The Jewishness of this story extends far beneath the surface.
There’s something spiritual hidden in the text of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, “Call Me By Your Name,” and in the experience of reading it for the first time.
Elio Pearlman, the narrator of the novel, is a 17-year-old American spending the summer of 1983 with his family in northern Italy. In comes Oliver, a Columbia graduate student staying with the Pearlam’s as he interns for Elio’s historian father. Over the course of the summer, the two quickly become woven together, accompanied by motifs of identity, love and sacredness. For me, the presence of these themes and values implies the inherent Jewishness of their story.
Without looking very close, audiences can tell both the novel and film versions of “Call Me By Your Name” exhibit Jewish influences. Aciman is Jewish and wrote his memoir “Out of Egypt” about his family’s emigration out of an anti-Semitic Nasser regime. Additionally, actors Timothée Chalamet (Elio), Armie Hammer (Oliver) and Michael Stuhlbarg (Mr. Pearlman) all have Jewish ancestry and used their identity to connect with the characters they portray in the film. The Jewishness of this story, though, extends far beneath the surface.
As Elio and Oliver become more familiar with each other, they discuss their shared Jewish background. In the film, Oliver is seen proudly sporting a Magen David around his neck from the moment he arrives. Elio fiddles with it and, in an unsaid, symbolic nod to his growing affection for Oliver, sweetly begins wearing a Jewish Star in every subsequent scene. Before this development, Elio tells Oliver that “besides my family, you’re probably the only other Jew to set foot in this town,” and that his mother refers to their family as “Jews of discretion.” This sheds light on the phenomenon of admiring and loving someone enough that we begin to explore common identities with them.
Judaism, which, within the context of these quotes can also be interpreted to symbolize queerness and its related culture of secrecy, brings the two together into the comfort of being recognized by another member of one’s minority. The validation Elio feels because of Oliver’s pride teaches him that he doesn’t have to live as a Jew of discretion, although Jews have done so for the sake of their own survival since our genesis. This is applicable to the same-sex nature of their relationship, as well. Elio, while younger and generally malleable to Oliver’s unpredictable moods and wishes, is the first to confess his not so platonic feelings. They have undoubtedly realized that discretion is the answer to their own evolving love for each other, but Oliver and Elio’s openness in different moments encourages the other to identify more strongly with a minority, whether it be Judaism or queerness.
As Elio and Oliver finally recognize their mutual feelings for each other, Elio states “I loved the egalitarianism of the moment. I loved feeling younger and older, human to human, man to man, Jew to Jew.” In this list of shared identities that seemingly become more intimate as it progresses, “Jew” comes last. I interpreted this as the deepest, closest connection Elio could possibly feel to another person—which speaks to how powerful relationships of all kinds developed within the Jewish community can be.
The trust, awkwardness and innocence that exists between Elio and Oliver perfectly exemplifies this spiritual, undeniably Jewish love.
I am of the belief that the elevated sense of existence felt when in the presence of others—love, if you will—is the closest we can come to describing the Jewish concept of G-d. Replace Adonai or G-d or any other name for the Abrahamic יהוה with “love,” and the message of every prayer, psalm, and blessing remains the same. The trust, awkwardness and innocence that exists between Elio and Oliver perfectly exemplifies this spiritual, undeniably Jewish love. The mantra “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” that Oliver states at the beginning of their tangible romance deepens this idea of shared identity into the most interpersonal of experiences. The Jewish need for community, in this instance, becomes Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Each person has only one name, and to intimately give that away for the sake of encouraging an elevated sense of belonging with another person is perfectly aligned with the Jewish concepts of love and holiness that are reliant on connections with other people.
I cannot thank André Aciman enough for “Call Me By Your Name.” I never connected the similar struggles and histories of my Jewish and queer identities before I watched the film (and quickly read the novel the next day). I had never seen those identities represented together through characters on a screen or on a page, either. But in a landscape of pop culture riddled with Jewish, queer and masculine stereotypes, his work of art defies each and every one to create a story that feels timeless and deeply relatable to anyone who has ever loved someone else.
Kara Sherman is a senior at Desert Mountain High School’s International Baccalaureate Program in Scottsdale, Ariz.