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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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What better place, then, for the exilic wannabes par excellence, American Jewish writers? When the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik announced to an émigré artist that he was moving to Paris, the old man replied: “Ah. So, you have at last decided not to forgo the essential Jewish experience of emigration and expatriation.” Indeed. To be sure, never will exile be lovelier than in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Along its narrow paved streets and wide tree-lined boulevards, Walter Benjamin transformed the ancient Jewish curse of wandering into the gift of flânerie. The errant Jew became the flâneur, the stroller as explorer and cartographer of Paris, the capital of the 19th century. By mapping Paris, Jewish writers and intellectuals made the city their own.

Few moderns understood this better than Gertrude Stein. When she famously wrote that it is “not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important,” by “France” she of course meant Paris. And Paris, while it never gave Stein commas and semicolons, did give her the freedom to become “Gertrude Stein.” Paris was where this American daughter of German Jewish parents lived half of her life. It was, she declared, “not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made.” Unlike her childhood city, Oakland, Calif., there was a there there in Paris. “There” was where she discovered the linguistic and historical otherness that provided both the distance and material to recreate the woman—one so different from the child who attended a Bay Area Hebrew school.

But Janet Malcolm reminds us that an asterisk needs to be added to “Vive la différence.” In her recent book Two Lives, Malcolm reveals that Stein could not “seem to bring herself to say that she and Alice Toklas were Jewish.” In a letter to Alexander Woollcott, Thornton Wilder, a close friend of Stein’s, dryly asked why “in the bundle of pages which were all I could endure of [Stein’s autobiographical The Making of Americans] does she not mention that the family she is analyzing in such detail is a Jewish family?” In her nuanced account of Stein’s activities during the war and occupation, Malcolm also reveals Stein worked on the translation of a collection of speeches by Philippe Pétain and befriended the Vichy ideologue and anti-Semite Bernard Faÿ, long after Vichy had announced and acted on its anti-Semitic laws.

Unlike Stein, Alice Kaplan, in her spare and ravishing 1994 memoir, French Lessons, makes explicit that the family she is analyzing from the heights of Paris is very much Jewish and very much her own. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Kaplan came to know her own Jewish American identity for the first time only after having done as Stein did: She made what she made in France. Recalling her childhood, Kaplan notes the sounds of Yiddish were among the first she heard—just enough Yiddish, that is, “to imagine a world of awkward, foolish people with wild plans that turned to buffoonery.”

Her diffidence toward her past only worsened by the time she reached college. When Kaplan heard fellow students “ ‘oy veying’ with great ease,” she found them “brazen” instead of authentic. French thus offered a kind of linguistic camouflage: It was “not just an accomplishment. It [was] a need.” Sent to a private school in Switzerland, Kaplan threw herself into the language, utterly absorbed by the challenges, utterly absorbed in the sounds. As she conquered pronunciation, finally scaling the Everest of non-native speakers—the “R”—she left behind her family’s Jewish immigrant past. Even sports, never a strong point back home, seemed easier in France. As the young Kaplan gazed at a photo taken of her slaloming in the Alps, she marveled: “I felt like my life had been given to me to start over. French had saved me.”

And yet, it was not Alice Kaplan 2.0 that French (and France) saved. Instead, the earlier Kaplan, the one who “the first half had made” back in Minnesota, was saved. Ultimately, Kaplan’s life in France (and in French) led back to her childhood and her father, a lawyer at Nuremberg whose early death hovers over her account. For reasons she only gradually comes to understand, Kaplan decided in graduate school to study the work of French fascist writers. In the course of her research on one of these writers, Robert Brasillach, who had been executed for treason soon after France’s liberation, Kaplan interviewed Brasillach’s brother-in-law Maurice Bardèche. A respected literary critic as well as an unrepentant anti-Semite, the urbane and sinister Bardèche pulled the young American researcher into a quietly horrifying game of cat and mouse, a verbal sparring match during which he sought to rehabilitate Brasillach’s life and reduce the Holocaust to a Jewish fiction.

Kaplan more than held her own against Bardèche, in large measure because she held fast to the memory of her father. She returns time and again to a single image, one recalled from her childhood: “He was of my age, the young prosecutor at Nuremberg wearing his headphones, the man with the intense gaze whom I knew from a framed newspaper clipping.” It was only several years after she had begun her memoir that Kaplan discovered, or rediscovered, part of their childhood: Her parents always spoke in French when they didn’t want the children to understand. “If I try really hard, I can just remember what their college French sounded like, their funny flat ‘r’s and the high-minded tone. And then it fades away.”


Wondering why certain people want to adopt another culture, Kaplan suggests it is because “there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them.” This was certainly the case for many thousands of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who moved to France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, it was as if they always already knew what named them as fully free, fully equal, and fully part of the modern age: the France of 1789.

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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?