- Discourses of Jewish Identity in Twentieth-Century France
Ever since France became the first European country to grant Jews equal rights as citizens with the enactment of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791, the question of identity has been a central preoccupation of French Jews. Their emancipation brought about assimilation to the universalist principles of the French Republic and led them to detach themselves from their own traditions, generating conflicting emotions about what it meant for a Jew to be French. The topic of French-Jewish identity has been reflected upon by writers ranging from Sartre, Memmi, and Misrahi to Levinas and Finkielkraut, none of whose discourses are included in this volume but whose ideas are discussed in Seth Wolitz’s pertinent article, “Imagining the Jew in France: From 1945 to the Present.”
Divided into two main sections, “Literary Texts” and “Cultural Contexts,” this collection contains articles written by authors not familiar to English speaking readers. They are excellently translated, mainly by the editor, Alan Astro. In his introductory essay, Astro notes that his aim is to portray the cultural and ethnic diversity of French Jews of different origins and to show their part in the formation of Jewish identity. The focus is on how French Jews feel about their own identity, and not on how others see them.
The first section, “Literary Texts,” represents a variety of genres, generally fiction. Over half of the thirteen texts date from the 1970s to the present, and are mostly personal narratives, anecdotal in nature. The tone often conveys “a certain humor or self-irony,” described by Rachel Ertel in her essay, “A Minority Literature” (in the second section) as identifiable traits of a Jewish work.
With no logical sequence to the presentation of the texts, a multiplicity of perspectives is clearly the objective. For example, Bernard Frank, whose ancestors have lived in France since the Revolution, feels “as French as anyone else,” yet recognizes that Jews are different, “because they’ve been made to be different.” Wolf Wieviorka in 1936 exalts his “noble pedigree,” being a naturalized French citizen; he was later murdered by the Nazis.
North African Jews who emigrated to Paris in the 1950s and early 1960s, studied sociologically by Michel Abitbol, are portrayed in Gil Ben Aych’s novel, The Chant of Being (Algerian), and in Paula Jacques’s novel, Aunt Carlotta’s Legacy (Egyptian). Jews of Eastern European descent are depicted in the short stories by Cyrille Fleischman, one of which recounts how a Sorbonne professor of sixteenth-century French literature renounces his eminent career and like his father, opens up a delicatessen in the Jewish quarter of the Marais, thus returning to his roots. Henri Raczymow returns imaginatively to a pre-war Poland in Tales of Exile and Forgetfulness, recreating in French the intonations of Yiddish, the language of his grandparents who died in the Holocaust. In an [End Page 378] outstanding essay, “Memory Shot Through With Holes,” Raczymow articulates urgent questions posed by the second generation: “By what right could I speak, I who was not a victim, survivor or witness?”
If the first section is multicultural, the second, “Cultural Contexts,” is interdisciplinary. Annette Wieviorka (granddaughter of Wolf Wieviorka) studies accounts by survivors, revealing the impact of Vichy’s imposing a Jewish identity on its citizens. Wieviorka also evokes the importance of the Six-Day War which compelled assimilated French Jews to proclaim their Jewish allegiance, a pivotal event transforming their sense of identity.
Other significant contributions are Gérard Haddad’s exploration of the importance of Judaism in the life and work of Jacques Lacan, an outsider who seemed more concerned with Jewish identity than his fellow psychoanalysts. Ora Avni analyzes Patrick Modiano’s repudiation of his Jewish patrimony in his seminal novel, La Place de l’étoile. Elizabeth de Fontenay comments on how the quant-à-soi (“keeping to oneself”), the reserve characteristic of the French, becomes the quant-à-nous (“ourselves”) for the French Jew who is linked to a community beyond the...