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Jews of Discretion

The author of ‘Call Me by Your Name’ reflects on being a hidden Jew

André Aciman
November 16, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Editor’s note: This piece is part of Tablet’s top 10 of 2023. Find the full list here. 

Let me start with an expression I made up in Call Me by Your Name. It refers to Jews who live in an entirely gentile world and who, without concealing their Jewishness, are, nevertheless, reluctant to proclaim it. There is, or so they think, no real imperative to proclaim their religion; they may even live in a world where Christians and Jews are quite secular, may even intermarry, and have grown to tolerate each other. You are not ashamed or fearful to be Jewish but you know better than to stand out when it’s not exactly necessary to do so. You may not tell everyone you are Jewish; at best, you allow some to infer it. After at least 2,000 years of antisemitic persecution, your difference is something you learn instinctively not to say too much about. I called these Jews “Jews of discretion.” Not nervous, not even apprehensive—just discreet. Or to use another word, prudent.

I was born in Egypt during Egypt’s most antisemitic years, so in a class at an all-boys school, it was just prudent not to give away that I was Jewish. After all, the State of Israel had been created 10 years earlier and in 1958 Egypt was brimming over with antisemitic sentiments, not least because several students in my class were born in Palestine. I told no one I was Jewish; I allowed everyone to infer I was Christian. Sometimes I was a Greek Orthodox Christian, sometimes I was a Catholic, later I passed for a Protestant. I learned to make the sign of the cross the way Catholics do as well as the Greek Orthodox way. In swimming class, where I had to undress, I made certain either to claim I had a cold once again that week and couldn’t therefore swim or I’d be the very last to change. Students sometimes complained: He is always the last to change into his swimming trunks and the last to get out of the pool. I was, needless to say, hiding my penis. Muslims are circumcised, but I was a pale-white boy, and whites were only Christians. If circumcised, it would mean I was Jewish. Even the Christians were not supposed to know I was Jewish. They would have ratted me out to the Muslim boys. No one liked Jews.

Difference, it takes no genius to figure out, is seldom tolerated. To grasp this, all you need to do is watch any Western to sense that the stranger who trots into town and steps into a saloon is observed not just with suspicion by the local townspeople, but with resentment and hostile distrust. The stranger is always different, scorned, never welcomed, and always shunted off. He brings a couple of useful skills but either leaves town after being shamelessly exploited by the residents or loses his life in a fatal act of heroism. An outsider never belongs among ordinary earthlings.

There is, and I might as well allude to that stranger now, a very common figure in 16th- and 17th-century Spanish literature. He is known as the picaro, from which we derive picaresque literature. The picaro or the street urchin or the rogue made famous in the 20th century by the ever-resourceful character of Reginald Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse is a totally ingenious and quick-witted man who solves all manner of problems and serves his master with the most dutiful devotion. In the picaresque novel, the Spanish master finds fault with him and occasionally kicks him but the picaro takes the abuse and resolves all manner of scrapes that his master gets himself into and from which he is unable to extricate himself unless his roguish servant comes up with a stunning, underhanded rescue plan. This Jeeves-like picaro in today’s world would be a lawyer, who reads a contract, and then tells you what the contract is trying to conceal from you. He is ever so adept at finding the right medical solutions if you have a physical ailment because he is also a medic. The woman you’d have spent an amorous night with has a jealous husband. No problem: The picaro will take care of him and tell him tales to dilute every one of his suspicions. Another husband is about to catch you in flagrante delicto—no sweat: The picaro will make him go to sleep at the count of three. Lawyer, doctor, trader, fibber, shrewd and cunning to a fault and yet to the unsuspecting eye a mere simpleton. The clichés fall into place; in fact, every stereotype of the Jew—shyster, quack, charlatan, medicine man, fraudulent investor, tinker, ponzi-schemer, etc.—is already inscribed in the picaro, and every conceivable cliché about Jews applies to him.

The picaro might have a name, but it may not necessarily be his real name. He lands onstage as adroitly as he scampers away, just like Charlie Chaplin. He appears from nowhere and vanishes into nowhere. The picaro is, in my view, either a Jew or a converso, i.e., someone who either converted or whose parents, grandparents, or not-too-distant ancestors converted from the Jewish to the Christian faith. Another name for a Jewish converso is Marrano, a Jewish convert to Christianity who never abandoned the Jewish faith or practices. He is ungraspable and remains the most slippery, elusive character in literature. The closest one can come to the picaro is the character of Nasiruddin Hodja, a character in the folklore of the Muslim world from the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, all the way to China, by way of Sicily and North Africa, a character whose wisdom, cunning and resourceful ability to defraud frauds and outfox foxes represents the sort of bedeviled wisdom I always strived to possess but always failed to acquire.

Difference, it takes no genius to figure out, is seldom tolerated.

I said that the picaro appears from nowhere and disappears without necessarily saying goodbye. He has no real name, just some acquired appellation that anchors him briefly among others but not for long. He is a self-invented drifter without parentage, a son of God, which, by the way, is the surname given to many orphans in the old days—son of God, Crescimbene, Donadio, etc.—or the kind of surname that people accepted all too willingly on Ellis Island. It’ll do, says the recent immigrant dying to shed one identity to acquire a new one. As an American writer once wrote, “he [springs] from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

The name of the character in question, the son of God, as it were, who bursts out of nowhere and as easily disappears, has the original family name of Gatz, otherwise known to the world as Jay Gatsby.

The picaro is not just amazingly resourceful and successful in his endeavors but he stands for what the Jewish imagination lacked and hungered: He represents what cautious, discreet writers living in a landlocked, suffocating universe needed to invent: a character endowed with the sort of manipulative agency that they were unable to exercise in their own lives. Indeed, it is not too difficult to prove that the picaro was disseminated by converso writers. The novella Lazarillo de Tormes was almost certainly written by a converso, La Celestina by Rojas too was written by a converso, as was the outstanding long picaresque novel by Mateo Alemán, Guzmán de Alfarache, also a converso. At the risk of digressing, bear in mind that sometimes it was preferable to claim that one had Gypsy ancestry rather than claim that one had Jewish or converso origins. Thus, to cite an easy example, Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Jewish but converted author of the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan Tutte, recruited Mateo Garcia of Spanish origin to settle in New York and sing Rossini and Mozart operas, which Garcia did. Garcia claimed he was a Gypsy. Not really. He was Jewish. More importantly, however, he was the father of a woman whom Maria Callas idolized but never could have heard, Maria Malibran, who died young but whose sister Pauline Viardot was also a famed opera singer and who was the lover of none other than Ivan Turgenev. But you’d never have known that anyone from Da Ponte himself to Pauline Viardot was Jewish. I might add that Casanova himself claimed to have Gypsy ancestry.

The Jew is everywhere, but never before the late 20th century have Jews been, at least in the West, more or less open about their religion. The operative term here is “more or less.” If I have to go by my closest Western European friends, you’d be surprised to learn that almost all are decidedly Jews of discretion. I too am a Jew of discretion. I don’t proclaim my Jewishness to the world. But I do something far more insidious, the way my Jewish friends have done with me. I throw out many safe cues while intercepting as many cues coming from them. But it might take close to three to six months sometimes to discover that my Romanian friend is Jewish or that her Italian fiancé is also Jewish, or that several of my friends in Europe are, when all is said and done, no less Jewish than I am. None of us practices, and like me, many are not even bar mitzvahed. We are Jews of discretion.

What a Jew of discretion means in essence is a hidden Jew. The assumption being that no Jew is not hidden. I’ve stated this opaquely, with a double negative, to provide a sense of the flawed identity of someone who is hiding. No Jew is not hidden. I call this psychological Marianism. This started in Spain around 1391. A hundred years later in 1492 it became obvious that Jews had managed to infiltrate all professions and all segments of Spanish and Portuguese society by claiming to be Christians. In 1492 they were given a choice: either to leave the Iberian Peninsula or be examined by what eventually turned out to be the Inquisition. Those who left continued practicing Judaism; those who remained perished. I was intensely baffled when I visited Spain to realize that Spain had in fact succeeded in becoming completely judenrein—free of jews. The Jews who live in Spain today are for the most part Ashkenazi Jews who know Spanish because they had fled the Cossacks and had for a few generations lived in South America. Today people in Spain like to claim that they have converso or Marrano blood in them; it’s a naughty, mischievous, even snobby claim to make. But most of these are firm Catholics.

No Jew is not hidden. Every Jew knows that for at least once in his life he had to avoid revealing his religious identity. You are … you become who you are not.

At first, as I said, the feint is easy enough to carry off: All it entails is for Jews to claim being Christians but continuing to practice Judaism in private. Eventually, however, the two identities meld. Not only are you unable to detect where the lie starts and where it ends, but the performance backfires when one begins to question the original identity itself. Does being Jewish just mean not being a Christian? Or is there something more to a Jewish identity than exists beyond all predictable comparisons with Christianity? More to the point, and as many scholars have pointed out, the banned Jewish practices were listed everywhere; everyone knew what those practices were. If one needed to practice Jewish rituals all one had to do was to read the list of forbidden Jewish practices and practice them in reverse. Jews light candles on Friday nights. Well, light the candles in an underground room. Jews don’t eat pork. Well, avoid pork consumption but be aware that not having pork could be a dead giveaway. Therefore, have pork in the house but do not touch it. With the passage of time, however, you may no longer know why you light candles or what do you say when you light the candles, now that studying Hebrew is also forbidden.

I’ve said this in order to explain that even whispering that you are of Jewish descent, means very little when you end up knowing Catholicism better than you know your own religion. It’s like the disguise turning more familiar than your regular clothes, or when the mask melds to your face, when you begin to think that familiarizing yourself with the mask was easier than knowing your own face. The mask is better suited to who you need to be than who you hardly remember being.

I attended Jesuit schools in Italy and I can say that though the Christian Brothers accepted my being Jewish completely, by what we call osmosis I got to learn the Christian religion far, far better than I knew my own. I learned about my Jewish faith not in Italy and certainly not in Egypt where you’d be considered a fool to proclaim your Jewish faith, though some did. I learned Judaism, or at least the rudiments of the most pedestrian form of Judaism, in New York City where I arrived at the age of 17. By then it was too late to abide by my religion. When I am with Christians, I’ll eventually tell them I am Jewish. But when I am among Jews, I’ll do everything to suggest I am such a lapsed Jew that I might as well be Christian. I belong to neither camp. I am reminded of the character of Tom Jones in Joseph Fielding’s long novel published in the 18th century. He is a foundling, a bastard, and is raised by an aristocratic family, but when Tom gathers with ordinary folk, his manners, his bearing, and carriage compel them to regard him as an aristocrat. Forget how they regard him. The question is how does he regard himself? Is he a pauper or a nobleman? By the same token, am I a lapsed Jew or am I a Christian who likes to say, on occasion, that he just happens to be Jewish? I am an undecided Jew, and my identity is transient, unreliable, shifty, unsteady, and always foiled.

Psychological Marranism starts as a mask that is easy enough to wear. Eventually it erodes your identity. Your soul, you heart, your mind itself may be eager to remain Jewish but this Jewishness is so easy to conceal and deny that half the time you’re no longer even aware you’ve denied it. In fact, your identity is available to you through the motions of denial. Denying to yourself that you are a Jew is the only way you can almost touch your elusive Judaism. Eventually, you recognize Judaism through the unmistakable gestures of denial. The mask is easier to wear, is more adaptable, is more familiar than identity itself. Identity requires so much explaining and gainsaying, while affectation is as easy to slip on as are contact lenses. Eventually, you forget you’re wearing contact lenses; you go to sleep in them. The mask, as I’ve said, is more familiar than the face.

If only to beat the point home, here is a typical line from today’s world: I am better with my colleagues and friends than I am with members of my family. Some even go further: I am more myself with strangers on a train than I am with those I live with. The reason is simple: You’re wearing your social mask and the good thing is that you’re not even thinking it’s a mask. You think it’s being yourself. Which in turn means that with your closest ones, with the ones you actually love, you are no longer being yourself—and by extrapolation you’re not even yourself with your own self.

We all want to believe we have a core identity, a rock of solid selfhood, and yet here I am expounding the very opposite, that identity is itself a very frail and fragile thing. Maybe it doesn’t even exist. Or it’s lost and has gone into such deep hiding that you’re no longer aware it ever existed.

It’s like the disguise turning more familiar than your regular clothes, or when the mask melds to your face, when you begin to think that familiarizing yourself with the mask was easier than knowing your own face.

I am a scholar of the 17th century, especially of the Baroque period. I like the Baroque mind, because it was given over to all manner of squiggles and spirals and especially of endless double- and triple-tiers, its multiple mirrorings and infinite regresses and removes and its tendency to seek out simulation and dissimulation. You simulate the truth or you conceal the truth, or both—but truth itself?

Our own Francis Bacon (1561-1626), could not have said it better in 1597.

There be three degrees of this hiding and veiling of a man’s self. The first, closeness, reservation, and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken [for] what he is. The second, dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not [what] he is. And the third, simulation, in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be [what] he is not.

Man either pretends not to be what he is or he pretends to be what he is not. I know there is a radical difference between these two concepts, but Lord help me if I can fathom the difference between pretending not to be who one is or pretending to be who one is not. The concept is broadcast throughout the 17th century. Torquato Accetto (1590/98-1640) wrote a book called On Honest Dissimulation. But the one that resonated the most is Baltasar Gracián (1601-58). Gracián first published his Manual of Worldly Wisdom in 1647, i.e., 50 years after Bacon had published his essays. Why do I bring up Baltasar Gracián?

For two reasons. The first is obvious enough. Anyone who bore the name of one of the three Magi (Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar) was most likely, but not definitively, of Jewish-converso extraction. Jews frequently gave their sons the names of one of the three Magi maybe to avoid using the names of the apostles themselves. As I’ve hinted earlier, deflection is nothing new among crypto-Jews. Ironically, many Jews continue a similar practice today. At birth most Jews are given a secular name but one’s Hebrew name is different, though frequently it starts with the same letter. My middle name is Albert but my Hebrew name is Abraham, Irving is Isaac, Seymour is Simon, etc. Why the deflection? Or is it a deflection?

But there is a more significant reason why I bring Gracián up.

Gracián, the author of The Manual of Worldly Wisdom is known for out-Machiavelli-ing Machiavelli! He is the person who teaches readers of his Oráculo Manual how to lie by telling the truth, how to double deal with a clean conscience, how to deflect the penetrating gaze of a possible rival by outwitting his glance with the righteous deportment of a saint, how to decrypt what others say while encrypting what you say, how to assume that everyone is involved in this double, triple game of encryption by realizing that nothing, just nothing, is ever as it appears. The most recent translation of his portable manual sold 200,000 copies in the U.S. in the early 1990s. In the 17th century it was translated into French by Amelot de la Houssaye who had also translated Machiavelli for the French.

If there is one word only that you need to remember about Gracián it is double-dealing. Basically you exist on two platforms, one that is all device and artifice and the other … and here comes the big question. What is the other? The person busily decrypting what others are encrypting must not only distrust his adversary but he must of necessity turn on himself and distrust himself as well. Can you trust who you are? Can you trust your designs, your motivations? When we see a psychotherapist or a confessor or a director of conscience, don’t we do so to find out what subterranean parts of us are busy scheming without our knowledge?

What is that other?

Gone are the days when you were a Jew pretending to be a Christian. Now, the devil in the equation is not outside you, but operating within. The psychological Marrano is now psychologically torn apart, because Marranism ultimately inflicts its wound internally.

Let’s look at this wound.

I said once that I had written a novel called Eight White Nights in which you do not know what the main character’s name is nor do you know his citizenship nor, as reviewers frequently complained when the book came out, what does he do for a living. I regarded these as frivolous objections: Are we still in the day of realism where we need to ground our protagonists in order to identify them? To these objections I replied in the following way: If I took away your first and last name, took away your family, your parents, your education, took away the name of your profession, your place of birth, your date of birth, your permanent and temporary home address, your nationality, your religion, your mirror in the bathroom so you have no sense of your own face—if I removed all of these would you have any idea of who you are? We usually ascribe our identity to … let’s face it, we ascribe it to mere words, to something outside of us. But if I took away those words, could you even begin to know who you are, what meaning does your life have, what do you want from life?

The Baroque mind that is given over to Marranism is totally lost as it circles about and has no firm ground so that all that is left is neither with the Me nor the not-Me: All that remains is an identity that doesn’t know whether it’s fake or not fake. It doesn’t even know the difference. Either it had worn too many masks or has lied too many times, or, worse yet, it knows that every question about identity automatically invokes ancillary doubts that keep the matter of identity more unresolved than if you hadn’t attempted to resolve it. History has always favored identity. But in my view identity is unreachable and illusory. In Samuel Beckett’s words, we are “dispossessed of identity.” Dispossessed of identity is, as I suspect, the hidden cost of being a Jew of discretion. You have a double identity. The modern, post-Baroque identity is indeterminate and no longer adheres along internal or external terms; the confusion of the two is now integral to the very notion of identity. We are by definition doubled. Like the ellipse we don’t have one center; we have two foci.

Now, perhaps you can understand why in Call Me by Your Name I invoked what I called the San Clemente syndrome. The Basilica of San Clemente is not one church, it has an older church underneath it, including a pagan temple underneath the lower church. Nothing is unitary. Everything is plural.

Gracián may not have been Jewish or of possible Jewish extraction, but I pick something up in him that bespeaks the condition of 17th-century Jews, conversos, and Marranos on the Iberian peninsula and to most Jews living today outside of Israel and the U.S. Not only are you constantly wearing a mask, which entails constant self-vigilance—which is what Gracián himself advises—or always seeing yourself as the other person sees you and hence constantly displacing yourself in the gaze of another. You are always on your guard. You become who you are not.

The situation couldn’t be any different between Jews who haven’t revealed themselves to one another. You want to catch a giveaway sign from the other but that sign is distrusted. Few are the Jews in the rest of the world who openly declare themselves as Jews. I grew up among Jews of discretion.

You turn to someone as though to ask him for the time or for a match to light a cigarette. “Are you Jewish?” you’re dying to ask. But you can’t. A Jew who hasn’t experienced the darkness behind the need to discover if someone else is Jewish has not experienced what life is in the rest of the world. Jews like myself are twisted, foiled—retors. From this, I suspect, though I have no proof, one develops what is one of the principal and most visible traits of Jewish life, which I promised to address here. And that trait is irony. Not humorous irony but the ability, the desire, the need to stand on two opposing shores of the river, the desire to have exit visas while remaining in place, or, to use another metaphor, the desire to cross the Atlantic while feeling the perpetual tug of a homeland that was never yours in the first place, nor was the one before that, or the one before that one either. For the Jew there is no ur-identity. You stand on both shores of the river.

I say this with cause and, just to echo what I’ve written and published elsewhere, I was born in Egypt, but was never Egyptian. I was born into a Turkish family, but I am not Turkish. I was sent to British schools in Egypt but I am not British. My family became Italian citizens and I learned to speak Italian but my mother tongue is French. My ancestors are Sephardic Jews who lived in Spain for centuries. All my grandparents spoke Ladino. For years as a child I was under the misguided notion that I was a French boy who, like everyone else I knew in Egypt, would soon be moving back to France. “Back” to France was already a paradox, since virtually no one in my immediate family was French or had ever set foot in France. Ironically, not a single ounce of me is French. The ironies here stare me down.

Not only am I reluctant to reveal my Jewish identity by constantly veiling it with multiple mirrors but I’ve latched onto an identity to which I have absolutely no claim.

A Jew who doesn’t understand irony, who doesn’t live and practice irony is not a Jew I can identify with. A Jew who saunters across the Red Sea fully confident that God told him to follow in Moses’ footsteps isn’t a Jew in my stamp. A Jew who crosses the Red Sea but does so with much diffidence and many misgivings and always expects the water to collapse on him despite God’s promises is a Jew I understand. He has faith but his faith is guarded, mitigated—yes, he believes but his belief is underscored by distrust and a profound sense of irony. Irony, if you are superstitious, protects you, you affect victimhood even when you aren’t a victim.

Irony is used to express something other than what is being said, frequently the opposite of what is being said, cloaking both the stated as well as the unstated. In the ironist, there is no such thing as a literal, univocal meaning: There is instead a dissembled meaning, a meaning that doesn’t really want to tell you much about itself and speaks, as it were, from both sides of its mouth. The word irony derives from the Greek word eiron, dissembler.

One final irony here. For those who don’t know, the word Hebrew, according to some scholars, derives from the word habiru or hapiru, meaning outsider or someone who has crossed over. Crossed over to another land or crossed over the river? It’s not clear. But I like this definition. It reminds me that Jews are always from somewhere else. Their origin is from “across there.”

The above was delivered at the University of Virginia on Nov. 5, 2023, as part of the Inaugural Conference on Jewish Life in the Diaspora: Sephardic Lives.

Andre Aciman is a professor of comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and is The New York Times bestselling author of Call Me by Your Name, Find Me, and Out of Egypt: A Memoir.

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