Sodom and Diaspora—Jewish Identity in ‘Call Me By Your Name’

· Updated on May 29, 2018

One specific word occurred to me while reading André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, a Hebrew word that brought me back to my childhood in Tel Aviv: “. . . Me Jewish, Celan Jewish, Oliver Jewishwe were in a half ghetto, half oasis, . . . where one person simply knows the other and knows him so thoroughly that to be taken away from such intimacy is galut, the Hebrew word for exile and dispersal. Was he my home, then, my homecoming?”

Galut. Exile, the Jewish diaspora. The worst thing you could say about a person in my childhood in Tel Aviv was that he’s galuti (derived from galut). Being galuti meant not to belong to Israeli society, to be an alien, a minority.

I was a minority, though. The teenagers in the neighborhood made fun of me, grabbed me by the balls, saying I’m a sissy. My babysitter mocked me and wondered how I would be a good soldier when I turned 18. And though I spoke the national language, Hebrew, I felt mute. Something was missing.

I knew that Hebrew was in fact not my mother tongueit was French (my mother’s parents were born in francophone Cairo), while my father spoke with his parents only in Arabic. They were children of immigrants, and wanted me to be a real Israeli: robust, not at all polyglot, resident in one place onlymy homeland, and of course, a hundred percent heterosexual.

At the age of 17, I played the role of Prince Jonathan in a musical named David. King David was a real straight manon and off the stage. I was not. All my loves were destined to be disillusioned loves at that time. But that same year, Yaël Dayan, a gay rights activist, read from the Knesset podium the lamentation of King David: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26, King James Bible), which obviously caused a big scandal.

I learned French at that timemy mother’s mother tongueand came across a paragraph written by Marcel Proust, in which he compared the idea of Zionism to one he calls “rebuilding Sodom.” Proust is of course referring to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two biblical cities that are the symbol of sin, vice, and homosexuality: “Certainly, they [the Sodomites] form in every country a colony at once Oriental, cultivated, musical, and slanderous, . . . but I have wanted provisionally to forestall the fatal error that would consist, just as a Zionist movement has been encouraged, in creating a sodomist movement and in rebuilding Sodom” (Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 4, John Sturrock, trans. NY: Penguin Books, 2002).

Then I started to think about the Jewish condition and the gay condition as one shared state of marginality. And I realized that in order to live my life as gay, I hadmaybe not to rebuild Sodombut yes, to leave Israel and find my galut, my diaspora. When I’d settled down in Paris, I first lived in the Marais, which is both the LGBTQ+ and the Jewish quarter. Of course, these two communities lived completely in parallel. Shortly after I arrived, my mother asked me on the phone if I was “in touch with the community.” To which I answered, “Absolutely. But I’m not sure it’s the community you’re talking about.”

My mother, however, was right after all: In Paris, I really learned not only that I was gay, but also that I was Jewish.

Back to Call Me by Your Name: I’ve read that people have been arguing that in the film the Jewish topic is not as developed as in Aciman’s book. I find Elio’s family utterly Jewish, though they are “Jews of discretion,” to use Elio’s mother’s words.

Because what can be more Jewish than a person who lives in different countries yet entirely belongs to none of them, who speaks several languages but does not totally “possess” one of them only, a person who is physically present at a certain point in time, yet seems to belong to all eras and never to one specific, recognizable moment?

Mostly, I find that in both the book and the film, the longing and even the lust are particularly “Jewish,” since they involve secrecy, shame, crossed boundaries, and underground solidarity among minorities. As Elio laments, “with the kindness one Jew extends to another, work his way into my body, gently and softly, after heeding the words I’d been rehearsing for days now, Please, don’t hurt me, which meant, Hurt me all you want.”

No doubt, Jews, as a minority, can share that sense of solidarity, of shame, of hurt. Theyjust like gay peoplecan find someone like them within the madding crowd; they have signsthe Star of David for the Jews (the Star of David on Oliver’s chest), the rainbow flag for gay people; they live in a secrecy understood by themselves only; they are restless, they keep on erring endlessly, desperatelydiaspora for the Jews, cruising in dark places at night or scrolling through profiles on Grindr in search of fast love for gay people; they are delicate yet brave and have the freedom to have no one specific homeland, let alone a nation. They live among themselves yet do not fear crossing borders and ignoring well-protected boundaries.

But how could I write about the queer Middle East today?

Recently I went to a gay bookstore in San Francisco, one day before my novel, The Diamond Setter, was published. The bookseller asked me what my book is about, and I said three words: “Queer Middle East.” But writing about gay life in the Middle East was not an easy task, since this region has nowadays many borders and walls. Only eighty years ago, my grandfather, whose name I bear, Moshe Sakal, could go from Damascus, his hometown, to visit a lover in Jaffa, Palestinebe that lover Jewish, Muslim, or Christianthen do some business in Baghdad, Iraq, then visit a friend in Tehran, Iran. Today, obviously, this is no longer possible. But one of the things that helped me write a story about back in the days when the Middle East was steeped not only in blood but also in love, was digitization.

Just imagine: If you travel today to the northernmost point in Israel and go on Grindr, right away you’ll find many guys living across the border in southern Lebanon. You can choose a man you like and text him: “Hi, if there were no fucking border between us, only 10 minutes and I’d be in your arms!” Unfortunately, there is a well-secured border, there is a fence, there is a minefield, and no physical contact can be carried out, though a lot of men try hard. However, my characters do find creative ways to cross borders, and to meet, thanks to Grindr.

That was only the first step. I realized that once you get rid of these borders between hostile countries, very interesting things can happen. That’s how my characters also explore polyamorous relationships. There are two love triangles in my book: the first takes place in the 1940s, between a Jewish male/female couple from Damascus and a Palestinian woman from Jaffa. The second love triangle takes place in 2011 and involves a young Syrian man named Fareed and a male Israeli couple.

Having been born into a straight Jewish-Syrian patriarchal family, the eldest of four siblings, who chose to live a very different life than his family members, the decisions I took throughout the years were not understood by my family early on. But I can proudly say that my family always allowed me to follow my heart and eventually supported me in every move I made: For years my mother has been hosting support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ children, while my fathera diamond setterdisplays the rainbow flag on the window of his jewelry store in Tel Aviv, and they both love my partner as if he were their own son.

While I wrote my novel, I interviewed many gay people from Tel Aviv and Jaffa, including gay Palestinians who hold an Israeli passport. I was sometimes astonished by the way in which young men who were raised in Muslim villages could come out to their families, who in many cases would make no big deal of it at all.

Erasing borders and boundariesboth physical and symbolicwas my aim in this book, and I find it particularly exciting that my characters’ wordswritten in Hebrew in Tel Aviv and Jaffacan reach American readers and remind us that the human experience is, after all, universal: Just like a Jew or a gay person can find his match in a crowd, just like Elio found Oliver and felt immediately bound to him by both a physical and mental ties, just like two guys from totally different backgrounds can meet today thanks to digitizationthat’s how readers can connect through a work of art. And for that we should be grateful.

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