Ethnography as a Memory of a Love Story (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By Nofit Itzhak, URV

I could not attend Jeanne’s funeral, but my tiny psalms book, her husband told me over the phone, was one of the three personal articles that rested next to her body during the wake. My little psalm book had journeyed a distance. It came with me from Israel when I first went to California in 2008 to embark on a Ph.D. in anthropology, and then traveled with me to France on my very first field trip to the village of Paray-le-Monial two years later. I had traveled with a small psalms book in my backpack or suitcase since I was a child, an old family custom that I never lost, and so a psalms book made its way with me to France, and it was there that it left my possession. I had given it to Jeanne only a few days after first meeting her, given it in exchange for her own gift to me, of the personal praise book she used daily for prayer. It was a good exchange, a right exchange, not only because Jeanne had established herself within a time frame of less than a week as one of my main interlocutors, or because she would later become a close and dear friend, but because Jeanne, although a devout member of a Catholic Charismatic community, was also Jewish. 

That she was Jewish was the first thing I learned about Jeanne. This was because it was the first thing Jeanne told me about herself, right there, at the improvised reception desk of the Emmanuel Community’s Congress on Adoration I was attending. “Itzhak,” she mused as she looked at my name on the roster, “that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?” Yes, I answered. It is. I am Jewish. “Oh,” she told me. A pause. “Me too.” 

At the time, I made little of Jeanne’s spontaneous revelation to me. Having come from a country where practically everyone I interacted with was Jewish, one more Jew did not impress me. That this Jewish person was also a member of a French Catholic Charismatic community should have, in hindsight, at least surprised me a bit. But to my great shame as an anthropologist, I reacted to Jeanne’s revelation with relative indifference. I went to my room and organized myself to attend the session. When I came down, Jeanne was no longer there. 

We crossed paths on the very next day, however, as I was wandering around the village. “Mademoiselle Itzhak!” She called to me after spotting me across the street. Thousands of people visit Paray each summer, but the village is small. It’s easy to find each other. Inquiring how I was finding my stay and learning that in fact I spoke nearly no French, Jeanne took it upon herself to act as my personal guide for the duration of the session. She acted as my translator and introduced me to other members of the community whom she thought I might benefit from speaking to. On the day of our parting she invited me to visit her and her family once the summer sessions had ended. 

I did visit Jeanne that fall. And again, and again, since that fateful – my interlocutors certainly thought providential – encounter. With time we became friends, and Jeanne’s presence a steady accompaniment during months and years of fieldwork. But it was only a full two years after my initial meeting with her that I began to more fully appreciate the impact that my arrival in Paray might have had on her. 

As my fieldwork progressed, I would hear the story of our initial encounter retold, either by Jeanne or by other community members. And so I had learned that shortly before coming to Paray that summer, Jeanne had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel, where she had grappled with the fact of her Jewish ancestry, a secret shared with her by her mother when she was eighteen. Jeanne kept her mother’s secret, as she had beseeched her to do, kept it even from her husband and children. She had done so for forty years, up until the very year our paths crossed, when she took the step and divulged her identity to family and friends. That at that very particular point in time, of all the thousands of people milling about a Catholic pilgrimage site, she should chance upon the Jewish Israeli woman attending the session was for Jeanne a sign of divine intervention. In yet another recounting of the story, I learned that upon first meeting me at the reception desk Jeanne had heard a voice telling her to take good care of me. And she did. 

“We pass through each other”

As anthropologists we are trained to at least consider how our particular self positionality in the field might impact our research (although we may not do it well enough or with the required rigor). As Liana Chua reminds us in her previous post, our positionality is also, inevitably, a very personal matter, the experience of fieldwork something that can shed light on aspects of our own lives and identities. Jeanne’s story, indeed her relationship with me, is a reminder that our positionality affects us and the knowledge we produce because ethnographic research makes us participants, even if unwitting ones, in the lives of our interlocutors. 

Reflecting on her experience of studying witchcraft in Brittany in the 1970s, Favret-Saada (2012) considers the place of participation in the generation of anthropological knowledge. Although participation is invariably implied by our reliance on participant observation as the cornerstone of our methodology, Favret-Saada suggests that in her experience anthropologists were more observers than true participants. She is clear in her conviction, however, that it was only through full participation that she was able to generate any meaningful knowledge.

The question of participation considered from this angle is often raised for anthropologists of religion and perhaps particularly so of Christianity. It is the (charged) question of “did you go native?” or “are you a believer?” that we are often expected to answer. These are questions that are asked not only by our colleagues. They also often matter a great deal to our interlocutors. I was frequently asked during fieldwork what I was actually doing during mass, adoration, or praise. What was I doing in front of the exposed sacrament if I didn’t actually believe that it was Christ I was observing there? Some people were inquisitive, others incredulous. Others hoped – indeed, some still believe it possible – that my anthropological investigation might also be a conduit for my own personal conversion to Christianity. 

I found myself reflecting on my positionality and my participation from the early days of fieldwork. In a sense, I had no choice. Although my initial fears that my Jewishness might impede trust were found to be groundless, my time in France, and later in Rwanda, was marked through and through by my identity. “Juive, non pratiquante, pas baptisée” – Jewish, not practicing, not baptized. I often joked that this was my calling card when introduced to people within the community. Invariably, my identity was a topic of conversation, of investigation. How would a Jewish woman from Israel with no previous contact with Christianity end up studying Charismatic Catholicism in France and in Rwanda? I often wondered that myself. 

For many I was, in truth, nothing but a cipher – the Israeli Jew, an “elder spiritual sister”, a visitor from the land of Jesus, part of the trunk of original Jewish olive tree to which the pagan Christian branch was grafted. For some, I might even have been a possible hint of a sign of something to come, the long awaited recognition of Christ by the Jewish people. More layers were added in Rwanda, where the history of the Jewish Holocaust resonated with the still raw experience of the Rwandan genocide. 

But for some I had become more than a cipher. I had become a participant in their lives. As they had become participants in mine. As one of my interlocutors once said to me when trying to explain how her relationship with God tied her to the lives of others, we had come to “pass through each other.” It wasn’t by any particular effort of mine that I had become a participant in Jeanne’s life. And even as I meticulously documented in my field journal the reactions to my positionality, the interactional dynamics this created and how those might be shaping my study, I had not paused, not truly paused to consider the two-directional nature of the relationships I was crafting. 

In a sense, it is only now, through the distance that writing affords, through the distance that a “return to the field”, even if only a virtual one, affords, that I have come to consider the echoes of my presence in the lives of my interlocutors, that I have come to consider participation beyond the scope of its impact on research. From across the gap of time and of reflection it becomes clearer that participation makes data because it first makes relations.  

Mind the Gap

In Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian (2002) writes of the contradiction at the heart of anthropology, based in a denial of coevalness to our interlocutors. While fieldwork takes place through dialogue between anthropologist and interlocutor as coevals, present and interacting in the same timeframe, the act of anthropological writing, suggests Fabian, denies this coevalness. This is because in the course of writing interlocutors no longer appear as partners in dialogue, or indeed as even inhabiting the same time as the anthropologist. The anthropologist’s interlocutor is transformed in the act of writing into an observed Other, removed from the anthropologist both spatially and temporally. Fabian, who writes in conversation and with great indebtedness to Saïd (1978), considers this “schizogenic” use of time as serving the establishment of our interlocutors’ Otherness, and ultimately as used to justify the act of colonial domination. 

Fabian is right about the gap, and inasmuch as anthropology’s colonial past is concerned, his critique is a necessary one. But the gap, which in some form at least is inevitable, can also be a fruitful one. As can the establishment, or recognition, of Otherness. My interlocutors conceive of their spiritual and ethical mission as one based in an enactment of love in the world. At its base, this project, which is anchored in the Catholic Church’s general shift towards a conception of God as Love, is not truly an affective or sentimental one. Rather, it is a project of community building based in the willingness to partake in, and be transformed by an encounter with the Other (Itzhak 2021). 

In this respect, the Catholic Charismatic project is quite similar to the anthropological one, whether in either case the results of such an encounter are ones of violence or of love. And perhaps especially so for anthropology, these results are largely dependent on the ways our interlocutors find representation in our texts. In this, ethnography can be, as Fabian suggests, an act of violence upon the Other. But ethnography, as the process of its writing, is also a way of remembering the ways in which we pass through each other. We can also write ethnography as a memory of a love story. 


Fabian, Johannes (2002) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press

Favret-Saada, Jeanne (2012) “Being Affected.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2(1): 435-445

Itzhak, Nofit (2021) “A Sacred Social: Christian Relationalism and the Re-Enchantment of the World.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Saïd, Edward (1979) Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books