Jewish and Italian: A celebrity writer celebrates his heritage

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2004

ROME (AP) At a time when Europe again faces the ugly specter of anti-Semitism, an adviser to the Italian government who travels in this nation's most sophisticated circles has written a very personal testament about being Jewish.

Alain Elkann's simple message: The Jews will not fade away.

''If many don't like us, it's not our problem, we don't have time to lose, we have to move ahead with our history,'' Elkann writes in his new book ''Mitzva.''

''The obstacles don't scare us, rather they strengthen us and make us more obstinate. We have the right and the duty to be ourselves given that we are born this way.''

Elkann is a privileged observer. He is a writer, an adviser to the government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi and was married into Italy's most powerful family the Agnellis of the Fiat auto empire.

He is now divorced from Margherita Agnelli, daughter of the late charismatic Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, but their eldest son, John Elkann, 28, is vice chairman of Fiat and the heir to the dynasty.

Elkann's book launch last month drew a mixture of celebrity and power that few can match, bringing together Gianni Agnelli's sister, Susanna; Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's right-hand man; a distinguished Rome rabbi and a leading Italian Roman Catholic bishop.

Even those credentials, however, weren't an insurance policy. A few days later, Elkann found the tires of his car punctured. Jewish cemeteries and synagogues also have been attacked and human rights groups have warned of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

''It happened, I can't say for sure there was a connection to the book, but it happened,'' Elkann said in an interview in his office in the Italian Cultural Ministry, indicating he would not be intimidated.

The 54-year-old Elkann describes himself as a ''wandering Jew.''

His French father and Italian mother fled Nazi and Fascist persecution in Europe and met in New York, where he was born. But he went to school in Turin, Italy, and his religious memories center on Yom Kippur services at a synagogue in Paris, where his father headed the Jewish community.

''One fasts in a sign of repentance and it is significant that it is actually a sad day that unites all the Jews of the world, even those who are neither religious nor believers,'' he writes. ''What does Yom Kippur mean to me? It means feeling Jewish. And what does it mean feeling Jewish? It means feeling myself.''

''Mitzva,'' a title referring to the commandments Jews should follow, contains some highly personal touches.

No, he doesn't feel saddened that his children, baptized as Catholics, don't join him on Yom Kippur. What is fundamental, he says, is love between parent and child.

Yet he wonders whether his children were saddened that he didn't take part in their religious festivities. ''I preferred to live my own solitary Judaism, in secret,'' he says.

He also recounts saying the kaddish before his father's grave with his second wife, who is also Catholic, and marveling that the two of them ''mix our religions in an absolutely natural way.''

Italy's leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, called the book ''a little diary that touches on big themes.''

Time and again in the 88-page book, Elkann gets back to the problem of anti-Semitism and the minority position of Jews in a country such as Italy where, he pointed out in the interview, the word ''Christian'' is often used to mean human being.

Recalling that his parents fled Europe ahead of the deportations to death camps, Elkann says ''racism unfortunately remains rooted, and growing again in Germany, France, Italy. In Turkey, bombs exploded in a synagogue while faithful were praying.''

He even acknowledges thinking that ''it would be easier not being Jewish, just finish it and become Catholic like the others around me.''

''But then something deep, a hidden pride always led me to resist the temptation ...,'' he writes.

He also says he is impressed by the liveliness of Rome's tiny Jewish community, which numbers only about 15,000 but dates itself back some 2,000 years. In what has become a recent tradition, the city has set aside part of Piazza Barberini, a major square near Via Veneto, for a Hanukkah menorah this holiday season.

Sales of the book are ''going well'' and it is now in its third edition, said Isabella D'Amico, a spokeswoman for the publisher, Bompiani. There are plans to translate the book into German, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

''Being Jewish,'' Elkann writes, ''is nothing special. It is the human condition of a few men and women who are equal to everybody else'' and just ''want to be left in peace.''



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