Navigate to Arts & Letters section

La Différence

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

Robert Zaretsky
March 07, 2012
French Jews of the Middle Ages as pictured in the Jewish Encyclopedia, c. 1905.(Wikimedia Commons)
French Jews of the Middle Ages as pictured in the Jewish Encyclopedia, c. 1905.(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.

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.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook, to be published next month by Little, Brown.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook, to be published next month by Little, Brown.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.