Derrida

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Derrida’s (Crypto-) Jewish Identity

In Culture of Critique I had a brief section on philosopher Jacques Derrida’s strong Jewish identity and how that informed his writing. (See here, p. 198ff.) It emphasizes the point that Derrida thought of himself as a crypto-Jew. Despite his pose as “a leftist Parisian intellectual, a secularist and an atheist,” Derrida descended from a long line of crypto-Jews, and at one point he explicitly identifies himself as a crypto-Jew: “Marranos that we are, Marranos in any case whether we want to be or not, whether we know it or not.” Derrida changed his first name to the French Christian sounding ‘Jacques’ in order better blend into the  French scene.

Indeed, one might say that Derrida’s crypsis is typical of Jews on the left:

[Leftist] universalism may thus be viewed as a mechanism for Jewish continuity via crypsis or semi-crypsis. The Jewish radical is invisible to the [non-Jew] as a Jew and thereby avoids anti-Semitism while at the same time covertly retains his or her Jewish identity. Lyons (1982, 73) finds that “most Jewish Communists wear their Jewishness very casually but experience it deeply. It is not a religious or even an institutional Jewishness for most; nevertheless, it is rooted in a subculture of identity, style, language, and social network. . . . In fact, this second-generation Jewishness was antiethnic and yet the height of ethnicity. The emperor believed that he was clothed in transethnic, American garb, but [non-Jews] saw the nuances and details of his naked ethnicity.” (Chapter 3 of CofC, p. 91)

The Forward has an article on a recent biography of Derrida that adds to the portrait. It notes that Derrida was “acutely aware of his ethnic identity” and as a result much of his early writing was on “fellow Jews.” He took his crypto-Judaism to the grave:

Abundant details provided by Peeters prove Derrida’s lasting devotion toYiddishkeit When Derrida was buried, his elder brother, René, wore a tallit at the suburban French cemetery and recited the Kaddish to himself inwardly, since Jacques had asked for no public prayers. This discreet, highly personal, yet emotionally and spiritually meaningful approach to recognizing Derrida’s Judaism seems emblematic of this complex, imperfect, yet valuably nuanced thinker.

In other words, Derrida was a crypto-Jew until the end and instructed his family to participate in the charade.  Read more