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