Film’s gay lovers bonded as Jews first, says ‘Call Me by Your Name’ writer

Coming-of-age drama, touted as one of the best Jewish movies in years, is based on a novel by an Egyptian-born Jew

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Armie Hammer (left) and Timothée Chalamet in 'Call Me by Your Name.' (Courtesy Sony Classics)
Armie Hammer (left) and Timothée Chalamet in 'Call Me by Your Name.' (Courtesy Sony Classics)

In all of André Aciman’s life — as a child in Alexandria, Egypt, a refugee in Rome and a new immigrant in New York — he never quite saw himself as a Jew.

Yet his 2007 novel, “Call Me by Your Name,” now made into a poignant coming-of-age film seen as a landmark in gay cinema and reportedly a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, is as much about being Jewish as it is about first love.

“I would never have been able to write this book without Jewish content,” said Aciman, speaking from his home in New York City.

“It appears early on in the novel. Elio [the teenager played by Jewish actor Timothée Chalamet], sees Oliver’s [Elio’s father’s university student, who is their houseguest] Star of David necklace and for him, who grew up in an Italy that is not anti-Semitic but where there are no Jews, he sees the Magen David and he’s stunned at Oliver’s boldness and effrontery.”

It was a moment that Aciman drew from his own childhood in Alexandria, where he was raised in a French-speaking home by parents who were secular Sephardic Jews of Turkish and Italian origins.

The sight of two brothers in Alexandria who wore mezuzahs on their necklaces at the beach astounded an 8-year-old Aciman.

“It made me pay attention,” he said. “It alerted me to something.”

In his book, the Jewish element emerges before anything sexual or romantic happens between the two young men, said Aciman.

Andre Aciman, the academic and novelist who wrote ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ now a film and possible Oscar contender (Courtesy Andre Aciman)

“It’s not sexual, but Jewish at first,” he said. “It’s something fundamental and deep-rooted between them. It’s the development of an essential bond between them.”

The book was optioned by the film’s director, Luca Guadagnino, years ago, but it took time for him to find financing. With a screenplay written by Guadagnino and James Ivory, whom he granted carte blanche, Aciman never worried about the adaptation and said he “loved” the entire production.

He marveled that there was no partisanship in the making of the film, nor politics.

The film has been released during a time of heightened anti-Semitic and anti-immigration sentiment and fear of the other, all addressed by Aciman in the novel and experienced by him in his own life.

Even now, said Aciman, after 49 years of living in New York City, where he is currently distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York teaching the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust, he wonders if he’s really a New Yorker or still a stranger in a strange land.

“The fact is that I live in New York and love it, but is it really home?” he said. “I don’t think so. Do I have an identity? I’m not sure.”

The same questions of identity, he said, apply to sexuality, which he’s frequently asked about (he’s been a happily married father for many years, he said).

Anti-Semitism, said Aciman, never goes away.

“It’s there, forever, but nowadays, particularly in academic circles, anti-Zionism has become legitimate, and anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are just couched differently,” he said.

(For more on Aciman’s thoughts on Judaism, read his 2000 essay, “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” published in The Threepenny Review.)

He visited Israel when The New York Times sent him to write a piece about Bethlehem, in 1995.

“I wrote a wonderful piece,” he said.

“Call Me by Your Name” was screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque as part of the Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, December 16, at 8:00 p.m. and on Sunday, December 17, at 8:30 p.m.

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