The Jewish roots of French icon Asterix the Gaul

While some say Asterix represents Bar Kochva, others argue that the story is inspired by the Nazi occupation of France.

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November 7, 2019 11:38
4 minute read.
The Jewish roots of French icon Asterix the Gaul

A wall featuring the cast of the 'Asterix the Gaul' series is seen in Brussles.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether or not a world famous French comic character has Jewish origins has become a subject of debate in the Jewish world

One of the most famous characters in French comics, and considered by many to be a French national hero, the adventures of Asterix and his sidekick, Obelix, are popular all over the world. The comics have been translated into more than 100 languages, including Latin, Welsh and Hebrew. It has inspired 10 movies, the most recent being 2018’s Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion.


But could Asterix be Jewish? While the answer is obviously no – Asterix is literally a Gaul, after all –  Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the respected head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, argues that the Jewish inspiration is clearly there.

It is important to note that the original writer behind Asterix, René Goscinny, was undoubtedly Jewish, having been born in Paris in 1926 to two Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father accepted a job in Argentina after his son was born, unknowingly ensuring their family would not be harmed by the Nazi occupation of France, to where he returned in 1946.     

Speaking in an interview reported by the Srugim website, Aviner, who is French himself – after mentioning that this isn’t as important as studying Rashi, a medieval Jewish scholar who was also French – reaffirmed Goscinny’s Jewishness.

“His father was born in Warsaw, and his grandfather was a rabbi,” he explained. “His Jewish identity was strong.”

He supported this by providing further examples, such as the importance Groscinny saw in Shabbat dinner; his seeing the value of learning Hebrew; his trips to Israel where he wore a kippah at the Western Wall; and his burial in a Jewish cemetery.

However, Aviner continued explaining that the character’s Jewish roots might go beyond the author.

According to Aviner, Groscinny once reportedly explained in a television interview that the story of Asterix – which is about a village in Gallia fighting against the Roman occupation – was directly inspired by the Bar Kochba Rebellion, the famous Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.

Bar Kochba, who was seen by many during his time as the Messiah, led the Jews of his time to an initial successful uprising against the Romans.

After two years, during which he took on the leadership of the Jewish people, Roman general Sextus Julius Severus was able to eventually defeat Bar Kochba’s army and kill him, ending Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel in 136 CE.

This was the last time Jews would be the dominant society in Israel until the State of Israel was established in 1948.     

“Asterix is Bar Kochba,” Aviner explained, adding, “The magic potion is the Torah.”

THE CHARACTER of Asterix, who is small and witty, is often presented as heroic. Yet he is in no way the leader of his village, nor does he inspire to lead the Gauls against the entire Roman Empire. Rather, the comics are deeply humane and intelligent, and the war between Romans and Gauls is presented more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon than a serious battle.   

The Bar Kochba inspiration is admittedly debatable. Indeed, there is a strong belief by many that Asterix’s premise is actually inspired by the Nazi occupation of France.

However, there have been examples of clear Jewish influence in the comic itself. The 26th volume of the series, Asterix and the Black Gold, written by Albert Uderzo – the co-creator and artist behind the series who took over writing after Goscinny’s death in 1977 – featured the titular Gaul and Obelix traveling to the Middle East, with a heavy focus on Jerusalem.

The volume makes extensive reference to Jewish traditions, including the addition of a clearly Jewish character Saul ben Ephishel (meant to sound like “So Beneficial”) who is a clear homage to Goscinny himself. The book was released in Hebrew in 2008 as Asterix and the Jerusalem of Black Gold.

The comic was hailed in Europe as a call to be proud of ethnic identity, and so was translated to a stunning range of minority languages. Including, in France alone, Breton, Picard and Corsican.

This call to ethnic pride and certain specific quirks of the characters is something that, regardless of the inspiration, Jews will find very relatable.

“For Jews, Asterix represents resisting assimilation,” Tamara Rebecca Speranza, a recent immigrant to Israel from France, who previously owned and operated a Manga Café, told The Jerusalem Post. “Asterix fights against the Romans but not to overthrow them, but to show that they won’t just be another Roman province. They have their own traditions, culture and customs. The Romans are always seen as being dumb. Caesar is pretentious, Cleopatra is cat-obsessed. Jews would absolutely bond with Asterix’s struggles. He’s young, brave... not tall, but he always tries to find a solution.”

Speranza also explained the role of the magic potion as a Torah allegory – not as a rallying cry to overthrow invaders or as a symbol of their “Chosen One” status, but as a means of keeping traditions alive and resisting assimilation.

“They have a magic potion made by their spiritual leader, the druid Getafix,” she explained. “He’s the village’s conscience and wise man – a sort of a rabbinical figure, complete with the long white beard. The Gauls often seem outmatched by the Romans, but Getafix’s magic potion gives them the strength they need – not to win, but to persevere, to resist assimilation and keep their traditions alive. It’s something that Jews, with their long history in the Diaspora, can easily relate to.”
 


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