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