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La Différence

While American Jews cultivate a hyphenated identity, French Jews like to make themselves wholly French. Do we still share a cultural language?

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French Jews of the Middle Ages as pictured in the Jewish Encyclopedia, c. 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)
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One Sunday afternoon in Paris, you find yourself at the movies with a French Jewish friend to watch Annie Hall. The lights go down, the commercials come up, and a young woman glides along the aisles hawking Haribo gummy bears and Orangina. As the last sale is made, the movie begins. Even before Woody Allen tells a flabbergasted Tony Roberts about meeting with the anti-Semitic television executive—“Did you … d’you … Jew?”—you’re already on the floor in a fit of hilarity.

But you have the floor all to yourself. Your friend is still in her seat. Sure, she seems to be smiling, and even laughs from time to time, but something more than decibels is missing. Suddenly you’ve the sense that you are not among vos semblables. The scenes of Allen at Grammy Hall’s, or the visit to Allen’s childhood home at Coney Island, or even his chronic tardiness for The Sorrow and the Pity, are mostly lost in translation. The laughter of others falls at different moments, or fails to bubble up at all. As the cultural lag, or décalage, between you and your friend piles up, you wonder if your experience of the film’s humor would be any different with a Trobriand Islander.

No doubt we have all known such a moment, when all that we take for granted about “being Jewish” suddenly craters and collapses like a day-old soufflé. If years of studying French history had taught me anything at all, it was that more than the Atlantic divided the United States and France. So, why was I left reeling by the experience of watching Annie Hall in Paris? Why did I insist on believing, despite all the evidence offered by reason and history, that I would immediately connect with Jews on the far side of the ocean?

I was not alone in holding this conviction. In the introduction to her study of Jewish intellectuals in France, Vilna on the Seine, anthropologist Judith Friedlander reflects on her earlier fieldwork in Mexico. She then struggled with the issue of cultural representation and the confusion between her voice and those of her subjects. By what authority, she wondered, did she pretend to represent another’s culture, in this case that of Mexican Indians? By shifting her focus to French Jews—“a people I could call my own”—the problem, Friedlander thought, would be resolved. But this, she discovered, was a “naïve notion I quickly rejected as I began my new project.”

Friedlander’s naiveté was shattered, in part, by France’s demographic realities. When I asked about her experience with French Jewry, she replied: “Which Jews are we talking about?” After all, there is a “Rabat on the Right Bank” that coexists uneasily with “Vilna on the Seine.” Upon the relatively peaceful move to independence of French mandates like Lebanon and colonies like Tunisia and Morocco in the 1950s, followed by the violent and bloody birth of an independent Algeria, great waves of North African Jews washed across the Mediterranean, some ending up in Israel, many others in France.

The cultural baggage carried by these North African émigrés hardly resembles the worldview of the so-called juif de vieille souche, whose roots in France go back several centuries. While she was researching her book, Friedlander experienced one of the countless skirmishes in this clash of cultures. She was invited to celebrate Passover with a family of Algerian Jews in Paris, and her hosts served oranges imported from Algeria at the end of the meal. As the family matriarch peeled the fruit, she remarked that the oranges had become tasteless since the Jews fled the country. Friedlander was shocked by the remark, but it would have passed unnoticed by other French Algerian Jews.

But, as Friedlander also observed, there are also dramatic gaps among French Jews whose families hail from other parts of Europe or, indeed, even from within France. Just as there were flashpoints between Jewish émigrés from Germany and those from Eastern Europe in the 20th century, there were also tensions between Alsatian and Provençal Jews whose communities go back much further. If little common ground exists among these various groups in France, the amount of space an American Jew shares with French Jews is smaller than an airmail stamp.

Perhaps we should think of “Jewish” as a kind of Globish. The globalization of the English language, we’re told, will eventually allow us to speak to any other inhabitant of our planet. But as a five-minute conversation with an IT support desk in Bangalore reminds us, speaking is not the same as signifying. So too with “Jewish”: Whatever we mean in America when we say “I’m Jewish” simply does not mean the same thing as when you utter “Je suis juif” in France.


From Hemingway and Henry Miller to M.F.K. Fisher and Diane Johnson, Americans have gone to Paris to distance themselves from their native country and native selves. According to one literary theorist, Paris “presented the expatriate with the opportunity for metamorphosis, the reformulation of ambitions, habits, and inclinations; the city thus nurtured an exilic identity.” Translation: We’ll always have Paris because there’s no place better to pretend to be someone we’re not.

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Nechama says:

“But should the day ever pass that we laugh as one at Annie Hall…”
Yup, this just about sums up what makes non-American Jews cringe and roll their eyes. Typical of the cultural hegemon to view its particular experience as uncontroversially universal. Why on earth would anyone think that there’s anything even remotely universal about the supposed ‘Jewyness’ of Woody Allen? (Or Larry David?) American Jews are *just like French Jews* in the way that they’ve created a hybrid identity for themselves within a non-Jewish republic. They’ve been so successful at syncretizing their Jewishness with Americanness (much like German Jewish reformers two centuries ago) that they think that the default Jewish identity is an American identity. The only difference is that French Jews don’t enjoy the cultural hegemony that Americans do and thus cannot pretend that their particular diasporic Jewish experience is somehow *the* Jewish experience. American Jewishness (Yinglishy, Ashkenaz, Woody Allen, Seinfeld, baseball, schlocky, anti-intellectual slapstick, Mel Brooks, etc.) is but one way of being Jewish. It’s as much a hybrid republican identity as traditional French Jewishness or the Jewishness of the so-called ‘pieds-noirs’. It’s just as indecipherable to non-American Jews as Morrocan Jewish identity and culture are to Americans. There should be nothing shocking about the ‘discovery’ that Woody Allen is American and not actually part of the universal Jewish experience. Duh!

Maxwell says:

You kind of miss the point here. Of course there are going to be demographic differences between Jews, major ones even within a single city.
If you and your friend were watching The Sorrow and the Pity instead of Annie Hall however, the solidarity might have been better illuminated for you.

Janet says:

I am now proudly French, of American origin, and a Jew. I’ve lived in Paris for 20 years and am active in the Jewish community. Your article did not resonate with my experience of French Jews. The big differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardim are wonderfully glossed over with much social tolerance within the Jewish communities. You did not take into account the effect of the Shoah for French Jewish identity. Yes, French humour is very different from American humour, being influenced by centuries of slapstick commedia del arte scenarios. Maybe you could find more in common with French Jews if you had delved into values, especially concerning tseddakah and supporting the community and Israel.

Sherry Netherland says:

Engaging article. I was struck, however, by the author’s apparent surprise at the diversity and lack of commonality amongst the various sectors of the French Jewish community, “If little common ground exists among these various groups in France, the amount of space an American Jew shares with French Jews is smaller than an airmail stamp.” Is this statement meant to imply that American Jews are cut from the same bolt of cloth? I would submit that my New York Jewish Yidishkeit cultural upbringing bears no resemblance to that of the Jews of my adopted state of California and I would assert that the Delta Jews of the American South would have more in common, culturally, with their non-Jewish Southern neighbors than they would with my Brooklyn Jewish relatives – despite our possibly sharing the same Ashkenazic heritage!

Michael says:

To be honest, I never really liked Woody Allen. I’ve always though Mel Brooks was a million times better.

jacob arnon says:

This is a huge subject but to be brief I think there are not just many differences between French and American Jewry.

One of the most salient is that between the upper class Jews and the lower class Jews who hail from North Africa.

The anecdote he relates about these North African Jews didn’t shock me at all.

It’s their way of getting back at Muslim North Africans who disposed and hated them.

I have heard similar comments from Jews in many communities were Jews were held in contempt.

It’s a natural reaction.

It’s telling that the only Jews he talks about as individuals are college educated upper middle class American Jews who tend to stop being Jews and convince themselves that they belong to some universal culture.

This is a bunch of hooey.

jacob arnon says:

Zaretsky speaks of essential differences between French Jews and American Jews but fails to mention the defining event of contemporary French Jewry: the deportation of most French Jews by French officials to the death camps.

Zaretsky also fails to mention another strata of French Jewry Jewish intellectuals who are not only supportive of Israel but see themselves in relation to the Jewish State.

I am thinking of Alain Fienkelkraut and Bernard Henri Levi. These have no American equivalents.

Then there is also Emmanuel Levinas the late French philosopher who was also a Talmudic scholar. He too has no equivalent in the US.

jacob arnon says:

The first post should have been part 2 and the second post part 1.

For some reason this threads often doesn’t allow one to post long comments.

Liesel says:

Some things travel and some things don’t. Big deal. I’ve known many, many French Jews, from garagistes to Normaliens. I’ve lived there, traveled extensively, joined a N. African Orthodox congregation (to get matzoh), and did my master’s thesis on the same anti-Semitic fascist pre-war writers as Alice Kaplan. On the way to Russia, Napoleon liberated my family from the ghetto and probably yours. In Provence they think my accent is Alsatian; in Alsace, Provencal. Still:

Quite simply, the French are still anti-Semitic after all these years, despite the Napoleonic Code and the anti-racist laws, public intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy, after Levi-Strauss and the other Jewish Immortals. Not all French, but lots. And lots.

Some Jews are happily out there. For others it just isn’t cachere to reveal one’s Jewishness in a movie theater — or at a vernissage or at cocktails. So even if they get the jokes, and they do, it may be inappropriate to express it. It’s not dangerous. It’s just not polite. On a bus trip once, I let a woman regale me with her knowledge of Jews –l straight from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She had no idea I was a Jew, but she “knew Jews.” (My response was, Your laws are so great. If this is true, why doesn’t someone take them to court?) Like other places, parts of France are anti-Semitic without Jews:…/right-wing-french-candidate-looks-to-climb/ — Le Pen’s baby is aiming for 30 % of the vote.

Paula Hyman of blessed memory wrote, “Although virtually all Jews living in France today are French by virtue of their cultural formation, they have retained a refractory particularism…” in their literature and public politics. With good reason… I’m not sure where this piece was going, but I think I’ll read Friedlander.

David Zohar says:

This gap of incomprehension is small compared to that existng today between Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans.

David Fisher says:

I am an American Jew living in Australia & find great inspiration in being American. Tom Paine, John Brown, Henry Thoreau, Emma Goldman (came to the US as a baby), Martin Luther King jr. all stand for actions and ideas advancing freedom. I admire their opposition to tyranny and efforts to create a world which does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or religion. The article made me think of them.

Gabriel Goodliffe says:

A very interesting piece, although as someone who is half French and is interested in such things, I would take issue with Mr. Zaretsky’s characterization of the French not taking their sports seriously. Le Monde is hardly the right source to gauge the depth of this sentiment, as it is a high-brow newspaper dedicated to politics and culture. However, does the U.S. have an equivalent of L’Equipe, perhaps the most widely read sports daily in the world? Walk into any Parisian cafe and you invariably see people reading it…


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La Différence

While American Jews cultivate a hyphenated identity, French Jews like to make themselves wholly French. Do we still share a cultural language?