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Assimilation and anxiety, from Paris to the Pampas

Josh Lambert
December 07, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Speakers of German and Yiddish occasionally describe someone without any worries as “living like God in France”: apparently even the deity loves a vacation in Paris (and He, presumably, doesn’t need to worry about the exchange rate of the Euro). Jews, unlike God, have rarely regarded the Hexagon as a place to relax, as the question of what it means to be French and Jewish simultaneously has often inspired fierce debates and considerable anxiety. Julie Kalman, a lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of New South Wales, Australia, demonstrates in Rethinking Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, December) that even during what another historian called the “tranquil century”—the period between Napoleon’s “Infamous Decree” of 1808 and the Dreyfus Affair at the end of that century—arguments about Jews, and images of them, helped the French to think through crucial questions of citizenship and nationality.

None of the debates about Jews in France have prevented their internationally dispersed coreligionists from idolizing and promoting Gallic culture. Fred Rosenbaum’s Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area (California, November) describes, for example, the efforts of Jews hailing from Alsace and Lorraine to spread French culture in Northern California in the decades after the gold rush. In the late 19th century, Daniel Levy, a cantor at San Francisco’s Emanu-El synagogue, served as president of the local Alliance Française, while in 1902, Marcus and Cora Koshland, leaders of the San Francisco Jewish community, modeled their lavish home in Pacific Heights on Marie Antoinette’s favorite Versailles palace. Ca semble un peu schmaltzy, n’est-ce pas?

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Given the intensity with which the French have argued about Jewishness, not to mention the large and growing Muslim population of France, it should come as no surprise that Zionism and the Middle East conflict instigate roiling debates among French-speaking intellectuals. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the Francophone World (Routledge, December), edited by Nathalie Debrauwere-Miller, collects contributions from scholars in France, Israel, and the United States who examine the various contretemps from literary, historical, and philosophical perspectives.

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It would be hard to name two more influential French Jewish writers of the late 20th century than Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous. Born in Algeria in the 1930s, both distinguished themselves as students in Paris and then rose to a curious sort of fame, starting in the 1970s, as proponents of poststructuralist theory. Transformed into rock stars within the American ivory tower, they remain relatively obscure to non-scholars. David Mikics’ Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography (Yale, December), which surveys Derrida’s fascinating but often perplexing oeuvre, may help the uninitiated to understand what all the fuss has been about; unlike most of those who write about Derrida, Mikics refuses either to beatify his subject or to condemn him. Meanwhile The Portable Cixous, edited by Marta Segarra, offers a generous selection of Cixous’s extraordinarily wide-ranging publications: in addition to her theoretical and philosophical work, she has written reams of literary criticism, drama, poetry, and fiction, causing one Financial Times writer to call her, back in 1985, “a sort of French Susan Sontag.”

Does that comparison make sense, just because Cixous and Sontag both published prolifically in various genres and regularly confound sexual expectations and gender norms in their work? Well, decide for yourself: line up the pieces in The Portable Cixous against the composite portrait of Sontag offered by The Scandal of Susan Sontag (Columbia, November). Edited by Barbara Ching and Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, this collection includes essays by Wayne Koestenbaum, Nancy K. Miller, and others on an iconic intellectual one might, or might not, want to call the American Hélène Cixous.

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Here’s a moderately implausible idea: during a wave of pogroms in the 1880s, ship thousands of vulnerable Eastern European Jews to the Argentinian pampas and transform them into cattle-rustling gauchos. Thanks to the magnanimity of the Baron de Hirsch, that’s history, not fiction; more than a hundred thousand Jews populated his vast land holdings by the early decades of the 20th century. Judith Freidenberg, a University of Maryland anthropologist native to Buenos Aires, tells this story in The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho: Villa Clara and the Construction of Argentine Identity (Texas, December), focusing on one immigrant settlement and how Jews found their place in Argentine culture.

Sidney Franklin furnishes an even stranger example of how an Ashkenazi Jew could transform himself into a romantic hero through an embrace of Hispanic culture. The Brooklyn-born son of an NYPD officer from Minsk, Franklin trained as bullfighter in Mexico and thrilled Spanish aficionados as the first American matador. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway ranks Franklin among Spain’s finest practitioners of the art of bullfighting, but Hemingway neglects to mention that Franklin also happens to have been gay. Bart Paul distinguishes facts from all the, er, bullshit that has circulated about Franklin in Double-Edged Sword: The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin (Nebraska, December).

In the same decades, while Eastern European Jews flocked to Argentina and Franklin perfected his passes, a group of Spanish politicians led by Ángel Pulido y Fernández campaigned for the repatriation of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jews to the Iberian Peninsula. In Impurity of Blood: Defining Race in Spain, 1870–1930 (Louisiana State, December), Joshua Goode explores Pulido’s ideas about race and heredity, explaining that he imagined the reintroduction of Jewish blood could cause the “reconstitution of the Spanish race and improvement of the patria.” Max Nordau, the Zionist, supported the plan and, in the 1920s and 1930s, a few thousand Jews did return. So, as it turns out, a few of Franklin’s Spanish fans might have been cheering him on in Ladino.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.