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How a Jewish story became a universal hit

A scene from the movie Call Me by Your Name

Darling of the Sundance Film Festival Call Me by Your Name is nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (the Oscars will be handed out March 4 in Hollywood, Calif.). It’s on every must-see movies list this season. But is it a Jewish story?

Let me attempt to answer that question in a very Jewish way – by asking another question. What makes a story Jewish?

In this case, the story is based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, a Sephardic Jew known for his memoir Out of Egypt, which chronicles several generations of the writer’s family, from arriving in Alexandria to ultimately being persecuted and exiled. By contrast, the central characters in Call Me by Your Name don’t need to hide their Jewish identity. Their sexual identity, however, is another matter.

Seventeen-year-old Elio is spending the summer with his American father, a professor, and Italian mother at their villa in the northern Italian countryside. In this idyllic setting, meals are served outdoors by a happy housekeeper, an obviously treasured member of the family. When the family returns at Hanukkah, she skilfully fries latkes near a table decorated with foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Although a phone call during that scene elicits a hearty “Mazel tov,” the matriarch, Annella Perlman (played by Amira Casar), characterizes her family as “Jews of discretion.”

What the heck does that mean? Sounds like hollow left-wing verbiage. (Oops! Did I say that? So Jewish of me.) We deduce that the Perlmans are diehard liberals, not only due to their lifestyle immersed in academia, but also, given that it’s 1983 and they have a 17-year-old son, the Perlmans are, de facto, a product of the ‘60s. And, along with their summer guest, Oliver, a doctoral student who is helping Professor Perlman with some projects, they are the only Jews in town. Oliver is endowed with picture-perfect looks, athletic grace and easy charm – an improvement over previous students, according to giddy girls who watch him dance at the local bar.


The camera loves every angle of Oliver’s face, but there are subtle hints of that foreshadow the finale. A jetlagged Oliver sleeps through dinner, but cheerfully emerges to an al fresco breakfast. He is served a quintessential soft-boiled egg, which he clumsily decimates. It’s promptly removed and replaced; not so easy to fix people’s emotions.
Noticing a gold Magen David around Oliver’s neck, Elio is spurred to wear his own. While the Jewish bond is established immediately, acknowledging physical attraction is trickier.

Elio is confounded by his growing feelings for Oliver and tries to discover whether the interest is mutual. This works as a metaphor for the subtle games Diaspora Jews sometimes engage in to ascertain whether someone they meet is Jewish – for example, dropping Yiddishisms only a fellow tribe member would pick up.

So Call Me by Your Name is definitely Jewish. But there’s another question: is it good for the Jews?

The fact that we still ask this question highlights the precariousness of being Jewish in this world. And that precariousness unites us with other minorities and persecuted groups, such as the gay population. From my view, it should be a great moment for Jews when a story can be about gay love and the protagonists just happen to be Jewish.
So the challenge and value of authenticity is a strong theme of Call Me by Your Name. While being true to oneself is a quality many Jews historically staked their life on – making this a Jewish story – the concept of gay love will certainly be met with responses like “abomination” from within our own community. Controversy? Pretty Jewish. How many different views do Jewish mothers and fathers espouse?

Elio’s father’s heartfelt words to his son constitute a masterpiece monologue, the likes of which should be every parent’s dream to deliver. He confesses surprising mistakes and regrets. Without telling his son what to do, he advises him not to deny his pain in order to avoid being “emotionally bankrupt at 30.” Oliver is not so fortunate with his father, and so his need to live a charade is explained.

Ultimately, Call Me by Your Name is about something far more intimate than just sex. I think the reason this movie is striking a chord with such a broad audience is because it’s not just about Jewish love or gay love or first love – it’s about once-in-a-lifetime love. While many people won’t notice the latkes or the gold coins, everyone can empathize with the angst of teenage uncertainty, the complacency of middle age and the redemptive power of love.

Call Me by Your Name transcends the specifics of its own story, and that’s what makes it a universal – and, yes, Jewish – film.