From Wed Aug 14 11:30:07 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: ‘I don't question my children's Jewishness’
Date: Wed, 14 Aug 2002 15:39:04 +0200 (CEST)

In a France of Rural Identities: ‘I don't question my children's Jewishness’

By Sylvie Braibant and Dominique Vidal, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2002

Which aspects of Judaism will be passed on to their children was a question that affected all those whom we interviewed. Hélène and Alain Nahum, for example, have spent more time at political meetings than in synagogues. Their son Samuel recently had his bar mitzvah, the equivalent of a confirmation or first communion for Christians.

According to Hélène, the daughter of a Greek family, most of whom perished at Auschwitz, We're all Marranos (1). To defend ourselves from globalisation we must preserve our sense of identity in our relations with others. I can personally relate to the phenomena of displacement and exile. I always feel distant from a farmer who's rooted to his land and feel closer to one who finds himself uprooted.

Her husband, Alain, is from a family of Egyptian Jews steeped in communism and the French Revolution. He defines himself as a wandering Jew, perhaps even an heirless one. Though he understands and respects his son's quest for religious and cultural identity, he sees it as reflecting his need to rebel against his parents. Samuel sees his faith in relative terms: he expresses pro-Israel sentiments although he is unwilling to go to fight for the country. He mentions hearing young Arabs make insulting anti-semitic remarks. I feel as though I've inherited the history of the Shoah and the Jews of Egypt, he says. Even though I'm not observant, I still believe it's important to hand down values and not become assimilated like some of my friends. Alain feels positive: I'm happy that my son has shown his independence by getting bar mitzvahed. Hélène is more philosophical: Every generation has got to find its own way.

Valérie Zenati's family, originally from Algeria, left France for Israel after two anti-semitic incidents in Paris: an attack on the Copernic synagogue in 1980 and the 1982 bombing of a kosher restaurant in the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais district. The family ended its traumatic Israeli sojourn after the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

Israel was no longer what we wanted it to be, says Valérie, who is struck by the anxiety that characterises many French Jews. It's as though they're scared of the void. They no longer base their sense of identity on anything tangible. They're unfamiliar with the sacred texts of their religion. They feel ultranationalistic about a country that's not even theirs. They remember the dead but they know nothing of the lives those people led before the Holocaust.

What will she bequeath to her son Lucas, now aged five and a half? I had him circumcised so as not to break with tradition. I'll teach him about the major Jewish holidays and our ancestors' history. When Lucas is older she plans to teach him Hebrew so that he can read the Bible. The Ten Commandments are the most important consideration. That and the fight to ensure that no one is deemed subhuman, whether in Israel or Palestine.

Nelly Hansson is wary of any suggestion that Judaism might become a hardcore religion. That would be awful, she says. But when she thinks of her two sons—one of whom is very Jewish, the other less so—she blames herself for passing on an individual, rather than a collective, sense of belonging.

For her the key issue is historical continuity and the momentous task of curing society's ills, incumbent on all Jews. She points out that the Hebrew word tikkun means a reparation that completes God's work by making the world a better place.

But Annette Wieviorka, historian, says: I don't question my children's Jewishness. As a little girl she used to stay at a holiday resort operated by Bund, an organisation of socialist Jewish workers founded in 1897. We always asked two questions: what does it mean to be a socialist and what does it mean to be a Jew? The first was easy: all we had to do was share our sweets. We never did come up with an answer to the second question. Annette's daughter now wears a star of David round her neck though she was indifferent to things Jewish for many years. Her son married a non-Jew. We're not so much our parents' children as we are children of our own generation, she says.

Like many Jews born shortly after the second world war, she too felt the wish to assimilate; the desire was also fuelled by her political activism. As a Maoist, she even taught in Guangzhou in south China. The story of my life, she explains, includes how I choose to express my Jewishness. It's very personal. I find ghettos abhorrent. I have no interest in people who share the same history, the same sensibility and the same paranoia.

Read also What does it mean to be Jewish?

(1) The Marranos were Spanish or Portuguese Jews of the late Middle Ages who converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion.