Roman Holidays

Letter From Italy

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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One thing to know about Alain Elkann, the much-discussed French-Italian-Jewish author, journalist, and man of Roman society, is that a lot of the talk is talk about his face. Think of a youthful, smoldering Richard Gere, then think one better. It is a face impossible to ignore, and it is not the face he has always worn. In photographs showing Elkann in his late 30s and early 40s, his face has more meat on it, the hint of a temper, and his hair is a dark brown-black, rough, and a little unruly. But not today. Now, at 55, Elkann is a slender, refined man with a face that could be the template for a creation produced by an international media consulting firm: a face that is, in a word, flawless. His steel grey hair is immaculately clipped, contrasting neatly with the even bronze of his skin; his penetrating gaze, in gunmetal blue, never wavers; his long, firm jaw is perfectly shaved; his voice, a faultless modulated projection. Nothing mars the image. Not even withering, 100 degree heat in Rome’s late June, sitting in a winter garden in the airy apartment he shares with his wife, Rosi Greco; his shirt, a royal blue, drapes impeccably from his shoulders, with nary a wrinkle in sight.

His first wife, and the source of some of his renown, was, of course, Margherita Agnelli, the daughter of legendary Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, and mother of his three children, who are now heirs to one of Italy’s greatest fortunes.

But most of Elkann’s fame is due to assiduous hard work: He is almost an ubiquitous presence on Italian screens, airwaves and newspaper pages. He publishes a weekly Q&A interview in La Stampa (“to do it you have to be curious and lazy” he said), appears daily in two-minute radio broadcast reviewing books, and anchors a well-regarded (and much seen) weekly TV show on politics and culture.

Elkann was born in New York, issue of a French father, Jean-Paul Elkann, who went on, later in life, to lead France’s Jewish community, and an Italian mother, the Torino-born Carla Ovazza, both refugees from Hitler’s Europe. Both his wives have been Christians, as are his children. “I believe religion has to come from the mother,” he said, with slight defensiveness reserved for anyone who questions his personal choices. “And to be Jewish is not the only way to be. But I am a Jew. I am who I am, and they are who they are. I have my own life as a Jew, without connection to my children or to my wife. I am who I have always been.”

In fact, his recent works have all touched on the subject of Jewish identity, from a three-book set of interviews published between 1993 and 2001, explicating the three major monotheistic religions to secular Europeans (the books have been published in French and Italian), to his latest work, the 2004 book-length essay “Mitzvá,” a meditation on the meaning of being a Jew. In all these works, the ongoing existence of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe lurks as a vaporous demon.

The question of antisemitism has been fueling a certain intellectual fervor this summer. Daniele Scalise, a renowned journalist who is not Jewish, recently published a book-length study of Italian antisemitism titled “The Same Old Jews: A Voyage Into Anti-Jewish Prejudice in Today’s Italy,” an open-eyed, full-throated national survey of antisemitic attitudes and experiences. Antisemitism, Scalise asserts, is alive and well today in Italy.

“No one likes to discuss this,” he says, “or no one really knows what he wants to say. ‘I don’t like anti-Semitism’? ‘I don’t see it’? ‘It is not there’? — so it is easier not to discuss at all. But it is there, concealed.” As Scalise spoke, a small outrage was brewing in the Roman media over a recently-published article, in the major daily Corrriere Della Sera, defending the 1857 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old boy seized from his Jewish parents by the papal authorities and taken to be raised as a Catholic. Scalise is the author of a previous book on the case, “The Mortara Case”(Mondadori, 1997), and was incensed by the article.

Elkann, of course, has a different style. He is not one for polemics. The triptych on the monotheistic religions is a boxed set of cultivated and well-reasoned interviews with three moderates representing their faiths: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, of Rome; former Roman Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, and Hassan bin Talal, the former Crown Prince of Jordan.

When asked about the Muslim immigrants who throng Rome’s Termini train station, a six-minute drive from Elkann’s residence, he deflected, saying, “Fanaticism will pass, like an epidemic. In the end it will not win. I don’t like the word tolerance — you’d never say a man ‘tolerates’ his wife, right? — but in the end, respect of each other is what will prevail. Respect, not tolerance.”

No one likes to say it outright, but despite his extraordinary professional output, Elkann is perceived as, well, perhaps as something of a Jewish dilettante. Truth is, no one in Roman Jewish intellectual circles likes to talk publicly about Elkann at all, though he is, of course, constantly discussed and dissected; the Elkann enigma, as much as the power he wields in Italian media, triggers a certain reticence. Political activist Victor Magiar, who is also, recently, the author of the memoir “E Venne La Notte: Ebrei In Un Paese Arabo(La Giuntina, 2003) (And Night Falls: Jews in an Arab Land), said of his fellow Roman Jewish intellectuals, “They are perplexed by him” — deep shrug — “that is the reason nobody likes to talk about him. People think that as a Jew, he may be a bluff. Nobody really understands what he is.”

It is true that Elkann seems remote from Italian Jewish life, specifically. But then his life as a Jew was mostly lived abroad. “There is one synagogue in Paris where I like to go on Yom Kippur, and that is where I really hear avinu malkeynu. You are what you learned as a young child. I can go to synagogue anywhere, of course, but that is the place where Kippur takes place for me.”

In “Mitzvá,” which begins as an exposition on Yom Kippur, he writes: “Kippur is a magical, intimate day for me. For years it belonged entirely to me and my father, then was only mine, then me and my wife’s.”

He has been an adviser to the Italian government on matters relating to the Jewish community, and sees his role in the public sphere as more political than pious, namely, “to incline the Italian government in a more pro-Israeli direction. I hate it when people say, ‘No, I’m not antisemitic. I am anti-Israeli.’ Most left-wing people are anti-Israeli, and many of these, stupidly enough, are Jews against Israel.”

By any objective standard Elkann is, of course, the ultimate urban and urbane Jew, but it is the skepticism he faces as a Jew that seems to have motivated his last, ruminative, book. “Look,” he said, with some heat, leaving it not entirely clear if he is addressing Jewish or non-Jewish detractors, “I have the right to be Jewish and not be bothered, and if you bother me, I’ll punch you in your nose.”

“Being Jewish is difficult. You have to be prepared. It is a difficult religion. There is no confession. No go-between between God and you. No saints. This,” he said, “is why I wrote this book.”

The epigraph of “Mitzvá” — “When we don’t know where we are going, at least we know from where we come” — is generally taken to be a reference to his situation as a Jew, but it may, of course, gently hark back to Dante, who famously addressed the uncertainty provoked by mid-life. And the book, as if unsure of its own heft, is cosseted by not one but two prologues, one by Rabbi Toaff, the other by Elie Wiesel.

In it, Elkann allows himself a small, ironic ode to the liberal pluralism that defines the city of his birth: “Being a Jew in New York is normal. I feel more tranquil there, one like any other, one among many. I can wear or not wear a kippa, whatever I feel like. Anyone there can just say: ‘I am Jewish, I grew up in a small New Jersey town where almost everyone else were Italians or Poles.’”

Noga Tarnopolsky is a writer living in Jerusalem.

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