Anthony Luzzatto Gardner has an air of privilege about him but I’m not sure he knows it. He is polite, charming (albeit with more than a hint of steel) and extremely intelligent. But, having spent a lifetime moving in the circles of the well-educated elite, he represents the kind of American establishment Democrat so dismissed by Donald Trump in the 2016 election campaign — an election which cost Luzzatto Gardner his job.
Until January last year, Luzzatto Gardner was America’s ambassador to the EU, appointed by Barack Obama — who Gardner supported from his early days as a Senator. Like other politically appointed envoys, he was ordered to vacate his post before the inauguration. A Trump government is not one he would have found possible to work for in any case — but more on that later.
The 54-year-old’s background is, naturally, impressive. He grew up in Manhattan, and also in Rome, where his father was US ambassador. He graduated from Phillips Academy, one of America’s top public schools (alumni include both George H and George W Bush), and from there went to Harvard (where else?), Oxford, Columbia Law School, and the London Business School. His own children, now 17 and 15 attend top British boarding schools (Harrow and St Mary’s Ascot) and he has spent a lifetime in law, government and finance.
But Luzzatto Gardner is a lot more than the sum of those very privileged parts. His life has been nomadic, and he freely admits that he has been searching for “belonging”. It was that search which brought him to Italy last October, where he and his family took part in a very special religious ceremony.
So, how did this technocratic ex-ambassador come to be wrapped in a tallit, crying with emotion after reading from the Torah in Venice? It’s a long story.
Luzzatto Gardner’s upbringing meant no barmitzvah, despite his family being openly Jewish. It was an omission he came to regret, even more so because his own father, Richard (who taught at Columbia Law School and was also US Ambassador to Spain) had been given one.
“My parents, like many Americans, decided not to do that for their children,” he says ruefully. “Many people of his generation didn’t want to be identified. He was always — to be clear — proud of being Jewish and never, ever tried to hide it in any way, but he never felt religious and didn’t want to be identified as obviously, Jewish. His name, by the way, was Goldberg and was changed by his father.”
The lack of a formal ceremony rankled, but was probably no surprise, as the family didn’t mark any Jewish festivals. “I always felt it was a shame,” Luzzatto Gardner reveals, adding that he did celebrate the festivals at university.
Luzzatto Gardner’s family were, in many ways, typically American — in a melting pot way. His father was American (with German ancestry) while his mother’s family came from Italy, part of the famous Luzzattos who had been in Venice since the 1500s. Danielle Luzzatto (Anthony’s mother) left Italy in 1939, after Mussolini passed a number of antisemitic laws, forcing Jewish citizens to flee. The family spent a year and a half in France and ended up, via Lisbon, in New York
His family background has always been important to Luzzatto Gardner — in fact, he added his mother’s maiden name to his after her death in 2008. And, when he decided that he wanted to explore his spiritual side, he was determined that the ceremony would reference his heritage.
Luzzatto Gardner spent many summers in Rome and Venice with his grandparents, who moved back to Italy after the war. Aged 14, he moved there too, after his father was appointed US ambassador to Italy by President Carter.
“I knew I was going to live in Europe [when I was grown up] to be honest with you,” he says. And he was right. He has been here — in Brussels, London and Florence — since 1990.
Luzzatto Gardner, you soon realise, is a man used to getting what he wants — not in a loud, demanding Trump way, but in a quieter, persuasive, effective way. He somehow managed to get permission from the Archbishop of Toledo to marry his devout Catholic wife, Alejandro, in the place they wanted — a former synagogue, which had been turned into a church and is now a museum. So when it came to wanting his Jewish ceremony to happen in a specific place, at the Luzzatto Synagogue (named for his mother’s family) in the Venice Ghetto, you wouldn’t have wanted to bet against him. It took two years, but, of course, it happened.
“I wanted my children, particularly my son, who feels more strongly about it, to have a sense of attachment to the city, Venice, and to Judaism,” Luzzatto Gardner explains.
The ceremony was attended by Luzzatto Gardner’s friend, Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, who helped him with his learning (and was there in a personal, not supervisory capacity), and ten relatives, including Luzzatto Gardner’s sister and Italian cousins. His father, now 90, did not travel to Italy.
“There was a spiritual connection, but what was very moving was to read from a text that we’d been reading from for thousands of years,” he says, admitting that the ceremony was extremely emotional and that he — and his family — cried.
Neither of his children had their own bar or batmitzvah because Luzzatto Gardner’s wife is not Jewish, and he is keen to stress that the ceremony — which took place on a Sunday — was not a barmitzvah either. But he is clearly still enthused about it, saying it was “even better” than he could have imagined. He taught himself to read biblical Hebrew (he already speaks Italian, Spanish, French, German and Russian) and was extremely moved.
It’s interesting to hear Luzzatto Gardner — who does not come across as an overly intense man — talk so emotionally of the experience. When I ask if it has changed him, he pauses. “Wow. Yes, probably, I think it has, actually, I think it has.”
He explains: “Partly it’s an issue of getting older and the importance of feeling rooted in something.
“In fact, during the ceremony we said this to the children, and I actually believe it, ‘If you don’t have roots, you can’t branch out.’ If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going. Maybe it’s a bit trite, but I think it’s very, very true, because I’ve noticed that people who go astray are often people who don’t know who they are, who don’t have a sense of feeling very comfortable in their own skin.”
Luzzatto Gardner, who is also a former director for European Affairs on the National Security Council, freely admits that “something was missing” in his life. Judaism, it seems, has helped to fill that gap, spiritually and intellectually.
“For example, not being able to read Hebrew, not being able to follow a service, I thought was kind of strange,” he says. “I felt it was a hole that needed to be filled.”
He says he will continue to study, and “loves” the culture of textual examination. He now prays privately and has ambitions to study Kabbalah through the teachings of his ancestor, the 18th century Italian Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, also known by the Hebrew acronym RaMCHaL.
He has no plans to return to the US, and is especially disappointed by its new President. He was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 election and assumed he would stay on as ambassador for at least a year. Brexit and the election of President Trump clearly shook his world.
Not scared of speaking his mind, Gardner explains: “many of the things that we’re seeing in the United States I thought were only possible, frankly, in underdeveloped countries with weak democratic systems.”
He’s similarly concerned about Brexit — not surprising for an ex-EU ambassador.
“The decision’s been taken, let’s get on with it, let’s make sure Brexit works. But what really troubles me, I think it troubles every person, and I would even argue it should trouble Jews particularly, is this country has changed.
“When judges are attacked the way they’ve been attacked, when the media is attacked the way they’ve been attacked, when Tory MPs have recently been attacked as saboteurs, mutineers, for speaking their mind, and when the government doesn’t react, particularly to the attack on the judiciary, something has changed. And I find it very troublesome.”
And this staunch Democrat admits that, were he a UK voter, he would be concerned about the possibility of a Corbyn government.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life, right? But I’d be a centre right voter in Europe,” he says. “And, I’ll say it: the alternative makes me worried. Some of the things that people in his party have said are seriously disturbing.”
But he’s not one to stand back and still has hope:
“I’m a pretty optimistic person. Partly because the world isn’t changed by pessimists,” he says with a smile, adding: “It’s time for people that stand up for what they believe in.
“I believe in fighting, I really do. I believe in fighting for what you believe in. There’s no other way.”