The Arty Semite

From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Hunting around France’s National Archives for naturalization papers of famous people might seem an odd way to compile a fascinating book, but Doan Bui and Isabelle Monin, two journalists from the weekly Nouvel Observateur, managed to do just that with “They Became French” (Ils sont devenus français), out from Les éditions J.-C. Lattès in November.

The immigrants, many of them Jews, would be such cultural and intellectual notables (or the parents of notables) as singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, statesman Robert Badinter, painter Marc Chagall, Nobel-prizewinning scientist Georges Charpak, and author Joseph Kessel.

Of the Jewish luminaries described in “They Became French,” the easiest naturalization process was accorded to Jacques (born Jacob, of German Jewish ancestry) Offenbach in 1860. Already celebrated as the composer of 1858’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Offenbach was worshiped by a prefect of police, who wrote an official letter of praise for his dossier.

More typical of the often-brutal French civil service was the file on Chagall, described as a “Russian Jew whose naturalization is without any national interest.” By the late 1920s, Chagall was already over forty, and his paintings appeared, to the official eye, too inspired by Russian shtetls to have anything to interest France!

Also, although Chagall would be a happily uxorious spouse and father, he could appear somewhat feminine in person, and so one steely-eyed civil servant judged him “lacking demographic interest” after a 1934 interview. In other words, he was seen as unlikely to procreate and thereby help the depopulation of France after First World War. André Dezarrois, director of the prestigious École des beaux-arts wrote in a confidential memo that:

Moïse” (or Moses) Chagall although one of the “best Jewish painters” only produces “miniature, anecdotal, and illustration-like art… [Chagall] was not a Russian painter and will never be a French painter.

When more influential voices carried the day, notably the culturally astute Jewish statesman Jean Zay, Chagall finally did receive French citizenship in 1937, but still as “Moïse,” rather than Marc.

Other family immigration stories told in this compelling volume concern the composer Joseph Kosma (born József Kozma in Budapest) who wrote the quintessentially Parisian song “Les feuilles mortes” (Autumn Leaves). Or Anna Werzberg Mangel, the mother of the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau, whose Polish Jewish father was murdered at Auschwitz. Or Manacha Tenebaum, father of the much-loved French singer Jean Ferrat, who would share the same fate. All together, “They Became French” is a compelling, unexpectedly dramatic compendium.

Watch a French TV report on the book “They Became French.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Marcel Marceau, Serge Gainsbourg, Marc Chagall, Josef Kozma, Georges Charpak

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.