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Uncertain Jew

An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.

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Sigmund Freud, 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)
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In the new Alibis, a revealing collection of essays, André Aciman finds in his exiled Egyptian life a quintessential diasporic Jewish identity

There is a picture of a plump, extremely groomed, self-satisfied young gentleman wearing clothes that were clearly cut by the best tailor. He is seated with one arm resting on a thigh and another holding out a cigarillo more or less in the manner of Freud; his face looks up smugly, with a rakish glint on his smile. His name is Artur Schnabel.

Another is caught walking along the street holding his pipe in his hand. He is wearing an unbecoming wide-brimmed hat. He could not look more gawkish or more self-conscious. He is feigning a debonair amble about town, but he is holding a pipe no less gingerly than if he were walking a urine sample to a laboratory. His name is Albert Einstein.

Another is not even looking at the camera, his hand supporting his chin while grasping a cigarette. He looks like the most established intellectual, and yet if there is a man who has come to symbolize the most unestablished intellectual of this century it is precisely Walter Benjamin, who died on the run.

There is also a picture of a young woman, perhaps one of the boldest intellectuals of her times, looking totally intimidated and fainthearted, having enlisted the help of this implement for the picture, and yet holding her cigarette at bay, almost pushing it out of the picture (the way some New York cabbies do when they hold their cigarettes out of the window), all the while desperately clinging to it, hoping it might give her that certain air without which she’d be a simple undergraduate. Her name is Hannah Arendt.

Finally, there is the picture of the greatest Italian novelist of this century, the man who first introduced Freud to Italy and who indeed translated Freud, and who took on a name that is itself quite interesting: Italo Svevo, also known as the man who made compulsive smoking a subject worthy of modern literature. He is sitting with legs crossed, holding a cigar over one thigh in a gesture that could be called Freudian.

Freud, Schnabel, Einstein, Benjamin, Arendt, Svevo—didn’t they know?

Didn’t they know that smoking, besides giving you cancer, confers no power, no composure, no confidence whatsoever?

But this is not the question I meant to ask. This was just my way of dissembling the real question, as though I too had something to dissemble and needed to mislead the reader somewhat before coming out with it, as though by raising the smokescreen of Freudian symbolism I could sneak in another, more disquieting question, which reflects my own very personal worries and anxieties, not Freud’s or Einstein’s.

Didn’t they know they were Jewish?

Or, to turn it around: Didn’t they know that, even if all Europe posed this way, it would never wash, that they could never pass, that part of what made them so odious to anti-Semites was the very fact that they presumed they could pass? Didn’t they know that, while others posed with a cigar to suggest they weren’t posing with a cigar, such a pose, when it came to Jews, was a double pose and as such came close to a form of imposture that brought out the killer in every anti-Semite?

What was so threatening to a German, to an Austrian, to a Frenchman or an Englishman in this cigar posture was not just that Jews had made it into mainstream German, Austrian, French, or British society. What was really threatening about such Jews was that they were also the very first to have accessed pan-European culture. In fact, they didn’t just tap into such a culture; they built it.

They were enamored of cosmopolitan European civilization not only because, unlike national venues, it flung open far wider doors to them but also because, all the while not being properly speaking theirs, it was more theirs than any other nation’s. Their romance with the Christian or pagan culture was irresistible precisely because it allowed them to draw much closer than they had ever been to those cultures that only a few generations before had been barred to them. Moreover, it allowed them to realize that being Jewish did not mean they couldn’t get at the center of the Christian universe and understand it, perhaps, even better than did Christians. Benjamin’s unfinished doctoral dissertation was on the theater of the post-Reformation; he was one of the very few modern thinkers to appreciate the genius of Paolo Sarpi, the 16th- and 17th-century Venetian friar who remains today the most lucid historian of the Council of Trent. Hannah Arendt wrote her dissertation on Saint Augustine under Karl Jaspers, the existential Christian philosopher. Freud, a font of encyclopedic knowledge, was fascinated by classical antiquity. And Ettore Schmitz, who changed his name to Italo Svevo to reflect both his Italian and Swabian roots, had intentionally or inadvertently forgotten to make up a third name to reflect his Jewish origins.

The list goes on and on. For cosmopolitan Jews, traditional Judaism and the traditional rewards of Judaism could not compete with the advantages and rewards of this profound and vertiginously rich European culture—could not compete, that is, with Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, Trieste, London.

The city where my great-uncles posed with cigars or cigarettes between their fingers was a long way from those European cultural capitals. And yet if the world of Alexandria had one wish—and that wish lasted for 75 years—it was precisely to be like Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, and London, to be Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, and London all in one. I won’t repeat the clichés; everyone knows them: Alexandria was a city where all the religions and nationalities of the world were represented and where each religion lived side by side with the others in perfect harmony. Perfect harmony may be an exaggeration, of course, but I mean it no less facetiously than when it is said of married couples living side by side in perfect harmony. Such cosmopolitanism can exist in two ways: as it does in New York or as it did in Alexandria, i.e., in a democracy or in an empire.

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Move to Israel and be a proud Jew.

Beautifully written article, Mr. Aciman! I look forward to reading more.

Paul Tucker says:

Hi, cigarillo is probably not the correct term. It looks like a figurado to me.

JCarpenter says:

other Jews with cigars—as in Groucho Marx, whose best quip was “I’d never belong to a club that would allow me as a member.” The term self-loathing _can take on humor—

I truly wish I hadn’t witnessed this when i want only one right now!

It’s exhausting to find educated individuals on this subject, however you sound like you recognize what you’re talking about! Thanks

Jacob Arnon says:

Another soap opera article by a “Jewish intellectual.”


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Uncertain Jew

An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.