While American Jews cultivate a hyphenated identity, French Jews like to make themselves wholly French. Do we still share a cultural language?
No one knew this better than a man of many names. Romain Gary, born Roman Kacew, and who often wrote under the name Émile Ajar, immigrated from Vilna to France with his mother after World War I. A chain-smoking stage actress whose greatest role was in the epic life of her son, Mina Owczynska lived and died for France. For her, Vilna “had never been anything but a temporary stop, a resting place, on our journey to the land where all the beauty lies.” Taking a seat at the piano in their small and cluttered apartment, Mina would hammer out “La Marseillaise” while Romain, one hand over his heart and the other jabbing the air toward an imaginary barricade, sang along. “When we came to ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’, she brought both hands crashing down on the keyboard, while I raised a clenched fist with a somber and threatening expression on my face.”
Gary’s autobiography Promise at Dawn swells with such memories. No doubt dramatized, his story is nevertheless unexceptional among Jewish immigrants to France. While American Jews like Stein and Kaplan chose expatriation and exile, continental immigrants to France over the same century desperately wished to put such experiences behind them once and for all. For them, Paris was not a movable feast, but instead the place that promised the end of moving. Hyphenated identities be damned: They wanted nothing better than to be entirely absorbed into the nation. While it may sound strange to Jewish American ears, to French Jewry it was perfectly normal to hear their rabbis hail 1789 as “the breaking of our bonds in Egypt” and our “modern Passover.” I’ve yet to come across a Jewish immigrant’s story of coming to America where “The Star-Spangled Banner” wielded the same magic as did “La Marseillaise” for young Roman Kacew.
When Gary was not studying the French language, history, and literature, the youngster devoted himself to sports: fencing, horsemanship, and pistol shooting. What better activities for an impoverished Jewish boy who dreamed of becoming French? But as for soccer or cycling—the two national sports of France—they are entirely absent not just from Gary’s memoir but, as far as I can tell, from the worldview of French Jews altogether.
Adam Gopnik observes that the French, and not just French Jews, simply don’t relate to sports as we do in America. If you doubt this, open up a copy of Le Monde. Sports get attention only when it spills into the world of politics. Whether it was the “black, blanc, beur” team that won the 1998 World Cup in France, or the dismal collection of slackers who were sent packing during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Le Monde transformed the games into a metaphor for all that was well, or all that was ill, with the nation. The sports section itself is a desultory affair that gets less space than, say, a speech given by the latest “immortal” inducted into the Académie française.
And it goes without saying that no immortal has ever arrived in this august body as a sports writer. Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Roger Kahn, or Chaim Potok—all Jewish writers whose literary gifts are consecrated to boxing rings and baseball diamonds—have no peers in France. Has a French Jewish writer ever used soccer as a prism for recreating or revising his nation the way Philip Roth, recently inducted into the Library of America, made use of baseball (albeit satirically) in The Great American Novel? In fact, has any French writer at all ever done so? Even Albert Camus, who played goalie during his Algiers childhood and deeply loved the game, makes scant reference to it in his fiction.
While French novels and history were Romain Gary’s field of dreams, my own was much more concrete and rose above Flushing Meadows. Gary clearly loved to belt out “La Marseillaise” as a child, but while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played at Shea, I was shifting from one foot to another impatient for the game to begin. In the end, passion for baseball served as our means of integration, turning my parents and grandparents into hyphenated Americans.
In France, however, the great vector of assimilation was the French language, French rationality, and French republicanism. For these reasons, the historian Pierre Birnbaum claims, the very notion of a French Jewish community is wrong-headed. French Jewry’s commitment to republican citizenship, Birnbaum believes, “works to prevent self-imposed isolation or withdrawal from the larger society.” As a result, there really is no equivalent in French for the term Jewish-American. Juif français, at least until now, has meant little more than a Frenchman or -woman who happens to be Jewish. The Frenchness is essential, the Jewishness accidental. As the French historian and translator Arthur Goldhammer told me, French Jews are more sensitive than their American counterparts “to living in an ‘exposed’ position and being vulnerable to potential rejection by society.”
Of course, this older ideal of republican assimilation is now changing as the French Republic itself wrestles with the complex questions of identity and citizenship raised by forces as varied as the European Union and the presence of 5 million French Muslims. Although the resistance will be great, France seems condemned to a multicultural future. What this means for French Jews, or American Jews in France, remains to be seen. But should the day ever pass that we laugh as one at Annie Hall, I’m uncertain if it will be cause for celebration or regret.
Joseph Cedar’s Footnote pits a Talmudic scholar against his academic son in a tale equal parts midrash, riddle, and Israeli political tragedy