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Uncertain Jew

An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection ‘Alibis.’

André Aciman
September 26, 2011
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The man in this 1921 photograph is 65 years old, bald, with what looks like a white trimmed beard, his left hand poised not so much on his left waist as on his lower left hip, displacing the side of his jacket, his bearing confident, a bit menacing perhaps, and yet, despite the purposeful and intentionally secure posture, always a touch apprehensive. As with all the older men in my father’s family album, in his hand, which is slightly uplifted, he is holding something that looks like a cigarillo, though it is somewhat thicker than a cigarillo, but not quite as big as a cigar; at its tip there seem to be ashes. One might say (if only to mimic a famous reconstructive analysis of how Michelangelo’s Moses holds his tablets) that it is almost as though the photographer had not warned his subject in time, and therefore the subject, thinking this was a pause in between takes, went for a quick puff and didn’t manage to remove the guilty cigarillo in time, so that the cigarillo, from being an item to be kept out of the picture, once caught, ends up occupying center stage.

Something tells me, however, it might just as easily be a small pen instead. Still, one doesn’t hold a pen between one’s middle and index fingers, especially with the hand turned outward in so relaxed a manner. No, not a pen. Besides, why would a pen appear when the subject is standing up and when there clearly is no desk anywhere in the background? It must be a cigar.

On closer inspection, it seems that there is something quite studied in his relaxed posture: one hand akimbo, the other almost placing the cigarette on exhibit, not as an afterthought, not diffidently, but declaratively. The ashes themselves say quite a bit: They are not about to spill, as may have seemed at first; they are in fact honed to a point, as with a pencil sharpener, which is why I thought of a pen, a ballpoint, all the while knowing that ballpoints did not exist at the time this picture was taken. Stranger yet, there is no smoke emanating from the cigarillo, which suggests either that the smoke was touched up and blotted out in the photo lab, or that the cigarillo was never even lit.

Which means that the cigarillo in the photo has a totally intentional presence.

What is this gentleman—and there is no doubt, since the posture proves he is a gentleman—doing exhibiting his cigarillo that way? Could it be that this is just a cigarillo, or is it much more than a cigarillo, much more than a pen, even, the ur-symbol of all symbols, not just of defiance, of menace, of security, or of wrath, even, but simply of power? This man knows who he is; despite his age, he is strong, and he can prove it; witness his cigarillo—it doesn’t spill its ashes.

Another, younger picture of the same subject, taken around 1905, suggests more or less the same thing. The hair is neatly combed—there is much more of it—the beard, though grayish, is bushier. Behind the seated subject is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue of a dying slave, standing in naked and contorted agony. The man in this photograph stares at the camera with something like a very mild stoop, his shoulders less confident, uneasy, almost cramped. He looks tired, overworked, worn out; in his left hand he is holding a cigar that seems to have been smoked all the way down; he is holding its puny remains at one or two centimeters above the spot where his thighs meet, almost—and I stress the almost—echoing the flaunted nudity of the dying slave behind him.

I may have made too much of the symbolism here. I would, let me hasten to say, respectfully withdraw every word, were it not for the fact that the subject of these two pictures, ostensibly fraught with Freudian symbolism, is none other than Freud himself. How can anyone look at Freud’s cigarillo and not think Freudian thoughts?

However, there is another symbol at work here. Indeed, looking back at the pictures, it occurs to me that something had clearly happened between the older man standing up in 1922 and the somewhat younger man sitting down in 1905. What happened, of course, is success.

The man in the later picture is an established man. A man of property, of substance. His is the pose that all men adopted when being photographed: It conveyed composure, worldliness, confidence, plenitude, security, a touch arrogant perhaps, but without a doubt, this was a man of the world, a much-traveled, sought-after individual who had seen and lived much. In fact he was more than just established, he had made it, he had, as the French say, arrived. An arriviste is someone who strives to arrive; a parvenu, however, is someone who has arrived. You posed with a cigarette, or a cigar, or a cigarillo, not just because the cigar suggested security—as though those with, as opposed to without, cigars were worthier men—but also because the cigarillo was an instrument, an implement, a prosthesis for grounding oneself in the picture and, by extension, in the world. Smoking doesn’t suggest success, it screams success. It locks it in. A successful Jew who smokes is living proof that he has attained a degree of prominence.

Let me resort to another word, which is much used nowadays and which conveys a neo-Jewish nightmare: This man had assimilated. Assimilate is a strange verb, used without a direct or indirect object to mean being swallowed up, absorbed, and incorporated into mainstream Gentile society. But the verb has another meaning, closely linked to its etymology: To assimilate means to become similar to, to simulate.

The irony is that this was how one posed to simulate success. You were photographed with a smoking implement to appear you weren’t posing, to appear as though you had achieved enough stature not to have to pose at all. You posed with a cigar to suggest you weren’t posing with a cigar. You belonged and, therefore, no longer had to worry about belonging. The Italians may have called this posturing sprezzatura; add a pipe and the complications reach Magrittian proportions. A Jew poses with a cigar to symbolize two things: that he has achieved social and professional success, but also that he has successfully assimilated.

There were many other Jews with cigars.

There is a picture of a plump, extremely groomed, self-satisfied young gentleman wearing clothes that were clearly cut by the best tailor. He is seated with one arm resting on a thigh and another holding out a cigarillo more or less in the manner of Freud; his face looks up smugly, with a rakish glint on his smile. His name is Artur Schnabel.

Another is caught walking along the street holding his pipe in his hand. He is wearing an unbecoming wide-brimmed hat. He could not look more gawkish or more self-conscious. He is feigning a debonair amble about town, but he is holding a pipe no less gingerly than if he were walking a urine sample to a laboratory. His name is Albert Einstein.

Another is not even looking at the camera, his hand supporting his chin while grasping a cigarette. He looks like the most established intellectual, and yet if there is a man who has come to symbolize the most unestablished intellectual of this century it is precisely Walter Benjamin, who died on the run.

There is also a picture of a young woman, perhaps one of the boldest intellectuals of her times, looking totally intimidated and fainthearted, having enlisted the help of this implement for the picture, and yet holding her cigarette at bay, almost pushing it out of the picture (the way some New York cabbies do when they hold their cigarettes out of the window), all the while desperately clinging to it, hoping it might give her that certain air without which she’d be a simple undergraduate. Her name is Hannah Arendt.

Finally, there is the picture of the greatest Italian novelist of this century, the man who first introduced Freud to Italy and who indeed translated Freud, and who took on a name that is itself quite interesting: Italo Svevo, also known as the man who made compulsive smoking a subject worthy of modern literature. He is sitting with legs crossed, holding a cigar over one thigh in a gesture that could be called Freudian.

Freud, Schnabel, Einstein, Benjamin, Arendt, Svevo—didn’t they know?

Didn’t they know that smoking, besides giving you cancer, confers no power, no composure, no confidence whatsoever?

But this is not the question I meant to ask. This was just my way of dissembling the real question, as though I too had something to dissemble and needed to mislead the reader somewhat before coming out with it, as though by raising the smokescreen of Freudian symbolism I could sneak in another, more disquieting question, which reflects my own very personal worries and anxieties, not Freud’s or Einstein’s.

Didn’t they know they were Jewish?

Or, to turn it around: Didn’t they know that, even if all Europe posed this way, it would never wash, that they could never pass, that part of what made them so odious to anti-Semites was the very fact that they presumed they could pass? Didn’t they know that, while others posed with a cigar to suggest they weren’t posing with a cigar, such a pose, when it came to Jews, was a double pose and as such came close to a form of imposture that brought out the killer in every anti-Semite?

What was so threatening to a German, to an Austrian, to a Frenchman or an Englishman in this cigar posture was not just that Jews had made it into mainstream German, Austrian, French, or British society. What was really threatening about such Jews was that they were also the very first to have accessed pan-European culture. In fact, they didn’t just tap into such a culture; they built it.

They were enamored of cosmopolitan European civilization not only because, unlike national venues, it flung open far wider doors to them but also because, all the while not being properly speaking theirs, it was more theirs than any other nation’s. Their romance with the Christian or pagan culture was irresistible precisely because it allowed them to draw much closer than they had ever been to those cultures that only a few generations before had been barred to them. Moreover, it allowed them to realize that being Jewish did not mean they couldn’t get at the center of the Christian universe and understand it, perhaps, even better than did Christians. Benjamin’s unfinished doctoral dissertation was on the theater of the post-Reformation; he was one of the very few modern thinkers to appreciate the genius of Paolo Sarpi, the 16th- and 17th-century Venetian friar who remains today the most lucid historian of the Council of Trent. Hannah Arendt wrote her dissertation on Saint Augustine under Karl Jaspers, the existential Christian philosopher. Freud, a font of encyclopedic knowledge, was fascinated by classical antiquity. And Ettore Schmitz, who changed his name to Italo Svevo to reflect both his Italian and Swabian roots, had intentionally or inadvertently forgotten to make up a third name to reflect his Jewish origins.

The list goes on and on. For cosmopolitan Jews, traditional Judaism and the traditional rewards of Judaism could not compete with the advantages and rewards of this profound and vertiginously rich European culture—could not compete, that is, with Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, Trieste, London.

The city where my great-uncles posed with cigars or cigarettes between their fingers was a long way from those European cultural capitals. And yet if the world of Alexandria had one wish—and that wish lasted for 75 years—it was precisely to be like Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, and London, to be Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Milan, and London all in one. I won’t repeat the clichés; everyone knows them: Alexandria was a city where all the religions and nationalities of the world were represented and where each religion lived side by side with the others in perfect harmony. Perfect harmony may be an exaggeration, of course, but I mean it no less facetiously than when it is said of married couples living side by side in perfect harmony. Such cosmopolitanism can exist in two ways: as it does in New York or as it did in Alexandria, i.e., in a democracy or in an empire.

In New York, there is a system of social values and beliefs that prescribes mutual toleration and equal opportunities. Prescribed does not mean practiced, but it is there on the books at least, and most people try hard enough to believe it works that they would fight for it if it were taken away from them.

In Alexandria, there were no shared values or shared beliefs. Alexandria was the product of two or even three empires: the Ottoman, the French, and the British. Empires generate their own kinds of capital cities: nerve centers where all their far-flung populations send emissaries and migrants. You go to exploit multiplicity, not to lose your identity or to respect the other more than is necessary to conduct business. You embrace multiplicity because it ratifies your identity. You learn everyone’s language; and if you never lose yours to a dominant language, you do adopt a lingua franca that eventually confers an identity all its own.

Many of the people I grew up with were children of immigrant and low-end colonialist communities: Italian, Syrian, Lebanese, and French. Many of these continued to maintain contact with their country or community of origin much in the way ancient Greek colonies did: The colony of the colony of a colony frequently continued to claim ties to the mother community, say, of Athens, Thebes, or Corinth.

But then you also had a different kind of population, of which I can recall three: the Armenians, some of whom had settled after the first Armenian massacre; the Greeks from Asia Minor, who had come before but who certainly thronged to Alexandria following their exodus from Turkey and the burning of Smyrna; and then the Jews, many of whom had been in Egypt for 1,000 years, while others arrived from elsewhere—in my family’s case, from Turkey—in an attempt to found a new home. Armenians, Greeks, and Jews did better than the French or the Italians not only because they were more numerous but also because they were more desperate: For them there was really no country to return to.

In this interim oasis they created their own peculiar dynamic, acquiring paper citizenships that were to real nationalities what paper profits are to real money. They thrived in this ideal panopolis, though, as with immigrants elsewhere in the world, no one really expected to stay there permanently. No one identified with Alexandria, and everyone was too busy identifying with the entire culture of Europe to understand what having a single culture really meant.

The more westernized the Jews of Alexandria grew, the more they developed the sensibility of their German, French, and Italian Jewish counterparts: They too allowed their Jewish identity to be displaced, not by a national identity—which was almost entirely imaginary—but by a pan-European, equally imaginary one. We imagined every other city in the world in order not to see the one city we were very much a part of, the way we imagined every other culture in order to avoid seeing we were basically and just Jewish. Some of us could afford to go through all these antic moves because we knew—and feared—that, all things considered, the one thing that would never be taken away from us was precisely our Jewishness. And yet, was Jewishness something at the core, securely lodged, or was it something that had been dislodged and was now spinning forever out of orbit?

Although most Jews did practice Judaism in Egypt and were proud of being Jewish, I was always torn. I was proud of being Jewish, but I could just as easily have been mortified by being Jewish. I wanted to be Christian, but I didn’t want to be anything but Jewish. I am a provisional, uncertain Jew. I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to remain a bachelor. I am a Jew who longs to be in a world where everyone is Jewish, where I can finally let down my guard; but I am a Jew who has spent so much time defining himself in relation to non-Jews that I wouldn’t know how to live, much less who to be, in a world where everyone was Jewish.

I still don’t know whether the pan-Europe I dreamed up truly existed or whether it was after all a Jewish invention, a Jewish fantasy. But it may explain my single-minded devotion to European Christian and pagan literature. These books were the first I read during my youth, and it was to these books that I finally turned when I sought to locate the imaginary Europe I had totally lost on landing in Europe after Egypt.

For if anything seemed parochial and provincial and closedminded when I landed in Europe, it was precisely Europe itself. And more provincial still was America. Yet it was in America that I finally realized that the most provincial place in the world was Alexandria and that perhaps the ability to spot provincialism in people and places was itself the surest sign of a provincial person: i.e., someone who longs for the great and tiny tokens of cosmopolitanism for fear of being sucked back into the dark alleys of dark small towns in the dark old country that every Jew carries inside him. We needed our books, our many languages, our broadmindedness, our ability to disclaim who we were in the interest of adaptability, our fast cars and our tiny cigars, even our willingness to show we could easily live with the most disquieting paradoxes—we needed them because they were a cover for something we no longer knew how to be: Jewish.

As I write of all these paradoxes, it occurs to me that I am being cosmopolitan in a very Alexandrian way, in the way the Book of Ecclesiastes is a very Alexandrian book, because, in the beginning as in the end, to be a cosmopolitan in Alexandria was to live with every conceivable contradiction. But when it comes to the deeper, thinking self, it takes no great effort to see that without paradox I am out of place, I am a stranger, and that this very paradox, for a cosmopolitan Jew living in Alexandria, is home.

But let us not overromanticize either. What paradox does when it becomes a way of life is to alienate one, to make one a stranger from one’s people, one’s homeland, one’s second and third homeland, and ultimately from who one is.

You become nothing, nobody, like Ulysses.

And Ulysses posing with a cigar is like a lotus eater who thinks he’s found a new home.

So let me return to Freud’s cigar and suggest—and I do so with all the hesitation in the world, because I do hate this sort of thing—that the cigar I’ve been toying with throughout is a phallic symbol.

But as Nietzsche said, I am giving you the moral before giving you the tale.

So let me propose an example.

It is taken from my own experience as the only Jewish boy in a 97-percent-Muslim school in Egypt (the other 3 or so percent were Christians). We are about to take swimming lessons and I complain to the teacher that I am feeling sick—and for all I know at that moment, I must be sick, because fear will do this to you. The reason is not hard to imagine. I didn’t want to undress before the other boys because if I did so I’d reveal to the Catholics who thought I was Catholic, to the Greek Orthodox who always suspected I was one of theirs, or to the Muslims who assumed I was soon to convert to their religion, since I was the only European boy who attended Islam class every week, that I was—to all of them—a sham. You may not feel Jewish, but Judaism is—pardon the metaphor—cut into you, as though to make sure that, however you quibble over your Jewish identity, you are branded with it for life. You—and others—would never have a doubt. But as every Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright knew, that’s precisely the tragedy of impostors. Even when they are totally alone they no longer know where their truth lies. And their awareness of this paradox resolves nothing at all.

But when I explained to some of my relatives why I hated swimming class—I who loved the sea and who loved the beach enough to wish to spend my entire life in the water, because if I am ambivalent about all things, I am certainly the most amphibian man alive—they responded with a totally different tale. During the Armenian massacre, when a Jew was mistaken for an Armenian by the Turks, all he had to do was pull down his trousers and he was given his life back.

So let me be totally blunt now and ask questions whose purpose is really not so much to arrive at answers but to give a sense of how confused I, the writer from cosmopolitan Alexandria, am on this question of the Jewish identity in a cosmopolitan world. To this end, let us assume for a split second that Freud is in fact holding a phallic symbol in his hand.

What is he saying about that phallus? Is he holding out a Jewish member and saying, “Look, ladies and gentlemen, I may be a totally cosmopolitan man, but I can never—nor do I ever wish to—forget I am Jewish”?

Or is he saying the exact opposite? “Look, stare, and observe: Here is proof I am not and have never been Jewish.”

Or, “Would I even allow you to raise the question if I thought you’d come up with this?”

Or is he saying something totally different? That is: “This is just a cigar. And only a Jew from Alexandria who has never understood Freud or confronted his own anxieties about being Jewish would think otherwise. This, sir, says more about you than it ever will about me.”

And without hesitating a second I’d say that he was right, that it is all about me and my own reluctant Judaism, which desperately wishes to find similarly reluctant Jews around the world, if only to nurse the illusion that there are other Jews like me, that Jews like me are not alone, that perhaps all Jews are like me, in the sense that all Jews are other, lonely Jews, that no Jew can ever be authentically Jewish once he steps out of the ghetto, that all Jews have the diaspora branded on them so profoundly that feigning they are not Jewish is perhaps the surest way for them to discover they are nothing but Jewish, and that, in this strange new world that reminds them they are free now, some part of them is forever skulking in the dark dying to scream to another Jew: Ceci n’est pas un cigare.

Excerpted from Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman, to be published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by André Aciman. All rights reserved.

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.