An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.
In New York, there is a system of social values and beliefs that prescribes mutual toleration and equal opportunities. Prescribed does not mean practiced, but it is there on the books at least, and most people try hard enough to believe it works that they would fight for it if it were taken away from them.
In Alexandria, there were no shared values or shared beliefs. Alexandria was the product of two or even three empires: the Ottoman, the French, and the British. Empires generate their own kinds of capital cities: nerve centers where all their far-flung populations send emissaries and migrants. You go to exploit multiplicity, not to lose your identity or to respect the other more than is necessary to conduct business. You embrace multiplicity because it ratifies your identity. You learn everyone’s language; and if you never lose yours to a dominant language, you do adopt a lingua franca that eventually confers an identity all its own.
Many of the people I grew up with were children of immigrant and low-end colonialist communities: Italian, Syrian, Lebanese, and French. Many of these continued to maintain contact with their country or community of origin much in the way ancient Greek colonies did: The colony of the colony of a colony frequently continued to claim ties to the mother community, say, of Athens, Thebes, or Corinth.
But then you also had a different kind of population, of which I can recall three: the Armenians, some of whom had settled after the first Armenian massacre; the Greeks from Asia Minor, who had come before but who certainly thronged to Alexandria following their exodus from Turkey and the burning of Smyrna; and then the Jews, many of whom had been in Egypt for 1,000 years, while others arrived from elsewhere—in my family’s case, from Turkey—in an attempt to found a new home. Armenians, Greeks, and Jews did better than the French or the Italians not only because they were more numerous but also because they were more desperate: For them there was really no country to return to.
In this interim oasis they created their own peculiar dynamic, acquiring paper citizenships that were to real nationalities what paper profits are to real money. They thrived in this ideal panopolis, though, as with immigrants elsewhere in the world, no one really expected to stay there permanently. No one identified with Alexandria, and everyone was too busy identifying with the entire culture of Europe to understand what having a single culture really meant.
The more westernized the Jews of Alexandria grew, the more they developed the sensibility of their German, French, and Italian Jewish counterparts: They too allowed their Jewish identity to be displaced, not by a national identity—which was almost entirely imaginary—but by a pan-European, equally imaginary one. We imagined every other city in the world in order not to see the one city we were very much a part of, the way we imagined every other culture in order to avoid seeing we were basically and just Jewish. Some of us could afford to go through all these antic moves because we knew—and feared—that, all things considered, the one thing that would never be taken away from us was precisely our Jewishness. And yet, was Jewishness something at the core, securely lodged, or was it something that had been dislodged and was now spinning forever out of orbit?
Although most Jews did practice Judaism in Egypt and were proud of being Jewish, I was always torn. I was proud of being Jewish, but I could just as easily have been mortified by being Jewish. I wanted to be Christian, but I didn’t want to be anything but Jewish. I am a provisional, uncertain Jew. I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to remain a bachelor. I am a Jew who longs to be in a world where everyone is Jewish, where I can finally let down my guard; but I am a Jew who has spent so much time defining himself in relation to non-Jews that I wouldn’t know how to live, much less who to be, in a world where everyone was Jewish.
I still don’t know whether the pan-Europe I dreamed up truly existed or whether it was after all a Jewish invention, a Jewish fantasy. But it may explain my single-minded devotion to European Christian and pagan literature. These books were the first I read during my youth, and it was to these books that I finally turned when I sought to locate the imaginary Europe I had totally lost on landing in Europe after Egypt.
For if anything seemed parochial and provincial and closedminded when I landed in Europe, it was precisely Europe itself. And more provincial still was America. Yet it was in America that I finally realized that the most provincial place in the world was Alexandria and that perhaps the ability to spot provincialism in people and places was itself the surest sign of a provincial person: i.e., someone who longs for the great and tiny tokens of cosmopolitanism for fear of being sucked back into the dark alleys of dark small towns in the dark old country that every Jew carries inside him. We needed our books, our many languages, our broadmindedness, our ability to disclaim who we were in the interest of adaptability, our fast cars and our tiny cigars, even our willingness to show we could easily live with the most disquieting paradoxes—we needed them because they were a cover for something we no longer knew how to be: Jewish.
As I write of all these paradoxes, it occurs to me that I am being cosmopolitan in a very Alexandrian way, in the way the Book of Ecclesiastes is a very Alexandrian book, because, in the beginning as in the end, to be a cosmopolitan in Alexandria was to live with every conceivable contradiction. But when it comes to the deeper, thinking self, it takes no great effort to see that without paradox I am out of place, I am a stranger, and that this very paradox, for a cosmopolitan Jew living in Alexandria, is home.
But let us not overromanticize either. What paradox does when it becomes a way of life is to alienate one, to make one a stranger from one’s people, one’s homeland, one’s second and third homeland, and ultimately from who one is.
You become nothing, nobody, like Ulysses.
Agenda: Tovah Feldshuh gets old, New York City dines out for farmers, the Klezmatics play Prague, and more