The Arty Semite

Frédéric Chouraki's Yom Kippur Comedy

By Benjamin Ivry

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France’s Frédéric Chouraki is one of Europe’s most frivolous and insouciant young Jewish novelists. Chouraki’s 2008 “Ginsberg and Me” (“Ginsberg et moi”), from Les Éditions du Seuil, is a fictional jape about Simon Glückmann, an observant young French Jew who meets and seduces the elderly American poet Allen Ginsberg in a Paris gay sauna. Hijinks ensue, with Ginsberg depicted in the unflattering guise, as one reviewer put it, of a “libidinous old goat.”

Chouraki’s equally irreverent new novel, “The Kippur Conflict,” (“La Guerre de Kippour”) has just appeared from Editions le Dilettante, a small literary press which explains that the author, born in 1972, is “keen on women’s tennis, Jewish mysticism, and Anglo-Saxon literature.”

Chouraki’s novel has nothing to do with Israel’s tragic 1973 Yom Kippur War, but alludes instead to the well-known phenomenon of “Kippur Jews” — unobservant people who go to synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur. Chouraki’s mordant satire describes the family strife caused when a bisexual young French Jew, Frédéric Bronstein, brings his non-Jewish girlfriend home to meet his parents in the Paris suburbs.

Popeline, the girlfriend, reminds Bronstein of Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite painting, “Lady Lilith,” but his parents think she looks like Talila, the “famed Venetian blond Yiddish singer to whom all sixtyish Jews are exaggeratedly devoted.”

Popeline expresses pride in her boyfriend’s chosen profession, a ghostwriter for Harlequin Romance-style novels about “chaste idylls” among gay men. Bronstein, described as having “no distinguishing features apart from an obsessive love for the works of Otto Weininger,” relishes Popeline’s expertise on the “erotic clockwork of Tsimtsum.”

Chouraki’s flamboyant prose style typically mixes references from Kabbalah with carnal matters, just as his accounts of heterosexual romance are undercut by reminders that Bronstein is also having gay experiences with a Pakistani grocer and others in the Marais, the longtime ghetto of Paris’s minority populations.

Sometimes the grotesque humor is overdone, such as when Bronstein’s Tunisian Jewish grandmother seemingly drops dead at the dinner table, only to resuscitate later. Yet fans of comic fiction will delight in Chouraki’s idiosyncratic take on Yiddishkeit.

Watch a short video presenting the work of Frédéric Chouraki here.


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