Exploring Jewishness, Nostalgia, and Intolerance in the Age of Trump

Leslie Camhi

When we first see her, she’s a blur, moving back and forth behind a chain-link fence. Then the camera pulls back, revealing a young woman, lithe and blonde, playing tennis but only half-seriously, in a white dress with red piping. We are in Ferrara; it is 1938, and though Italy has been Fascist for more than a decade, Mussolini’s recent alliance with Hitler has brought new racial laws to the formerly tolerant country. Italian Jews—a tiny and, for the most part, highly assimilated minority—are suddenly excluded from holding office or attending public school; their books are banned; they can no longer marry non-Jews or even employ them as servants.

The local tennis club also expels them. So Micòl Finzi-Contini, the girl in the white dress, and her brother, Alberto—Jewish aristocrats who have always kept themselves a bit apart from the local community—open the gates of their family’s lush estate for the first time to a small band of young people, both Jews and others, who join them there for tennis parties on summer afternoons.

Italian director Vittorio De Sica’s classic film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis—based on the brilliant semi autobiographical novel by Giorgio Bassani—stars Dominique Sanda, an actor fetishized by 1970s European auteurs and whose appeal riveted art-house audiences across the world. (Delicate, fey Helmut Berger—the love object of an entire lost generation—plays her adored younger brother, Alberto.) In 1971, Vogue declared Sanda “as desired as Monroe, as enigmatic as Garbo, as blunt as Hepburn, as individual as Bernhardt.”

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971, but I must have seen it more than a decade later, at a college film-society screening. My boyfriend at the time, a graduate student in English literature, was obsessed with Sanda. (He’d leave me a year later for his undergraduate sweetheart, a wispy blonde who he claimed vaguely resembled his on-screen idol.)

Sanda had an elongated dancer’s torso and a preternatural, almost animal grace, clear, intelligent blue eyes, and an intriguing softness around her mouth that made her appear at once yielding and inaccessible. Yet it was not just her beauty, remarkable though it was, that moved me. There was also her voice, caressingly smooth, seemingly artless but drawing you in, like a whisper, with the promise of intimacy. She was just 19 when De Sica cast her in the role she’d later call “my consecration.” And behind her character’s exquisite manners and teasing provocations, I sensed something implacable—a fierce loyalty to the past, combined with an almost savage independence.

In fact, Sanda’s Micòl represented a new chapter in my own ongoing negotiation with myself, over what my own Jewishness would mean to me.

There had been no one like Micòl in the petit bourgeois Jewish enclave where I’d grown up on the South Shore of Long Island (a place I longed to escape, and later a past I quickly abandoned). My family was not at all religious—no one protested, for example, when I abandoned once-a-week Hebrew lessons at our Reform synagogue in favor of Saturday-morning cartoons—nor, for that matter, were we very big on team spirit. We were all too busy trying to stay afloat, each of us clinging, like survivors of a shipwreck, to separate bits of the refuse left behind in the wake of my mother’s early death. At seven, I was the youngest, and I clung the hardest to the memory of a woman whose outlines faded with each passing year. My ancestral knowledge barely stretched back a single generation.

Oh, to be so cherished and sheltered, looked after by servants who knew you as a child, followed everywhere by the now-toothless Great Dane who’d once seemed to you a giant; to grow up nicknaming the rare, towering palms your grandmother had imported from Rome to plant in your family’s vast garden. As an adolescent, I had learned to relish the freedom my family’s neglect had furnished me with, but Micòl’s liberty seemed to me far more precious. Her every look and gesture telegraphed the radical self-assurance of someone who could not be more intensely rooted in place, or more beloved.

Her Jewishness ran just as deeply. That identity was not something she wore on her sleeve (at least not until she would be forced to do so, with the obligatory yellow star). Yet even while she led a secular, assimilated life—pursuing an advanced degree at the university, socializing with a very mixed group of friends, pausing from her tennis game to eat little ham sandwiches—her position as an outsider colored all her interactions and everything she touched.

I thought of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for the first time in decades two years ago, when a group of white men holding torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, on a summer evening, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” By that time, after long stretches of living abroad and a couple of decades in downtown Manhattan, I’d found a home on the Upper West Side, just around the corner from the grand Romanesque-and Byzantine-style synagogue, built in the pre-Crash 1920s, where my son had recently become a bar mitzvah.

My own religious education remained scanty, my Hebrew fragmentary, and I still found sitting through Saturday-morning services a challenge. But as a family we had come to value this intellectually rigorous, traditional yet egalitarian and socially progressive congregation, whose acts of kindness and charity stretched throughout the broader urban community. I wondered, watching those men in Charlottesville, if my very mixed neighborhood was a (considerably less elegant) version of the Finzi-Contini garden—a kind of waiting room, a protected enclave in the face of coming violence.

Since then, I’ve witnessed our nation’s public discourse coarsening and anti-Semitism surging on both the political right, where one might most expect it, and on the left, enabled in each instance by unseemly equivocations. The assassination of 11 members of the congregation at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last fall made its own, horrifying incursion into new/old patterns of hatred. The next evening, as people of all denominations rushed to show their support, our synagogue’s huge, two-story sanctuary was filled to overflowing, and the line to get inside it stretched around the block twice. (People waiting began to sing, I was later told, and rabbis held services in the street.) Inside, my son and I listened as individuals and clergy members—Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others—offered healing words of solidarity and prayer in memory of the dead.

Micòl Finzi-Contini held on to her elegance, pride, and fierce individuality in the face of polarizing and murderous violence. Yet we know how her story ended, in the ashes of the Shoah. We have to write a different ending for our own—standing together as we open wide the gates of our garden, forming new alliances against old enemies, not letting the latter’s hate define us.

One evening out of the blue, and many years after we’d last spoken, my college boyfriend called me. He’d seen my byline in a national newspaper, attached to a story with a Paris dateline, and found my number. He’d married his Sanda look-alike, he told me, and was teaching English literature at a small college; they’d just had their first child. I offered my congratulations but kept the conversation brief.

And Sanda? As a teenager (née Dominique Varaigne) she had horrified her strict, middle-class French Catholic family by attending art school. She was just 16 when a phone call—that voice again, like woodsmoke dipped in honey—persuaded French director Robert Bresson to cast her in her first screen role. By 20, she’d been married and divorced. The next year she’d give birth to her only child, a boy (“my connection to eternity,” she said later in a interview), with French actor and director Christian Marquand.

In the half-century since, she’d worked quite regularly in both film and theater, though she’d long since faded from my view; I’d read that she divided her time between Paris and Buenos Aires. Recently, though, while I was watching Saint Laurent, director Bertrand Bonello’s fashion biopic, an actor appeared whose face, though lined, looked strangely familiar—and when she spoke, her voice was unmistakable. In the film, Sanda plays Yves Saint Laurent’s impeccable mother, Lucienne, enveloping with tender maternal solicitude that wild child of the 1970s, the kind she herself had once been.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue