertheless, Oona’s Jewish grandparents became a significant influence. “We grew up in North London and would see them at least every other weekend on Friday nights, and holidays. Th is was where my brother Slater and 1 got our Jewishness because my Mum had rebelled and decided she wasn’t that keen on religion. Mum and Grandad, who was a bit o f a militant Zionist, argued about Israel all the time. A s a child I was given a certificate for my tree in I s r a e l . . . 1 really want to see my tree in Israel one day!”
Oona says her mother told few positive stories about being Jewish,
8 JEWISH RENAISSANCE JULY 2008