Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
French and JewishCulture and the Politics of Identity in Early-Twentieth Century France$

Nadia Malinovich

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781904113409

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781904113409.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM LIVERPOOL SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.liverpool.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Liverpool University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in LSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 28 June 2022

The Beginnings of a French Jewish Literature

The Beginnings of a French Jewish Literature

(p.38) Chapter 2 The Beginnings of a French Jewish Literature
French and Jewish

Nadia Malinovich

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the tension between universalism and particularism as expressed in the pre-war poetry, novels, and essays of André Spire, Edmond Fleg, Henri Franck, and Jean-Richard Bloch. It examines the question of Jewish identity in the modern world through writers that paved the way for the much more widespread phenomenon of Jewish self-questioning in the post-war years. It also looks at André Spire's ground-breaking Poèmes juifs and Quelques Juifs that offered a scathing critique of both Jewish assimilation and French antisemitism. It discusses Henri Franck's prose poem La Danse devant l'arche, which describes a young man's quest for the meaning of life and reveals a similar tension between affirming the specificity of Jewish roots and embracing a larger French cultural heritage.

Keywords:   universalism, particularism, pre-war poetry, Jewish identity, Jewish assimilation, French antisemitism, Jewish self-questioning

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Dreyfus affair a handful of Jewish writers including, most importantly, André Spire, Henri Franck, Jean-Richard Bloch, and Edmond Fleg, delved into previously untouched (and controversial) issues such as antisemitism, assimilation, and intermarriage. As a close look at these authors’ writings from the pre-war years reveals, it was not a retreat into particularism that characterized this first wave of literature on French Jewish themes, but rather an obsession with dualism. The interest of these Jewish intellectuals in exploring the nature of Jewish particularism stemmed from their immersion in a cultural climate that increasingly valued group difference. At the same time, however, they were wary of exoticizing their Jewishness or presenting it as rendering them fundamentally different from their non-Jewish compatriots. These perspectives were too close to the antisemitic movement, which they all recognized as a threat. For Spire, Franck, Bloch, and Fleg, who were immersed in a French rather than a Jewish cultural landscape, reconnecting with their Jewish identity was an alienating as well as an empowering experience. At the same time that ‘becoming’ Jewish gave them the sense of historical connection and rootedness that they were seeking, it also forced them to recognize the limitations of the universalist values that formed the core of their identity.

André Spire

The 1908 publication of André Spire’s controversial Poèmes juifs, contemporaries agreed, marked the birth of a modern Jewish literature in the French language.1 The poems, Spire explains in his preface, were written as (p.39) a militant response to those Jewish literary and intellectual figures of the day who wanted to ‘excuse their origins’ and in doing so stifle ‘what is the deepest and perhaps the best in them, leaving only the French patina that is the legacy of a few years of classical education and sophisticated Parisian prattle’.2 While L’Univers israélite and the Archives israélites ignored the publication of the Poèmes, no doubt because of Spire’s critical stance regarding the Jewish establishment,3 Spire’s book inspired lively discussion and debate in left-wing literary circles. Reviewers for L’Art moderne and Le Mouvement socialiste praised Spire for refusing to succumb, ‘like the majority of his coreligionists, to the spirit of the race they live among’, and ‘cast[ing] his lot with those who live, fight, and die for the resurrection of Jewish dignity’.4 Daniel Halévy, one of the main contributors to the Cahiers de la Quinzaine and a friend of Spire’s from his early activist days, took a more critical stance.5 While Halévy—the son of the noted Jewish composer Ludovic Halévy, who had converted to Christianity before Daniel’s birth—admired Spire’s boldness in taking on the Jewish establishment, he was wary of the work’s ‘physiological and essentialist aspects, the racial instinct’.6 It is not surprising that the publication of the Poèmes provoked anxiety in someone of Jewish origin who did not identify as a Jew. For Spire, Jewishness was a matter of blood and history rather than religious belief, and by stating this in no uncertain terms his Poèmes juifs made a clear break with the traditional parameters of Franco-Judaism.

Spire’s Poèmes painted a tragic portrait of the Jewish bourgeoisie of his day, which he criticized for attempting to eradicate their difference in hopes of eliminating antisemitism. As Spire saw it, the Jewish attempt to ‘be like everyone else’ was a charade, which, ultimately, only accentuated Jewish difference and made the Jews appear ridiculous. This is the theme of ‘Tu es (p.40) content’ (‘You are contented’), which mocks Jewish self-effacement: ‘You are pleased! You are pleased! Your nose is almost straight, yes indeed! And then again, so many Christians have their noses a little curved!’7 Spire’s scathing critique of Jewish behaviour is matched by his indictment of the hypocrisy of the surrounding society, as in ‘Tu as raison’ (‘You are right’), which mocks ‘civilized’ Christians’ fear of letting Jews into the intimate spaces of their lives: ‘Christian, you think I am your friend … You take me in, you seat me next to your wife, and your daughter smiles at me. Christian, you are not at ease. Your eyes never leave mine, and on your lips I read the old insult.’8 For Spire, French culture, and Western culture in general, represented a frustrating temptation for the Jew, tantalized by its marvels but never really allowed to gain full access. Assimilation, the tactic of the previous generation, had failed because no matter how perfectly the Jew adapted himself to the values and mores of the surrounding society he was still identified as Jewish. It was only through the positive affirmation of Jewish identity that Jews would become proud members of French society as opposed to stepchildren, forever trying to please their motherland and losing all respect for themselves in the process.

Another theme that Spire developed in the collection was Jewish suffering in eastern Europe. The penultimate poem, ‘Pogromes’, presents Russian Jews as both victims and the incarnation of Jewish authenticity, and chastises readers for their ignorance of the plight of their brethren, offered as a model of Jewish pride.9 In the last poem of the collection, ‘Exode’, Spire expressed his support for the nascent Zionist movement, calling upon the people of Israel to ‘flee all these false homelands’ and invoking the promise of a new land. The placement of ‘Pogromes’ and ‘Exode’ side by side was hardly arbitrary. While Spire embraced Jewish nationalism as part of his ‘conversion’ to Jewishness, the political Zionist movement was, and for him remained, a viable option primarily for east European Jews. Significantly, he called upon his fellow Jews to ‘March towards Odessa, Hamburg or Bremen’ in preparation for their journey, rather than to Le Havre or Marseilles.

As both contemporaries and later critics have noted, Spire’s poems do not recommend any specific course of action. They are clearly the work of someone who has recently embarked on a journey. Spire threw out the problem of the persistence of both Jewish identity and antisemitism and challenged his fellow Jews to create some kind of positive Jewish culture in response. What that culture should consist of, however, remained vague.10 (p.41) Henri Franck, in a review of the Poèmes, remarked on the note on which they end: ‘It is a marvellous exodus to which Spire beckons his people. In the end, the last hope in which he takes refuge is not a port, but a journey.’11 If ‘Exode’ is a literal call for departure aimed at east European Jews, it could also be read as a spiritual call for departure to his fellow French Jews.

With the 1913 publication of Quelques Juifs, a collection of three essays each focusing on a different Jewish figure, Spire further developed these themes. If the Poèmes juifs were the fruit of his emotional ‘conversion’, in Quelques Juifs Spire plotted the intellectual leg of the journey.12 The first essay, ‘Israel Zangwill’, was first published in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine in 1909 as a response to Péguy’s lengthy introduction to ‘Chad-gad-ya’.13 Though entitled ‘Zangwill’, Péguy’s article addressed the universal problem of identity in the modern world rather than Zangwill as an individual. Spire’s essay, by contrast, provided his readers with a history of Zangwill’s life and a thematic overview of his literature. Spire addressed the lack of Jewish content in Péguy’s essay in his introduction to Quelques Juifs. It was not the universal Zangwill who interested Spire, but rather the Jewish Zangwill, the son of immigrants, whose stories embodied the ‘authentic’ Jew. He dedicated the essay to a Jewish acquaintance, Gustave Sittenheim, who, like himself, was thrust into an emotional reconnection with his Jewish heritage through his reading of ‘Chad-gad-ya’. Both men regretted, however, that they knew nothing at all about the author. ‘In the ninety pages that he placed in front of Chad-gad-ya’, Spire remarked, Péguy cited ‘Taine, Renan, La Fontaine, Hugo … but taught us nothing about Zangwill.’14 Spire promised to find out more about Zangwill, but after he had completed his research he returned to find that Sittenheim was too busy to see him and had all but forgotten his reading of the poem. A promised letter to set a date to discuss the story never materialized, and thus, Spire wrote, ‘It is I who am obliged to write to him, to remind him of that feverish moment when he remembered that he was a Jew.’15 Spire’s essay on Zangwill is both a tribute to the short story that led him to affirm his Jewish identity and a chronicle of the activities on which (p.42) he embarked in reconnecting with the Jewish people. The two principal purposes of the essay are to familiarize his readers with Zangwill’s Jews—the poor east European immigrants of London’s East End—and to contrast their way of being Jewish with that of the western Jews with whom Spire was familiar. By painting a positive picture of the ‘Jewish Jews’ of the ghetto, Spire dared his reader to draw inspiration from them. This act of identification, he hoped, would help counter Jewish self-hatred: rather than priding themselves on their ability to blend in, he wanted Jews to celebrate their difference.

Jewish self-hatred is the central theme of the next essay, on the Viennese Jew Otto Weininger who, after he became convinced of the biological inferiority of the Jews, committed suicide at the age of 23.16 Rather than focusing on Jewish behaviour, this essay criticizes antisemitism and hypocrisy in Christian society, which Spire ultimately blamed for Weininger’s suicide. A classical European education, Spire argued, taught Jewish children to be ashamed of their heritage; they learn that the Jews killed Christ, and the contribution of Semitic peoples to Western civilization is belittled. Spire also criticized the ‘false universalism’ of emancipation. The Jews were tricked into believing that if they gave up their particularism they would be fully accepted as equals. But once everything had been sacrificed, the non-Jews said: ‘You are not quite finished: uncurl your hair, change your accent and your face.’17 For Spire, Weininger’s suicide was the extreme but logical outcome of assimilation and antisemitism. As even the act of conversion was not able to ‘cure’ Weininger of being perceived, both by himself and by others, as Jewish, his only choice was to take his own life.

In his next essay Spire focused on the great prophet of Franco-Judaism, James Darmesteter, both familiarizing his reader with the dominant influences on Darmesteter’s thinking and offering a critique of it. Darmesteter, Spire reminded his readers, was part of a generation that believed in the idea of progress. Like Weininger, he grew up in the shadow of Christian civilization, and it was the message of universal humanism that shaped his world vision. As part of this universalism, Spire argued, Darmesteter envisioned not so much the disappearance of Judaism as its fusion with French and European culture. This ideology, Spire suggested, was naive in its blindness to the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian society, and ignorant of the rise of the modern antisemitic movement. As Darmesteter elaborated his vision of a world where Judaism and (p.43) Christianity would fuse to create a new religion of universal brotherhood, Drumont began publishing La Libre Parole: ‘the more that [Darmesteter] talked of reconciliation, the harder the blows fell upon him. And he had no weapons with which to fight but ideology and gentleness.’18

Quelques Juifs, like Poèmes juifs, was read in French literary circles as a bold challenge to both Jews and antisemites: ‘I do not believe that even the most hardened antisemite could read this essay without shame’, we read in La Phalange: ‘Spire, as if it were necessary, has given the Jewish people its letters of nobility.’19 And yet, while they criticize what he understood to be the stagnant, assimilationist tradition of Franco-Judaism, Spire’s essays do not represent a break with universalist values. Rather, he was constantly walking the line between the twin poles of universalism and particularism. If the essay on Otto Weininger was intended to show the need for Jews to define their identity within the specificity of their Jewish heritage, it was also an indictment of a society that privileged one historical narrative, that of the ‘Aryan’, to the exclusion of all else. In his essay on Darmesteter, Spire criticized his views not so much because he found them objectionable in and of themselves, but because he recognized that they were hopelessly out of step with the reality of the surrounding society. Given the rise of modern antisemitism, Jews were left with no choice but to arm themselves for the struggle. Spire’s solution, however, was not for Jews to retreat into their own cultural exclusivity but rather to affirm their Jewishness as an attempt to bring a truly universal society into being.

At the same time that he advocated a reconnection with the specificity of Jewish history on the part of western Jews, however, Spire forcefully rejected a biologically based understanding of ethnic identity. His understanding of Jewishness, like Barrès’s sense of connection to Lorraine, was rooted in an emotional connection with his history and ancestors. While the line between biology and culture as the source of these emotions was fluid for Barrès,20 for Spire it was vital to distinguish between them. This concern, which was shared by other like-minded Jewish intellectuals of the day, stemmed from a keen awareness of the dangers of an essentialist, biological definition of Jewish identity. This danger came not only from the use of such characterizations of Jewishness on the part of the antisemitic movement, but also from the ambiguous attitudes towards Jews of many ‘sympathetic’ French literary figures of the day.

(p.44) Just as the Dreyfus affair gave impetus to a strong pro-Jewish sentiment in French politics, so too did it spark an interest in Jews and Judaism on the part of non-Jewish French writers. In their novels and short stories both Emile Zola and Anatole France, for example, criticized the antisemitic current in French society that the affair revealed and defended Jewish integration as part of their broader commitment to the ideal of universal humanism.21 It was also during this era, however, that a number of French authors began to represent the persistence of Jewish difference in positive terms. For writers such as Charles Péguy and Romain Rolland, it was their distinctiveness that gave the Jews their value in French society. For Rolland, as for Péguy, it was the Jews who were responsible for the promotion of justice throughout the world, and it was only by maintaining their status as a stateless people that they would be able to fulfil this mission.22

The line between sympathy and hostility in this kind of essentialist characterization of Jews and Jewishness, which literary scholar Bryan Cheyette has coined the term ‘semitism’ to describe, was a very fine one.23 At one point in Jean Christophe, for example, Rolland wrote, ‘for the time being, [Jews] occupy a position out of all proportion to their true merit. The Jews are like women: admirable when they are reined in; but with the Jews as with women their use of mastery is an abomination.’24 In a similar vein, André Gide, who admired the work of many Jewish writers of his day, nonetheless saw the over-representation of Jews in French literature as exercising a distorting influence on ‘genuine’ French culture. As he saw it, literature written by Jews was imbued with a particular sensibility, even when it was devoid of any explicitly Jewish content.25

A wariness of this kind of semitic discourse comes across very strongly in Quelques Juifs. In his essay on Zangwill, for example, Spire proposed that the (p.45) sensitivity and admiration with which Zangwill writes about Christianity should serve as a foil to Barrès’s contention that Jews, by virtue of their ethnic heritage, are not capable of truly understanding the mysteries of the Christian soul. He went on to criticize Barrès’s comment that if one seeks to understand the Hebrew prophets, by contrast, ‘no one can understand them better than James Darmesteter’.26 For Spire, the idea that a Jew is inherently better able to understand biblical texts than a Christian was as ridiculous as the supposition that only a Christian can understand Pascal.27 ‘Nationalism, this demagogy, this weakness’, he lamented, ‘has it successfully closed your eyes to the truth? Do you truly believe that a Jew whose ancestors have sung these psalms, psalms that have been theirs for much longer than they have been your own, cannot understand Pascal, whose God is our God?’28 Clearly, for Spire the notion that a person’s ‘race’ inevitably determines his or her talents and world-view was as repugnant as the false universalism that, he believed, had forced French Jews to negate the value of their particularism.

Henri Franck

Henri Franck, the young Jewish poet whom Blum referred to in the Revue de Paris, echoed Spire in wavering between asserting Jewish difference and affirming Jewish belonging to French culture. Franck, who was too young to have been politically active at the time of the Dreyfus affair, came of age in the political and cultural upheaval of its aftermath. Born in 1888 to a wealthy, highly acculturated Jewish family, he was the grandson of Arnaud Aron, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, but by the time of his birth the family had abandoned traditional religious practice and moved in mostly non-Jewish circles.29 Franck studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale and was beginning his career as a professor and writer when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. His most important publication was a prose poem entitled La Danse devant l’arche. First published in La Phalange, the poem appeared in book format in 1912, along with a collection of Franck’s articles and an introduction by the poet Anna de Noailles.30 It caused a stir in French intellectual circles, in part, no doubt, because of Franck’s premature death. He gained a posthumous reputation as one of the great philosophical minds of his generation: (p.46) ‘Henri Franck is known by the entire intellectual elite of France’, André Spire wrote thirteen years after Franck died: ‘His oeuvre occupies an important place in the literature of the early twentieth century, because it is a typical example of the effects of French culture on a Jew from a comfortable family, established for many years on French soil.’31

Like Spire’s writings, La Danse devant l’arche reflects an obsession with dualism. Franck did not try to resolve the divergent pulls on his identity, but rather laid them out for the reader to ponder. The poem is best described as the philosophical quest of a young man for the meaning of life. It begins with the prayer of a young Levite in the holy temple as he declares his pride in fulfilling his duty of service to God. It is here that Franck expressed his own pride in his Jewish heritage and the privilege he felt in being part of an ancient tradition: ‘I am proud to participate in your ceremonies, God of my chosen people, my lord. I am happy that my childhood has been nourished in your sacred temple, by your sacred law.’32 His sense of cohesion and desire to further his understanding of the divine word in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, however, is shattered with the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish people.33 With the God of Israel apparently vanquished, the poet is thrust into a world devoid of meaning. He turns his gaze towards the West, where he sees civilization rising up again, and begins afresh his search for the God that he has lost. In the pages that follow, Franck’s roaming poet finds God in many different places: in the youth of his generation, with whom he feels a great kinship and spirit of unity, but who go off in their own directions in search of their individual destinies in France, the spiritual heir of Israel, the country that has given birth to the God of human freedom in the form of the French Revolution. Here Franck expresses his profound love of and attachment to France, as well as his chagrin at finding it divided, without soul, and no longer believing in itself. Having searched for God everywhere and found him nowhere, the poet decides that he must place himself at the crossroads of humanity, at the intersection of all these influences, in order to feel his presence.34 While the poet’s journey does not lead him to any absolute truth, he does not despair because it is the journey itself that counts. ‘If the ark is empty where you thought you would find the law’, he concludes, you should remember that ‘Nothing is real but your dance.’35

Critics have debated the nature of Franck’s connection to his Jewish heritage. For some, the poem conveyed nineteenth-century Franco-Judaic faith par excellence. ‘The title of his poem’, Benjamin Crémieux commented in (p.47) 1937, ‘fools no one.’ While Franck’s poet takes his Jewish heritage as his starting point, Crémieux argues, he ultimately leaves its specificity in his search for spiritual and philosophical wholeness.36 In an essay written in 1931, Hans Kohn analysed Franck’s poem from another perspective. Kohn located an important turning-point in Franck’s poetry in the way that he made sense of the dual pulls of his French and Jewish identities. Rather than submerging the former in the latter, Kohn argues, Franck attempted to bridge his Jewish heritage with his present reality and that of his generation: ‘unlike the naivety of Alexandre Weill or Darmesteter, who sought to place the two sources of their existence on the same footing, [Franck], sensing his otherness, felt himself to be different, and he draws on the treasure of his inner soul’.37 Franck was read by many of his contemporaries in a similar light.

The poem was discussed extensively in the Jewish press. Tributes to Franck appeared in both L’Echo sioniste and L’Union scolaire, a journal published by an association of Jewish graduates of Parisian secondary schools,38 shortly after his death. ‘Henri Franck, O my brother—in the gardens of Israel, you are the most beautiful flower’, wrote Raymond Geiger in L’Echo sioniste. ‘We love you and we cry because your soul was so profound, and in your quest to understand yourself, you found the ancient Jewish people.’39 Geiger’s comment reflects the new vogue for exploring the particularities of ‘the Jewish soul’ among French intellectuals during this period, a number of whom, like Geiger, were sympathetic to the emerging Zionist movement. Many of Franck’s critics, both Jews and non-Jews, wrote about his Jewishness by invoking the prophetic quality of the poem, which they identified as growing out of his particularly Jewish sensibility. Anna de Noailles, for example, located its originality and beauty in Franck’s concrete sense of connection with biblical history, which she saw as very different from that of a Christian:

(p.48) While the mysterious terrain of the holy scriptures filled our childhoods with fearful wonder, Henri Franck was able to contemplate its burning blue sky with filial confidence, to recognize the paths of Mount Lebanon, the valley of Jordan, the Dead Sea … that is the great contribution of those who, born in France, partake through study and meditation in their sense of origins, and deliver the fruits of their particularism.40

This sense of being different and the mystical, philosophical orientation that went along with it was for Franck, as for Spire, a source of great ambivalence. Like others of his generation, Franck was influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, for whom intuition and spirituality rather than scientific rationalism were central to understanding human nature.41 For Franck, however, the new anti-positivist philosophy did not necessitate a rejection of the Enlightenment tradition of universalism and rationality, but rather posed the challenge of synthesis. Franck was also very engaged with Barrès, who was the subject of several of his scholarly essays and ruminations in his personal correspondence.42 For Franck, Barrès’s genius came from the very fact that he devoted his life to the search for a meaningful set of values. He admired the beauty and the passion of his prose. But if Franck respected Barrès’s journey, like Spire he vehemently rejected his final destination. Barrès’s Lorraine, Franck contended, was nothing but a figment of his imagination, created to satisfy his own spiritual needs but unrelated to any kind of exterior reality: ‘It is not Lorraine that has created Maurice Barrès, but rather he who has created Lorraine.’43

Like Barrès, Franck yearned to give his history spiritual roots. Liberated from the rationalist constraints of the previous generation, he felt free to let his sense of himself as a Jew come out in his writing. The new questioning of the master narrative of the forward march of rationality and progress meant that Franck was not forced to see himself as part of a story that began with the (p.49) French Revolution but rather could connect with something more ancient and unabashedly particularistic. Yet as a Jew, he recognized the dangers of this new philosophical orientation and thus saw no choice but to articulate his new-found particularism in the language of the universalist values of 1789.

In an essay on Franck written in 1928, André Spire discussed the tension in his writings between the anti-rationalist, romantic philosophies of Bergson and Barrès and the republican tradition of universal humanism:

La Danse devant l’arche is the song of a young bourgeois Jew, obligated by nationalist exclusion to look towards his origins, towards the ‘royal race’ to which humanity owes some of its highest aspirations. And in the end, in the name of this race that one so easily insults, honour required him to display his heritage like a banner.44

Spire’s comment betrays the ambivalence that surrounded both his own and other intellectuals’ emphasis on the specificity of their Jewish heritage. As much as Franck’s praise of his ‘royal race’ grew out of an autonomous sense of connection with his roots, Spire suggested, this invocation of Jewish particularism was the only possible response he could give in an intellectual climate in which a pure attachment to universalism was no longer seen as a valid basis for identity.

In an interview with the Zionist labour leader Marc Jarblum, Spire recalled that it was not so much the overt, brutal antisemitism of the era that caused him to reject an assimilationist stance, but rather his shock on reading the work of several unnamed ‘supposed opponents of antisemitism’ who portrayed the Jews as exotic and particularistic in a way that was ‘foreign to the French spirit’.45 While both Franck and Spire were, to some degree, products of the same cultural mood that prompted non-Jewish writers such as the Tharaud brothers and Romain Rolland to praise the originality of the Jewish soul, as Jews they were aware of the danger of being classified as ‘different’ whether from a hostile or an overtly sympathetic perspective. This issue, as we shall see, would continue to plague Jewish writers and critics throughout the 1920s.

Jean-Richard Bloch

Like Henri Franck, Jean-Richard Bloch was born too late to participate personally in the political battle of the Dreyfus affair, but he grew up under the (p.50) shadow of its impact. Bloch was born in Paris in 1884 into a bourgeois Jewish family of Alsatian origins. With his brothers he was subjected to antisemitic attacks at their lycée at the height of the affair, an experience that had a great impact on the development of his Jewish identity.46 Bloch received his agrégation in history and geography from the Sorbonne in 1907, and became active in the socialist movement.47

Bloch’s first full-length novel, …et Cie, written between 1911 and 1914, explored two central themes: the specificity of the Jewish experience in France and the weight of tradition versus the opportunity for an individual to create his or her own destiny.48 The novel is the chronicle of three generations of the Simler family, Alsatian Jews who opt for France after the Franco-Prussian war. The story begins as Guillaume and Joseph, the sons of the family patriarch Hippolyte, set out in search of a new factory in which to relocate the family business after the defeat of 1870. They find an appropriate setting in Vandeuve, an imaginary town in ‘the West’. The first section of the novel is focused on the family’s painful transplantation into this alien environment, made difficult by both the antisemitism of their new neighbours and their own clannish tendencies. The Simlers are excluded from the Vandeuve ‘Cercle de Commerce’, whose members invoke their foreignness both as Alsatians—referring to them derogatively as Prussians—and as Jews as the basis for their exclusion. ‘What French virtues do the Simlers bring to us?’49 one of the members exclaims in response to the Simlers’ sole defender, M. Le Pleynier. What could Vandeuve be for ‘those people’ adds another, ‘but a mere stop on the road’?50

If the community is less than welcoming, however, the Simlers themselves, in particular the older generation, are staunchly traditional and little interested in social mixing. ‘A nice goy has nothing more in common with us than a hostile goy’,51 Myrtil Simler reminds his nephew, Joseph, reprimanding him for spending an entire afternoon in the company of the Pleynier family. Soon enough, however, Joseph begins to free himself from this dichotomy and falls in love with Le Pleynier’s beautiful, intelligent, and cultured daughter Hélène. His dreams of marrying her and living the life of a gentleman farmer, however, are cut short by the weight of tradition and (p.51) family obligation. ‘A goy in our home? You know that’s impossible’, his brother responds to Joseph’s naive insistence that ‘I will marry Mademoiselle Le Pleynier and I will not separate myself from you’.52 There is no middle ground, Joseph is made to realize. Marrying a Christian woman would mean a complete break with the Simler clan, and he cannot bring himself to take this route.

In the third section of the novel we find Joseph married to Elisa Stern, the wealthy but repugnant daughter of another Alsatian Jewish manufacturer, a match that has enabled the merging of the two family firms and thus the creation of Simler & Co. The family business continues to prosper and grow, and the Simlers become respected members of the Vandeuve business establishment. When Hippolyte dies in 1880, all Vandeuve attends his funeral. It is also at this point that the next generation of the Simler clan is faced with the choice of staying within the bosom of the family or creating an independent life. For Justin, Joseph’s nephew, it is not marriage that threatens to remove him from the weight of tradition, but academic success: having finished first in his class at the lycée, he is offered a place at the prestigious Ecole Normale to prepare for an academic career. Though this offer has great appeal for the young Simler, like his uncle Justin he opts for family tradition and the prosperous, secure life that awaits him in joining the family firm. ‘You are right, Justin’, his uncle Joseph reassures him. ‘You are a brave boy, and you have chosen the best path. Stay with us, and we will give you the position you deserve.’53

The last section of the novel is an epilogue, set in 1889. Benjamin, a renegade Simler son who left for the United States in 1870, returns to Vandeuve a multi-millionaire and takes Joseph and Elisa’s son, Louis, aside for a tête-à-tête. In the ten pages that follow, Benjamin explains his philosophy of life to the young Simler. The main purpose of Benjamin’s speech is to encourage Louis to create his own future rather than following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps. Simler and Company of Vandeuve has been reduced in spirit, Benjamin says to Louis, to ‘…et Cie’, an amoral capitalist enterprise that threatens to swallow up all who come under its influence. Justin, we learn, has become a lazy, arrogant dandy, completely insensitive to the factory workers, interested only in the pursuit of pleasure. ‘What happened to the Simlers is what happens to all those who found businesses, the business swallows the man, …et Cie swallows Simler, and if you’re not careful, soon there will be nothing left’, Benjamin warns his nephew.54

et Cie is, above all else, a study of the problem of individual freedom. To what extent should an individual preserve his heritage and follow in the footsteps (p.52) of his ancestors, and to what extent should he break free of tradition and define himself independently? What makes …et Cie both a fascinating and a frustrating novel, however, is Bloch’s refusal to give a clear answer. Wladimir Rabinovitch, writing almost forty years after the novel was first published, noted that it is the complexity of Bloch’s characters, none of whom is wholly likeable or wholly repugnant, that gives the novel its richness.55 At the same time that Hippolyte is presented as a tyrannical patriarch, suspicious of social mixing with his non-Jewish neighbours, he reveals himself as an honest and generous man, helping his competitor when a fire breaks out at his factory. Joseph Simler appears as weak in his decision to marry the vulgar, rich Elisa in order to further the family business instead of the refined, intelligent Hélène Le Pleynier in whom he has found a soulmate. Nonetheless, Guillaume’s appeal to tradition, to the intangible ‘thing’ that has held the family together—‘we have always been one heart and one spirit, and chez les nôtres, this is always the way it is’56—is not without appeal to the reader. What is the desire of one month when compared to the weight of thirty centuries, Bloch asks rhetorically, and at the end of the novel we are not really sure of the answer.

Bloch’s ambivalence towards Jewish tradition comes across most strongly in his epilogue. On the one hand, Benjamin appears as the prophet of individual freedom. Given the sequence of events—Joseph’s and then Justin’s sacrifice of individual freedom in favour of family obligation—Benjamin’s advice appears, at first glance, to be a rejection of the whole of the oppressive tradition of the Simler family. But although he criticizes the present ‘…et Cie’, Uncle Benjamin sings the praises of the old Simlers of Alsace, bonded together by history and tradition rather than money. Hippolyte, he tells Justin, while he might have appeared to have lived only in the material world, ‘did not really live in the world of everyday events, but first transformed them into a world of ideas … He manufactured cloth like a kabbalist, not a weaver.’57 Benjamin’s speech ultimately leaves the young Simler confused as to what he should do with his life, what his attitude should be towards his family and his heritage. ‘My mission’, Louis asks his uncle, ‘is it to destroy or to preserve? Is it the boss’s side or the workers’ side?’ ‘The side of justice’, Benjamin replies ambiguously.58

‘Jean-Richard Bloch exemplifies the constant dualism that sways us’, Rabinovitch wrote, ‘from the particular to the general, from the Jewish people to the universality of the human race.’59 For Bloch, a commitment to (p.53) socialism clearly played a critical role in shaping this dualism. Capitalist exploitation was an important secondary theme in the novel, and Bloch’s critique of capitalism and interrogation of Jewish identity clearly come together in the epilogue. Ultimately it is not so much his Jewish identity that Benjamin encourages Louis to leave behind as his identity as a bourgeois Jew. For Bloch, it is above all the embourgeoisement of the Simler family that has led to its moral downfall, and it is this path that he wants the young Louis to avoid. ‘French and bourgeois, okay. French and Jewish, I see less difficulty in that combination than in any other’,60 Benjamin tells his nephew. But bourgeois and Jew, by contrast, are not two identities that mesh acceptably.

It is here that Bloch’s brand of Jewish messianism first comes across. While Bloch, like Spire and Franck, was left alienated and confused by his engagement with issues of Jewish identity and culture, his commitment to socialism enabled him to transcend this alienation in a way that was impossible for the other two authors.61 For Bloch, the only way to synthesize his attachment to Jewish particularism and his adherence to socialist universalism was to attribute to the Jews a particular historical mission, which consisted, as expressed in Benjamin’s prophetic advice to Louis, in the pursuit of justice. This idea, which was to permeate Bloch’s later writings, became a central theme in French Zionist writing in the 1920s.62 The messianic quality of Bloch’s writings is echoed in the writings of Edmond Fleg, who made his Jewish literary debut with the publication of the first volume of Ecoute Israël in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine in 1913.

(p.54) Edmond Fleg

Much more than any of the other pre-war Jewish authors, Fleg’s writing was imbued with a religious sensibility. Edmond Flegenheimer, who adopted the literary pseudonym Fleg in 1921, was born in Geneva in 1874 into a family of Alsatian Jewish origin. In his memoir, Pourquoi je suis Juif (1928), Fleg described his family as religiously observant, but not strictly so. They kept kosher at home and ‘to have entered a tram-car on Saturday would have seemed as venturesome as to ascend to the moon’.63 Nonetheless, he was permitted to eat non-kosher food outside the home, and his father went to his office on Saturday after synagogue services. By the time that he arrived in Paris to study at the Ecole Normale in 1892, Fleg had abandoned all religious practice and initially saw little reason to remain attached to his Jewish heritage. As the decade wore on, however, he began to feel growing irritation towards the antisemitic movement, which was exacerbated by the turn towards antisemitism of his friend and fellow Normalien Lucien Moreau,64 which came to a head with the explosion of the affair. Through his growing identification with Dreyfus’s plight, Fleg recalled, came his reconnection with the Jewish people: ‘when Dreyfus was recalled from the island by his judges at Rennes and condemned for the second time my life stood still. I could take no food. I felt myself banished from the brotherhood of man. And I asked myself “Jew, what is your place in the world?”.’65 For Fleg, this sense of banishment eventually led him to dedicate his life to studying and transmitting Jewish knowledge and culture.66 While he never returned to the more Orthodox lifestyle of his childhood, much more than Spire, Franck, and Bloch, Fleg sought to transcend the sense of alienation prompted by his Jewish ‘return’ through a reconnection with Judaism itself. After the birth of his first son in 1908 he abandoned all secular pursuits for three years and immersed himself in traditional Jewish learning.67 The product of this period of religious immersion was Ecoute Israël, a series of poems that present biblical and midrashic themes in a language accessible to a modern French audience.68

(p.55) The poems are, to a certain extent, a reflection of Fleg’s own struggle to understand what place his Jewish origins should have in his present life. Their central themes are the fidelity of the Jewish people to God in the face of the trials of history and Jewish persistence through the ages. One of Fleg’s primary purposes was to explore the tension between suffering and chosen-ness in Jewish history. The first volume is divided into three sections—‘Les Pères du monde’ (‘The Patriarchs’), ‘La Maison d’esclavage’ (‘The House of Bondage’), and ‘La Terre promise’ (‘The Promised Land’)—which correspond to the books of Genesis and Exodus. Like Bloch, Fleg saw the Jewish people as imbued with a mission. Whereas Bloch understood Jewish messianism through the lens of socialism, however, Fleg remained much closer to traditional religious belief. His poetry, in a sense, was meant to remind his readers of the age-old idea that Israel’s apparent wretchedness is in fact a sign of her chosenness.

In the poem ‘La Vision d’Isaac’, Isaac has a vision of the sad fate which awaits his people, ‘dispersed and bruised, in space and time’. What good was my sacrifice on Mount Moriah, he cries to God, if after I am gone my people must endure such suffering? God replies that he can remove this burden, but in this case another people will gain immortality by spreading the word of God throughout the world. ‘Elohim! Elohim! do not change their fate!’, Isaac responds, ‘Let them live, if necessary condemned to servitude. Let them wander sobbing through places and ages, but let them see your face!’69

In ‘Moïse et Bithia’,70 Fleg conveyed Moses’ bittersweet choice of accepting Jewish identity and suffering as his own. ‘What is your pleasure today, my child?’ Moses’ Egyptian mother asks him. ‘To ride an elephant, to dance? … to be adored like a God?’ To which her son replies, ‘I want to suffer, like my brothers.’71 In the next poem, God explains to Moses that it will be his fate to lead his people to freedom, but not to set foot himself in the promised land: ‘Because your impure flesh doubted my force and my creation … you will bring my people from the land of distress and help them find the promised land … But you will rest at its threshold.’ Moses, his head hanging, accepts his destiny: ‘I will be your prophet, I will be your victim, Elohim … I will lead your children towards you, out of Mitsraim.’72

Fleg’s poetry was very well received by both the rabbinate and the Zionist community. Poems from the volume were published in L’Echo sioniste as well (p.56) as L’Univers israélite shortly after appearing in the Cahiers. Announcing a reading of the poems at the Société des Etudes Juives, L’Univers israélite remarked of Fleg, ‘All his poetry is marked by an ardent love of Judaism … a poet of our very own has been born.’73 Unlike Spire’s writings, Fleg’s poetry could not be read as an attack on the Jewish establishment, but rather evoked a traditional religious sensibility that was very appealing within this milieu. At the same time, however, his poems could be read by Zionists as a call for solidarity and the expression of a culturally based Jewish identity: ‘The love that Judaism inspires within him—Judaism as a people, as a vibrant community—is profound’, wrote Baruch Hagani, the editor of L’Echo sioniste.74 Fleg was to remain closely linked to both the Jewish establishment and the Zionist movement throughout his life.

André Spire, Henri Franck, Jean-Richard Bloch, and Edmond Fleg were united by their self-conscious struggle with the dual pull of their French and Jewish heritage. Like others of their generation, these Jewish intellectuals expressed a deep emotional connection to their ethno-cultural roots. Unlike many of their non-Jewish compatriots, however, they continued to feel a strong sense of attachment to the universal, humanist values of republican France that, they were well aware, had made their own integration into French society possible. Ultimately, these ‘first-wave’ Jewish writers were ambivalent as to how they should reconcile their deeply felt sense of belonging to France with the new importance that they had come to ascribe to their Jewish heritage. By opening up a new kind of dialogue about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world, however, they paved the way for a much wider-reaching phenomenon of Jewish self-questioning that took place in the 1920s. Reassessments of Jewish identity during this period were also related to the birth of the Zionist movement and Reform Judaism in the years between 1900 and 1914. It is to these strands of the Jewish cultural awakening that I will now turn.


(1) These poems were first published by the Société du Mercure de France in 1908 together with two previous collections of Spire’s poetry, under the title Versets; Et vous riez; Poèmes juifs. A second, enlarged, edition was published in 1919, and a definitive edition came out in 1959. In the preface to the 1959 edition, Spire provides an overview of the press reaction to Poèmes juifs at the time of their original publication. All quotes are taken from this edition. On the impact that these poems made when they were first published, see Kohn, L’Humanisme juif; Rabi, ‘André Spire’; and Crémieux, ‘La Littérature juive française’.

(3) While we do not have any direct evidence as to negative responses to the Poèmes juifs among the French Jewish establishment, the silence of both L’Univers israélite and Archives israélites clearly speaks of their lack of approval. This sentiment was perhaps shared by Charles Péguy, who had originally promised to publish the poems as a sequel to Et vous riez, which first appeared in the Cahiers in 1905. For reasons that he never fully explained, however, Péguy rejected Poèmes juifs. Spire himself attributed Péguy’s change of heart to his fear of promoting antisemitism and alienating certain segments of Jewish society that were sympathetic to (and financially supportive of) him. See Spire’s 1959 preface to Poèmes juifs (pp. 13–14).

(4) Francis de Miomandre, in L’Art moderne (3 May 1908), quoted in Poèmes juifs, 19; Georges Sorel, in Le Mouvement socialiste (15 Apr. 1908), quoted in Poèmes juifs, 20.

(5) On this early period, see Halévy, ‘Voici quelques quarante ans’.

(6) Pages libres (7 Nov. 1907), quoted in Poèmes juifs, 19. The Halévy family counted numerous prominent members in the French literary and artistic world in the 19th century, including the playwright and historian Léon Halévy and Geneviève Bizet-Strauss (née Halévy). On the Halévy family, see Loyrette (ed.), La Famille Halévy, and Silvera, Daniel Halévy and his Times.

(8) Ibid. 44.

(9) Ibid. 55.

(11) This review, originally published in the Nouvelle revue française, reappeared in essay form in Franck, La Danse devant l’arche, 177.

(12) The book, originally published by the Société du Mercure de France in 1913, was reissued in 1928 as the first volume of Quelques Juifs et Demi-Juifs. All quotes are taken from this edition. The second volume includes essays on Marcel Proust, Henri Franck, the Czech poet Otokar Fischer, and Gabriel Marcel, a French Jewish playwright, as well as the writers Armand Lunel and Jacques de Lacretelle, whose writings are discussed in Chapter 7 below.

(13) The other two essays in the collection, ‘Otto Weininger’ and ‘James Darmesteter’, were also published in essay form in the Mercure de France before being re-edited for Quelques Juifs. The piece on Darmesteter was also published in L’Effort libre, and both essays appeared in LEcho sioniste.

(15) Ibid. 16.

(16) Weininger’s pathological self-hatred and its implications have interested a number of cultural historians in recent years. Sander Gilman was among the first to discuss his case in his now classic study, Jewish Self-Hatred.

(18) Ibid. 257

(19) La Phalange (20 Oct. 1913), 345–6.

(20) French conservatives, Rogers Brubaker notes, tended to use the categories of race and culture more inconsistently than their German counterparts. See Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany, 102.

(21) See Charles Lehrmann’s discussion of Zola’s novel La Vérité, France’s short story ‘Crainquebille’, and the novels L’Anneau d’améthyste and L’Ile des pingouins, in The Jewish Element in French Literature, 190–5.

(23) Cheyette uses this term to describe essentialized discourses about Jewish difference, whether positively, negatively, or neutrally construed. As he points out in The Construction of the ‘Jew’ in English Literature and Society, 12–15, there was often a very fine line between antisemitism and philosemitism in this kind of writing.

(24) Quoted in Hyman, From Dreyfus to Vichy, 18. Hyman points to both the similarities between sympathetic and hostile characterizations of the nature of Jewish difference among non-Jewish French writers during this period and the ambiguous attitudes of figures such as Rolland and Péguy (pp. 19–23).

(25) See Marc Jarblum’s unpublished article on Gide in Jarblum’s papers in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. Jarblum was a Russian Jew who immigrated to France at the turn of the century and became a leading figure in both the Socialist Party and the labour Zionist group, Poalei Tsion. His papers contain many unpublished articles on, and interviews with, both Jewish and non-Jewish French intellectuals of his day.

(27) This is a reference to a book by Barrès entitled L’Angoisse de Pascal.

(29) See Spire’s article, ‘Henri Franck’, Europe (15 Feb. 1925), 129–38, as well as his essay on Franck in Quelques Juifs et Demi-Juifs.

(30) See ‘La Danse devant l’arche’, pts 1 and 2, in La Phalange (20 Sept. 1911 and 20 Nov. 1912). André Spire edited and wrote a preface for a posthumous collection of Franck’s letters in 1926, entitled Lettres à quelques amis.

(33) Ibid. 38.

(34) Ibid. 106.

(35) Ibid. 115.

(37) Kohn, L’Humanisme juif, 72. Rabinovitch offered a critique of the poem similar to that of Crémieux, in which he compared La Danse devant l’arche to the writings of both Darmesteter and Joseph Salvador. See Rabi, Anatomie du judaïsme français, 88.

(38) This association, which was also called L’Union Scolaire, is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.

(39) Geiger, ‘La Danse devant l’arche’, pt 1, L’Echo sioniste (10 July 1912), 141–3; pt 2 L’Echo sioniste (10 Aug. 1912), 157–9. See also André Spire, ‘Henri Franck’, L’Echo sioniste (10 Mar. 1912), 55, and Pierre Geismar, ‘Henri Franck’, L’Union scolaire (May/June 1912), 3–4. Franck’s poem did not receive any attention in either the Archives israélites or L’Univers israélite, where we find only routine notices of his death. The lack of interest in Franck in these periodicals is not surprising given the fact that his family maintained no institutional connection with the Jewish community, and even less so given the maverick religious sensibility of his poems.

(40) Franck, La Danse devant l’arche, 16. Léon Blum, in his article ‘La Prochaine Génération littéraire’, Revue de Paris (1913), repr. in id., Œuvres, ii. 247, questioned Anna de Noailles’s attribution of the prophetic tone of the poem to Franck’s Jewish heritage: ‘It is also possible’, he suggested, ‘that an entire generation shared these symptoms.’ Blum did not offer a resolution to this question, but rather left it for his reader to ponder.

(41) Bergson reached the height of his influence in the decade before the First World War. Unlike Barrès, Bergson, whose father was Jewish, did not attach any particular political agenda to his philosophy. While his ideas appealed to right-wing nationalists, Charles Péguy, taken with his mystical Catholicism, was one of his greatest devotees. His ideas were an inspiration to secular humanists at the same time as they played a key role in sparking the conversion to Catholicism of a number of French intellectuals in the pre-war years. On Bergson and his following, see Grogin, The Bergsonian Controversy.

(42) See Lettres à quelques amis, as well as Franck’s essays ‘Maurice Barrès en Auvergne’ and ‘Sur la morale et la pédagogie de Maurice Barrès’, which were published in the same volume as ‘La Danse devant l’arche’.

(45) This reference is from an undated but clearly post-Second World War interview with Spire entitled ‘Fifty Years with André Spire’, now found in Marc Jarblum’s papers at the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.

(47) Bloch remained an active member of the SFIO throughout the pre-war years, and opted for the communists after the party’s split at the Tours convention in 1920.

(48) The book was in press when publication was halted by the onset of the war, as Bloch explained in a brief preface to the first edition, published in 1918. All quotes are taken from the 19th edition, published in 1947; translations are my own.

(50) Ibid. 100.

(51) Ibid. 144.

(52) Ibid. 292.

(53) Ibid. 357.

(54) Ibid. 396.

(55) Rabi, ‘Jean-Richard Bloch’, La Terre retrouvée (30 Apr. 1947), 2. (As noted in the Introduction, Rabinovitch used the pseudonym Rabi after the Second World War.)

(57) Ibid. 395.

(58) Ibid. 401.

(61) While André Spire was active in left-wing politics throughout his life, he was not a politically committed socialist in the same way as Bloch. Spire was part of Péguy’s circle, many of whom became disillusioned with socialist politics soon after the heat of the Dreyfus affair died down. For Spire, the decision to devote his life to Jewish causes represented the embrace of a new cause that replaced his former devotion to socialism. For a discussion of the progression of Spire’s socialist and Jewish identities in this early period, see Rodrigue, ‘Rearticulations of French Jewish Identities after the Dreyfus Affair’, and Fhima, ‘Aux sources d’un renouveau identitaire juif en France’.

(62) Bloch’s critics generally agree that Lévy and …et Cie were Bloch’s two most successful literary efforts. His fiction in the 1920s consists mostly of escapist, romantic stories set in the Middle East. Wladimir Rabinovitch attributes the lack of literary genius in Bloch’s later works to his adherence to the Communist Party. This intellectual commitment to universalism, Rabinovitch argues in ‘Jean-Richard Bloch’, did not permit him to further explore the vagaries of French Jewish identity from the same critical and ‘unresolved’ perspective as he did in his two earliest works of fiction. Fhima explores Bloch’s ambivalence with regard to the world of the Jewish cultural renaissance of the 1920s in ‘Jean-Richard Bloch et la renaissance culturelle juive’.

(63) Fleg, Why I Am a Jew, 2; all references are to the English translation published in 1929.

(64) In this account, Fleg refers to Moreau—who was eventually to become a leading intellectual in the Action Française—only as ‘my Logician’. In reading Fleg’s correspondence with Moreau during the Dreyfus affair, however, it becomes clear that Moreau is the logician.

(66) For other first-hand Jewish accounts of antisemitism during the affair, see Spire, Souvenirs à bâtons rompus; Arnold Mandel, Les Temps incertains; and Abraham, Les Trois Frères. Pierre Abraham was the pen name of Pierre Bloch, Jean-Richard Bloch’s brother. See also Leroy (ed.), Les Ecrivains et l’affaire Dreyfus.

(68) These poems originally appeared in Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine in 1913. The seven-volume series was published between 1913 and 1948. The completed work was issued in one volume in 1954. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this edition.

(70) This poem also appeared in L’Univers israélite (24 Dec. 1915), 397–8.

(72) Ibid. 42.

(73) L’Univers israélite (11 Apr. 1913), 106.

(74) L’Echo sioniste (10 May 1913), 105.