Some random day a few years ago, we got out of bed and as we were brushing our teeth, we looked in the mirror and behind us was the creeping realization that the story of American Jewry, the story of the American power which protects our community, the story of ‘us’, seems as though it’s in its second half – the long slow descent into… well, we don’t know yet, do we?
It’s the story of a world power like any other world power, risen to the height of prosperity, only for the very sources of our dynamism to work against us. Democracy brought this country and its Jews to a zenith unseen yet in world history. But if liberal rule of law is definitively sold out to one party over the other, paid through the sieves of billionaires and their unregulated business profits, if the press becomes so free that it no longer reports facts, then we are a democracy no longer. History has this way about it in which all forces which enable civilizations to rise are also what provoke their downfall; and now, democracy and capitalism, the twin engines of American triumph, have come unmoored from their restraints, and an excess of their dynamism is destroying us from the inside just as nationalism and culture, the great engines of social justice and mobility in 1815, destroyed Old Europe by 1915.
Jews are human beings just like any other human beings, only moreso. There are so many millions of juxtapositions in our global Jewish community between the scrupulous against the venal, the selfless against the selfish, the faultlessly virtuous against those who aspire to fly with their better angels yet tragically fall, of doing the right thing for the wrong reason and doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and yes, even the rich and the poor, or the educated and the ignorant. We are, as the insightful but deeply flawed historian Paul Johnson wrote, the only civilization in the history of the world who is defined by our insistence on the equal importance of individuality and community.
This at times unbearable tension between two opposite poles is what tithes forward a portion of our world to future generations, and ensures our survival even in our direst moments. Every other major society has seemed to value one over the other – modern America certainly values individuality over community, while China clearly values community over individuality. This gives us points of commonality and bond with every society where we’ve ever lived while setting us apart from them simultaneously – the tension causes the people around us to celebrate us passionately sometimes and at other times hate us just as passionately. The very difference between us and the outside world, always partly of it and partly apart from it; the very fact that the world can never understand the comforts and discomforts of our inner experience, is the root of the world’s almost pornographic fascination with all things Jewish. But philosemite and antisemite alike will never truly comprehend the essence of Judaism, because the inner experience of being Jewish cannot be apprehended in any manner but tactilely.
If Judaism is ever a matter of choice, then it is, as it is for converts, a matter of the most extreme possible choice. For those of us born into it, there is only one choice to make. We can either ignore all those absurd mitzvahs and loyalties which we were birthed to assume, or to take this onerous inheritance upon us and pledge to the preservation of a continuity of ritual that forges us into the next link in a chain of eternity so mighty it could not be broken by Hitler, Khmielnitsky, Luther, Torquemada, Urban, Mohammed, Theodosius, Chrysostom, Severus, Hadrian, Titus, and so many other massacrists of Jews and their tens of thousands of henchmen who well deserve a mention in that infamous litany. If we choose to turn our backs on it, we live with the guilt, like a room in one’s house where all our less pleasant items are stored, and the frequent rage one sees when Judaism is brought up to those who think they live guilt-free for their rejection of Judaism would indicate that Judaism occupies a lot more of their headspace than they would have us believe.
There is no such thing as a Jew born into a vacuum of inheritance, as there is for so many other White Americans. Even if few Jews have much detail about their families before 1860, the historical inheritance is so vast that there is no way to not have a personal relationship to it, even if the relationship is antagonistic. No Jew belongs entirely to themselves, and the story of every person born with Jewish DNA is a story that is partially told within the context of the Jewish story, a story about a community of oh so many millions of well-intentioned but deeply flawed and gloriously human beings; every one of them an all too perfect reflection of their creator.
And this is why every chapter in the story of Judaism is astonishingly predictable. We have so much experience with history that the rhythms of its phasing rarely vary. First there’s the rise, and the mutual love affair when a culture discovers us and we discover then, and then the steep decline which seems to come right as our moment of greatest triumph should happen. At the moment when we finally seem unimpeachably, eternally secure within our new homelands, the love seems to rot into hate, and we must wander to a new place yet again.
Jean Renoir’s once famous 1937 movie about prisoners of war during World War I, La Grande Illusion, took its title from an even more famous book – The Great Illusion, written in 1909 by the English Liberal journalist and politician, Norman Angell. The Thomas Friedman-like argument of the book was that the integration of so many countries’ economies with one another had grown so vast that war and militarism were completely futile, and therefore obsolete. Angell was right that war had become futile, but when it came to war’s obsolescence, he could not have been more risibly mistaken. The Great Illusion was an illusion itself. However large the capacity for creation and prosperity grows is exactly how large the capacity for destruction and chaos grows apiece. Nations have cycles just like all things of this universe do, they rise, they fall, they regenerate, they repeat.
The movie has four main characters. Two of them are aristocrats, another is a French mechanic named Marechal, the epitome of the French working man, and the fourth a rich French Jew named Rosenthal (a name obviously meant to recall ‘Rothschild’). The first two men of the past, the second two men of the future. By the end of the movie, the two men of the future have escaped from a POW camp, while one of the men of the past is dead, the other broken in body and spirit.
Aristocrats are duty-born to the officer class, and like so many families born to privilege (think the McCains or Churchills), there’s never any question over whether these aristocrats will serve in their country’s wars; because for aristocrats, war is always a game in which soldiers are moved about like toys and generals are worshipped like high school quarterbacks. Their manners insist that they treat officers born to lower classes with respect, but they never truly view lower class officers as equals. They switch between French, German, and English as though all three were one language. Upon the first meeting between these French and German scions of ancient lineage, the aristocrats immediately discover that they’ve heard about each other from mutual friends, they’ve eaten in the same establishments, and have even slept with the same woman. They are creatures of a past era where war was thought something magnificent rather than squalid, when noblemen showed their valor and splendour for the greater glory of their realms.
It is an era so remote from our own that it seems almost absurd that POW’s could have been treated so humanely in the midst of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever known – particularly when one compares the camps of World War I to the camps of that other war which would break out so soon after the movie’s 1937 release. When I first watched this movie as a college student at my parents’ house, my father walked in and laughed at the treatment of the POW’s. He was hardly the first to point out that camp for these captured soldiers seems less like a prison camp than a summer camp. The idea that POW’s could have been treated with anything but barbarity is so remote from anyone with any knowledge of World War II; but part of what made World War I such a shocking event in human affairs was its absurdity. Soldiers would try to preserve civilized vestiges from the old order of things – the families of gentlemen would send parcels full of the best and most expensive food and wine and cigarettes for these men and their units to pretend for an hour at a time as though they were living in a country manor or chateau, moments before they charged into machine gun fire that would mow them down by the hundred thousand, or their internal organs were shredded by barbed wire, or as they guttered and choked, bent double, drowning in the bloody gargle of mustard gas from froth-corrupted lungs. What made World War II so barbarous was that the civilized ideals with which World War I was launched were so utterly decimated. Were the Great Powers to go to war again, would our assumptions of how human beings ought to behave melt away any less brutally?
It is often said that The Grand Illusion is an antiwar movie, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Illusions, not war, is the point of the movie, and the movie punctures all manner of illusions which stand in direct contradiction to each other – both the illusion that that war can be won and the illusion that war can be ended, the illusion that class differences can ever be overcome and the illusion that the aristocracy deserves to think itself better than the lower classes, the illusion that prisons can be made into something humane and the illusion that escape from prison will result in freedom, the illusion that nationalities and races matter at all and the illusion that we can ever convince people that nationalities and races don’t matter. It is this double vision of Jean Renoir (and yes he’s the son of the famous painter Auguste Renoir), this ability to see the merits and dignity in every perspective, this ability to blend pathos and humor, compassion and contempt, tragedy and farce, which perhaps makes Renoir the singular genius of movies among all directors thus far in movie history; worthy of company with Mozart and Tolstoy and Rembrandt. No human sentiment is alien to Renoir, and in the late 30’s when humanity prepared to tear itself shreds, Renoir stood up for the preservation of the messy, tragic, absurd, magnificent thing that is human beings.
There are so many illusions which this movie portrays and dispels, and yet each character persists in whatever illusions fill their lives with meaning, they can’t help it. And, of course, the character who has the fewest illusions is Rosenthal, the ‘Jew.’ Just take this one snippet of dialogue which seems to sum up why every nation has a relationship with Jews which oscillates from love to hate and back again:
Cartier (another French POW – about Rosenthal): He was born in Jerusalem!
Rosenthal: Wrong, Vienna! My mother was Danish, my father Polish, naturalized French.
Marechal: (ironically) Good old French aristocracy.
Rosenthal: And yet for all your old French stock, not one of you owned an acre of France. In 35 years, the Rosenthal’s have acquired three historic castles and all that goes with them: hunting, farmland and horses. And 3 galleries of genuine ancestors. Believe me, it’s worth escaping to fight for that.
de Boildeau: I had never considered patriotism from that rather special point of view.
Patriotism for Jews can never be a matter of where we’re originally from. Almost none of our families have been in America for more than 140 years. Even Israeli families rarely made it to Israel before 1880. The Rosenthals of America will never be as native rooted as the Smiths, the Johnsons, the Williams’s, the Jones’s, nor are we as native rooted as all the descendants of their slaves, forced to take the surnames of their owners. Their history is now part of our history, but ‘their history’ is not ‘our history.’ For us, patriotism is a matter of arriving in a new country that gave us so much at moments when no other country would. We love our countries as only immigrants can. And because we were immigrants so recently, we generally love our countries in a manner different than those whose families have never been anywhere else. To the average Republican, America is great by virtue of what America is, and therefore, immigrants, who may change America, are dangerous foreign contaminants. To the average Jew, America is great because of the great things America does, like let us into this country when Europe told us we were no longer welcome, and therefore to us, the average immigrant is someone who can make America still greater.
And just as so many Jews make America a more dynamic, more interesting, more fun, place to live, Rosenthal, not the German POW commander, is the true master of ceremonies over this summer camp version of a POW camp; proudly sharing the parcels his nouveau riche family sends him with his cellmates, exclaiming: “Gentlemen, dinner is served. What shall we begin with? Cold chicken, pâté de foie, mackerel in wine?” then offering them “a drop of cognac as an apertif.” Cartier, the POW who made the vaguely antisemitic statement quote above, notes during the same dinner that “I have never eaten so well in my life!… I’m starting to take Rosenthal’s kindness for granted.” As a Jew, Rosenthal knows what he must do to ingratiate himself, and that were he a poor Jewish POW in 1915 with nothing to share, his cellmates would have thought him a miser.
This movie was made in the era of France’s first socialist Prime Minister, Leon Blum. The fact that Blum was a Socialist was egregious enough to the average Frenchman, but the fact that he was a Jew was unforgivable, and made France’s welcome of Hitler and Vichy inevitable. It was the era of the Front populaire (“Popular Front”), a center-left coalition formed in response to Fascist riots in Paris under the banner of a kinder, gentler socialism, that forswore Communism and did not behold itself to the Soviet Union. In the chaos of those years, Blum had two terms as Prime Minister, and the entirety of his time in office took less than three years. The great hope of those years was that a permanent alliance could form between Jews and the working class that would stop Hitler’s madness before it crossed the French border; hopes that proved impossibly naive as so many socialist hopes proved now for many generations.
Three years after La Grande Illusion’s release, twenty-five years after its events, men like Rosenthal and the mechanic Marechal would find themselves on opposite sides of French fortune. Somehow, Jews were simultaneously thought of as the capitalist parasites who kept the working class poor and the communist parasites who kept the working class poor. When France fell to fascism, it was men like Marechal who would form the backbone of support for Marshal Petain’s Vichy Government, and sent 340,000 Rosenthals to the camps, where 72,500 died (one of the highest survival rates in Europe). It would be nice to think that Marechal learned from his experience and helped some Jews who reminded him of his generous Jewish friend, but if history teaches us one lesson, it’s that people don’t learn. “When I made this movie,” Renoir said in an interview, “people told me it was the greatest anti-war movie ever made. Two years later, Europe went to war.”
And just in case this movie seems a little too pastoral for its historical setting, or a little quaint and escapist in the face of war, its greatest praise came from Joseph Goebbels, who literally said of the movie that it was “Cinema Enemy no. 1.” So deleterious did the Nazis consider this movie to German nationalism that they burned as many copies of the movie as could be found. So well-hidden did the original copy have to be that it took fifty years after the end of World War II to locate.
The aristocrats were named de Boildeau and von Rauffenstein, and the de Boildeaus and von Rauffenstein have disappeared from the world stage for a century. Sure, their ancestors might be living off the interest of a Zurich bank account, skiing in Chamoix or paragliding on Lake Lucerne, when they aren’t riding their Pugeot convertibles through the Alps to smoke Galois cigarettes in some jazz club in Montreux before they drunkenly navigate the winding Swiss roads made so famous by James Bond so they can dance and do something kinky while Kraftwerk plays with a deafeningly loud disco beat in Verbier. But days when the most powerful men in the world had to have a noble prefix to their name: a ‘de’, a ‘von’, or a ‘de la’, or an ‘y’, or even a ‘Sir,’ are buried from living memory. One day, sooner than we may know, the same obsolescence will come for people named Wyatt, or Connor, or Logan, or Bradley, or Dylan, or Cody… You get the point. Being white in 2018 America is a kind of aristocracy, and in a new democracy where all identities can be equally treated, even the Claires, and the Heathers, and the Kaitlyns may find themselves less powerful in the new world rather than more, and so, I hasten to add, might the Noahs and Leahs and Jacobs and Rachels and Daniels.
But Jews can only purchase their entrance into aristocratic circles, not inherit it. No amount of French land could save Rosenthal from much worse camps. We were the ‘new men’ of the 20th century, but our emergence into prosperity came at the severest price any peoplehood paid in that all too bloody, foul era. It is an illusion to believe that we are finished purchasing our tickets to survival. Even after America declines, The Cody’s and Kaitlyns will still be buying their clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, their furniture at Pottery Barn, getting their kale and avocado at Whole Foods and their cheese at Trader Joe’s, drinking burnt lattes from Starbucks, posing for ‘silly photographs’, getting offended at jokes in the same minute they call the police when a black man comes within 500 feet. Even after American power declines, white American life is unimpeachably secure. Jewish-American life, on the other hand, is still as fragile as ever before. It will be in our children’s lifetime that there will be barely such a thing as a secular Jew. The Frum community will still have 7 children each, and they will stand out from the rest of American life like ptcha at a Christmas dinner. Antisemitism is overdue to rise in America, and the Jewish story, a story of illusions and horrors, of escape and survival, of love and hate, of sanctity and desecration, of freedom and slavery, of rights and responsibilities, of old notions and new frontiers, of the most dramatic successes and failures, of worship of God and wrestling with God, of continuity in the face of division, of temporality and eternity, is not a story meant to end.