Memmi Albert - Portrait of a Jew

Author : Memmi Albert
Title : Portrait of a Jew
Year : 1962

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As this book is to a great extent a self-portrait, it would be well for me to give at least a brief account of myself. I was born in Tunisia, in Tunis, a few steps from that city's large ghetto. My father, a harnessmaker, was somewhat pious, naturally somewhat so, as were all those men of his trade and his station in life. My childhood was marked by the rhythms of the weekly Sabbath and the cycle of Jewish holidays. At a fairly early age, after first attending Yeshiva and then the Alliance Israelite, I became associated with various Jewish youth movements — scouts, cultural groups, political groups — so that, though I had profound doubts about religion, I did not stray from Jewry. On the contrary, I found it secured and even deepened a certain continuity for me. For a number of years I pursued a course of studies that dispensed Jewish culture both traditional and reformed, open to the most immediate problems and yet solidly anchored to the past. I took up collections, among the flat graves in the Jewish cemetery or in front of old synagogues, on behalf of various community works, for the poor, for Polish refugees, for German refugees. Without too much embarrassment, illegally or not, I went from door to door trying stubbornly to convince my co-religionists of the beauty, importance and necessity of the Zionist movement at a period when that movement appeared to be nothing but an adventure. I even thought of going to Israel, or rather, to the romantic, pioneer Palestine of those days. In other words, I was sufficiently involved in all Jewish activities for my emotions, my mind and my life to become identified with the lot of all Jews over a fairly long period. A moment came, however, which actually had its roots in the French lycee, when that intense ardor seemed to stifle me, and the rest of the world suddenly became more important. That was the period of the war in Spain, of the French Front Populaire, and of my own departure for the university. While the physical break with the clan and the community, then with the city, and the contact with non-Jews whom I admired and liked, did not make me forget I was a Jew, it did cause me to consider that aspect of myself as part of a nobler and more urgent problem. The solution to that large body of ills from which all men suffered would in a way automatically solve my personal difficulties. Exchanging one enthusiasm for another, I came to consider anyone who did not think in universal terms as narrow-minded and petty. It is necessary to bear in mind what that extraordinary period meant to our generation. We believed, finally, that for the first time humanity had perceived the light that could and must disperse darkness once and for all: oppressive measures, differences that separated us from each other, would be shattered, they were already being shattered. . . . Paradoxically, that universal light bore the clearly defined face of Europe — and more specifically, of France; but that did not trouble us; on the contrary, we were doubly grateful to the privileged for relinquishing their privileges and so identifying themselves with freedom and progress. After all, it was they who had invented the remedies after the ills: equality after domination, socialism after exploitation, science, techniques and promises of abundance. And by the time I left Tunis to continue my studies — soon to be interrupted, however — I thought no more about Palestine but only of returning to my native land, a universalist and non-denominational, reconciled to everything and everybody, Tunisians, French and Italians, Moslems and Christians, colonizers and colonized. . . . "The Jewish problem" had been diluted with the honey of that universal embrace which, though not yet fully realized, was so near, so obvious, because so necessary. ...

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