The Jewish biographical particulars of Claude Levy-Strauss, the French anthropologist who died Tuesday at the age of 100, are well-documented. But the influence of his Jewish background on his thought and creativity leaves room for the knd of speculation he himself delighted in.
The man who gave the world the idea of deeply rooted logical structures that underpin human mythmaking, kinship, and other cultural manifestations—that is, structuralism—grew up in a religious tradition that venerates definition and boundaries, that translates the most elusive and ambiguous myths, stories, and legends, into rites and laws.
Born in Brussels in 1908, Claude Lévi-Strauss was the son of Alsatian Jews. As the New York Times reported:
Claude Lévi-Strauss was born on Nov. 28, 1908, in Belgium to Raymond Lévi-Strauss and the former Emma Levy. He grew up in France, near Versailles, where his grandfather was a rabbi and his father a portrait painter. His great-grandfather Isaac Strauss was a Strasbourg violinist mentioned by Berlioz in his memoirs. As a child, he loved to collect disparate objects and juxtapose them. “I had a passion for exotic curios,” he says in “Conversations.” “My small savings all went to the secondhand shops.” A large collection of Jewish antiquities from his family’s collection, he said, was displayed in the Musée de Cluny; others were looted after France fell to the Nazis in 1940.
The grandson of a rabbi set off to discover what lay behind the cultural differences of tribes in Brazil. What he determined was that binary structures of thought undergird human mythmaking. We are hardwired as humans to recognize and reconcile opposites: hot/cold up/down, raw/cooked. From this we create systems of kinship, culture, eating and social structures that help us make sense of world whose greatest opposite constantly haunts us: life and death.
How much of a stretch to understand how young Claude first exposure to these ideas in a nascent, inchoate form as he was exposed to the laws of kashrut, the firm boundaries between kosher and treyf (non-kosher), between Jew and Gentile, between the sabbath day and the rest of the weeks? Judaism is structuralism’s neatest tool box—you have to wander far into the hazy Hasidic and kabbalistic mystery worlds of golems, dybbuks, spirits and magic before you can truly blur the myriad boundaries Jewish life and literature set before you. Levi-Strauss had to have drunk it all in, and saw it come alive again in the jungles of Brazil.
But there’s more.
When Levi-Strauss fled Vichy France, determining he was “potential fodder for the concentration camp”, he ended up teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York. He taught ethnology, and befriended the great American anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas was a German Jew whose own theories of anthropology broke from the linear idea of culture an a continuum, from primitive to civilized. He promoted the idea that it was important to actually experience and understand various tribes and cultures, to understand them on their own terms. This cultural particularism evolved into relativism, a word which has been reduced to four letters among conservatives and talk radio hosts. But Boas advanced his ideas in part to help broaden the idea of the human family, to strengthen democracy and reduce the kind of hatred that he, as a Jew, was exposed to.
It is easy to assume Levi-Strauss saw in his own work the power of his own theories to break down walls among humans by showing how our differences arose from our essential Oneness—our brains worked similarly, though their manifestations took on many different forms. At a time when his fellow Jews were being treated as subhuman, creatures apart, this idea had to have more than just theoretical power for Levy-Strauss.
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