Monday, May 31, 2010

Une occasion à ne pas manquer

Il est des moments dans la vie où on sent qu'il n'y aura pas de nouvelle occasion. Il y a quelques années Toni Morrison est venue à Lyon, à la Villa Gillet. Je n'y ai pas été. Pareil pour les Rolling Stones une année ou deux plus tard. Mais la semaine dernière c'était Daniel Cordier, et je ne voulais pas rater ça. Pour mémoire, Daniel Cordier était pendant une courte période entre 1942 et 1943 le secrétaire personnel de Jean Moulin.

Une soirée était prévue à l’institut Lumière, avec la projection d’un film et un débat, mais tout ce que j’ai retenu, c’était la présence de Daniel Cordier, peut-être la dernière personne encore vivante qui a connu Jean Moulin pour avoir été dans le cercle restreint de ses plus proches collaborateurs. D’autres personnes l’avaient retenu aussi. En effet, quand j’ai appelé pour réserver des places, on m’a informé que c’était complet. Tant pis, j’ai décidé à y aller quand même et j’étais très content que Ben, 15 ans, décide de m’accompagner.

Nous arrivons, nous nous mettons dans la queue pour avoir des places, certainement sur les marches, on nous dit. Pensant déjà à la séance de dédicaces, j’achète l’ouvrage « Alias Caracalla » (Prix Renaudot 2009) de 900 pages. Puis au bout d’une vingtaine de minutes nous nous allégeons de 5 (oui, cinq !) euros chacun pour avoir le droit de rentrer dans la salle. Fort de la notion que même dans une salle comble il reste toujours des places, nous filons vers l’avant et nous nous installons au deuxième rang.

A partir de là nous plongeons, au travers du film documentaire, « Daniel Cordier, la Résistance comme un roman » au cœur de la Résistance française balbutiante. Daniel Cordier nous fait revivre, pratiquement semaine par semaine, son périple de trois ans de jeune homme nationaliste, royaliste et résistant, qui s’engage aux cotés du Général de Gaulle avec une idée en tête : en découdre avec les Allemands. On découvre exactement ce que j’espérais : une histoire personnelle, vécue au jour le jour et non pas l’histoire monolithique, mythique d’un pays qui se battait tous ensemble contre l’Occupant. On comprend qu’il n’y a pas une seule vérité sur la Résistance, mais une multitude de courants, de mouvements contradictoires et concurrents. Comme tout les monde, quelque soit l’époque, il ne sait pas que ses actions s’inscrivent dans un événement d’une portée historique. On comprend aussi combien Daniel Cordier s’attache au personnage de Jean Moulin.

Après le film il y a eu bien sûr des questions. Daniel Cordier qui aura , si Dieu veut, 90 ans cette année, a répondu avec la même clarté d’esprit sensible dans le film. Ben pourra donc dire à ses petits enfants—si Dieu veut encore une fois—qu’il a vu un des derniers résistants français ! Le film peut être visionné en streaming ici jusqu’au 6 juin prochain. Profitez-en ! Vous ne serez pas décus !


Saturday, October 17, 2009


I haven’t blogged in a long time, but tonight merits an exception. Yes, I know: I say that every time I write something after a long hiatus. Believe me. This time it’s true. Keep reading.

La fête continue ! After seeing Du Rififi chez les Hommes Wednesday evening at the start of the first edition of the Lyon film festival “Lumière 2009”, my father-in-law and I decided to return tonight to see another in the same genre. We were undecided between The Big Steal, a 1949 picture starring Robert Mitchum, and The Lineup, a 1958 film that could have been inspired by an item in a local newspaper’s “From the police blotter” page. Both were directed by Don Siegel, one of the directors showcased in the festival, as are Sergio Leone, director of a slew of spaghetti Westerns and actor-director Clint Eastwood.

I had never heard of The Lineup, but as it was playing in the spacious, comfortable movie theatre in the Institut Lumière (the birthplace of modern film!), we decided to go there. On Wednesday, in the same theater, the screening was preceded by a presentation given by Thierry Frémaux, President of the Institut Lumière and Artistic Director of the Cannes Film Festival, Robert Guédiguian, a French director with a heavy Marseille accent, and Nicolas Seydoux, Chairman of Gaumont. The same evening Claudia Cardinale was presenting another film. But I digress. That was Wednesday. Today was Friday.

I thought vaguely about bringing my camera with me. Who knows who might present tonight’s film. I did say “vaguely”, didn’t I? I would soon regret that my thought was not less vague.

The ticket purchasing system is complicated, which discouraged us from buying tickets in advance. According to the festival program, a certain number of tickets are held for sale just before each screening. Besides, we wanted to preserve the spontaneity of it. So we arrived at the theater early, only to find a long line of people who apparently had reasoned as we did. Or so we thought.

There were about 40 people ahead of us with a half-hour to go until show time. For the next 20 minutes a steady stream of people came in with tickets in hand and were ushered into the theater. Gradually, we understood that the screening was sold out, but there might be some unclaimed reservations. But what about the tickets held for sale just before the screening, as explained in the festival program, we asked. It’s more complicated than that, we were politely told. Suddenly Gérard Collomb, mayor of Lyon, appeared in the aforementioned stream, and greeted us and the other people waiting in line as he walked past. Also walking past our line of hopefuls were individuals without tickets but with bulky camera equipment.

Finally, the red cinema ropes were clicked open and we were allowed to proceed in single file to the counter to buy tickets. My father-in-law went through, and the rope was returned to its post right in front of me! We’re together, we explained, and the rope lowered once again. We claimed our tickets, paid €10 (that’s right, €5 each!) and entered the room.

People everywhere. Cameras, cables. Cell phones at the ready. Lots of people with red-and-white-tape necklaces with cards attached to the end. There are no more seats; you’ll have to sit on the steps over to the left, the usher informed us. We did, but then, there are always single seats available. Seek and ye shall find. Which we did. After a quick exchange with a person attending on her own, we had two center section seats together.

Minutes passed. The screening was supposed to start at 8:30 pm, and it was already later than that, with no sign the lights would soon go down. Thierry Frémaux climbed onto the stage again and announced that a rumor seemed to have circulated. He didn’t know how, because it was only decided a few minutes earlier. In any event, he added, the rumor is true. Then he said the Institut Lumière had the immense pleasure to welcome .. no, first he explained that the festival’s guest of honor wanted to pay homage to Don Siegel, with whom he had worked as an actor in several films, and who consequently wanted to be there to introduce the film. And then he introduced Clint Eastwood!!

Clint Eastwood ambled his way down the aisle, ever-so-slightly frail and hesitating, wearing a brown brushed-cotton sports jacket over a patterned,open shirt, while an excited, shutter-happy, but disciplined audience of less than 300 people stood, cheered and applauded, ultimately consolidating their acclamations into rhythmic clapping. Then Clint said a few words in French and stopped. He explained that his French-speaking friends took advantage of him when he was learning French, so the only other thing he knew how to say in French was “Et mon cul, c’est du poulet”. What do you think? Should we believe him?

He continued in English, with Thierry Frémaux doing an excellent job of consecutive interpreting. With a slight twang in his voice, Clint Eastwood spoke of the films he and Don Siegel had shot together, including Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. He said that The Lineup, in which he did not star, deserved to be better known than it was. Clint and Thierry then bantered about this and that for a few more minutes, until the guest of honor said we should let the people watch the film. Then the former mayor of Carmel-by-the-sea was off, with the same simplicity and elderly elegance he had brought in, to have dinner with the mayor of Lyon.

The film itself was quite good, with a generous dose of tension and suspense, culminating in a low-tech but highly realistic car chase in the San Francisco area. The films of today have nothing over it. It hasn’t aged a bit.

The festival continues two more days until the closing ceremony on Sunday, where Clint Eastwood is scheduled to appear. I’m sure it will be a thrill for the people lucky enough to attend that event, but there’s something magical about an unscheduled visit. Reminds me of a line Paul Newman had in The Color of Money: “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A mixture of thoughts

In France Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has been in overdrive trying to prevent the conflict in the Middle East from spreading to France, which is one of the few European countries to have both a large Arab population and a (relatively) large Jewish population (the UK is the other). I attended a rally in support of Israel Sunday morning in the park by a tree planted in memory of Itzhak Rabin. There were some inspiring speeches, including one from an Israeli diplomat. I have the feeling the French press is starting to understand Israel and the Jewish community a little better, but it's a slow process.

After the rally S. and I toured the main mosque in Lyon. The visit had been arranged between the mosque and one of Lyon's reform synagogues several weeks ago, and it was decided to go ahead with it, despite the recent events. It was a wonderful experience. The people were very warm, and the mosque is beautiful. Our guide explained some of the basics of Islam in a straightforward manner. I told him how to say a couple of things in Hebrew and he was so appreciative. All the visitors went away feeling they had learned something important. The synagogue and the mosque also arrange regular get-togethers between Muslim women and Jewish women. The women have discussions, or they invite a speaker. Mostly, they just get to know each other. I wish we could have more moments like that, because here too, there isn't much mixing between the two communities. Deep down I think most people want peace, mutual respect and understanding, but the radical elements put such pressure on the ordinary people. I know that Arab-Jewish discussion groups exist in Israel, too, because I hear about them every now and then when I'm riding in the car listening to Radio Judaica Lyon, but it's rare that I hear or read about them in any other media.

Following the wedding of S.'s friend's son in Jerusalem, we celebrated the "shabbat chatan" in the hotel with our friends' families. During one of the meals I left the group, who were singing Jewish songs, to fill up my plate at the buffet tables. As I walked past a group of Christian pilgrims in the other part of the dining room, one of the men made the sign of the cross over himself before eating. Meanwhile, all of the people working in the hotel were Arab. You find this mixture in other countries, too, but there's something special about it in Israel, in Jerusalem, thanks to Israel's policy of open access to religious sites. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the three religions could always co-exist in such harmony?

I read a wonderful book last year, called "Three Cups of Tea". It's about an American who survives a failed attempt to climb K2, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, only because of the hospitality of the local people in the northern reaches of Pakistan. After that experience, he decides to devote his life to building schools in that region. He realizes that it is most important to educate girls. Whereas educated boys move away from their remote mountain villages when they grow up, the women become the cement of the local community. They become nurses and engineers and teachers. They have fewer children. They cause the general socio-economic level to rise. But there are so many cultural and religious impediments to this process.

The Palestinians as a people have made so many tragically bad decisions. They have had a painful lack of good leaders. And they still haven't understood that they must take their destiny into their own hands. They must stop crying "Help us!" to the world and help themselves. And they have a powerful weapon: the womb. In the short run this will make them more numerous, but in the long run it will work against them, because the faster the population grows, the harder it will be for them to climb out of poverty. After September 11, 2001, when people were wondering why Islamic terrorists had attacked the United States, B., who was seven at the time, said, "Maybe they're jealous."

Anyway, I know "our" side of the story pretty well, but I know very little about the other side, about what Arab people feel and believe, as individuals.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

This year too in Jerusalem

Last year at this time, B’s bar mitzvah and our subsequent trip to Israel brought me out of blogging slumber in order to write about non-political events. This time, it was the wedding of S.'s childhood friend's son that drew us to Israel. The geopolitics nearly overwhelmed us.

It is difficult to find words to describe my feelings upon reading that people were being killed just a few miles from where we were vacationing, on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border: a mixture of sympathy for both Gaza’s and Israel’s civilian victims and an understanding of Israel’s anger and need to protect itself.

Unavoidably, our sympathies lie more with the Israeli side. The eldest son of my Princeton classmate S., whom we visited again this year, is probably in Gaza right now. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and to his family. I'm biased, and it seems to me that the Arabs of Palestine brought this tragedy on themselves when they voted for Hamas in the first place. Of course this vote was only the latest in a long string of bad choices the Palestinian Arabs have made over the years. But it's not too late. All Hamas has to do is renounce terrorism and stop firing rockets into Israel, and the war will end.

Not that we really felt the war in any way while we were in Israel last week. Had we not seen newspapers, scanned our favorite websites when we had internet access or discussed politics with people we met, we might never have known the difference. In fact, once I did know what was going on, I would have preferred a few more reminders, such as more thorough searches and other security measures.

In entering Tel-Aviv’s Friday crafts market, Nahalat Binyamin, a security guard was checking backpacks, handbags, and the like. I purposely opened only one of the two zippered compartments of my backpack to see if he would ask me to open the other. He didn’t. Okay, that was one day before the Israeli air raids started.

At the end of our 10-day stay and five days after the start of Israel’s military operation, we attended the wedding in Jerusalem. I was expecting to see a security guard at the entrance with a list of guests to be checked off as people arrived – and showed identification. In fact, there were no security measures. Maybe in both cases there was profiling going on. If so, it was a very discreet operation. The wedding itself was a moment of joy. I wish N. and R. much love, long life, good health, healthy offspring, success, tolerance and mutual understanding in their future life together.

Security was very present in the Old City of Jerusalem. There were soldiers on every corner, or so it seemed, although they were mostly engaged, like police and security personnel everywhere, in giving directions. I embarked on an international relations mission of my own, intent on finding Mafouz, whom I had met along the via Dolorosa last year (see this post). It was raining, it was late in the day, and S., B. and D. were waiting for me in a café in the Jewish Quarter. Time was of the essence. I darted in and out of the market streets, up stairways and past the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What seemed like a wondrous collage of cultures last year started to look like a huge, open air souvenir shop this year. At one point, only a few meters from the spot where I had met Mafouz and thought he lived, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper if he knew him. He recruited me instead to “help him” write a sign in English for his shop, then insisted on giving me a “gift”. He put together a set of earrings I knew S. would never wear, because the clasp was made of some unidentified base metal. Then he explained that one of the earrings was a gift; the other was not. I felt I was caught in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I managed to extricate myself, but after a few more enquiries, Mafouz was, alas, nowhere to be found.

While in Israel we heard that many Gaza residents would like to be rid of Hamas. In our Tel-Aviv hotel, one of the valets told us that the (Arab) hotel manager has family in Gaza. He said that when he goes there he sees Hamas “officials” driving around in luxury cars while the rest of the population cowers. I would have liked to see confirmation of this in the press.

The articles I read, in the New York Times and Le Monde, seemed more balanced than during previous cycles of Arab-Israeli violence. Perhaps this was due in part to the Israeli government’s concerted media strategy together with its restrictions on media coverage from inside the Gaza strip itself. With each passing day, however, the media tide seems to be turning against Israel’s intended message. Images, it seems, speak louder than principles.

So allow me to conjure up an image of my own. The story begins in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Millions of ethnic Germans have been chased out of western Poland and across the Oder-Neisse line, Germany’s present-day eastern border. These ethnic Germans remain in refugee camps just over the border in Germany, refusing to integrate themselves into the rest of Germany, preferring instead to live indefinitely in the miserable conditions of the camps while demanding to be able to return to their ancestral homes in Poland, a "new" country whose right to exist they do not recognize. (For its part, Germany shows no interest in integrating them anyway, lest the economic strain the country is already experiencing be exacerbated.)

After a while, the refugees claim they are not really Germans after all, they are … Pomeranians and Silesians, and they demand the “right of return” to “occupied” Pomerania and Silesia. In the meantime, they elect a “militant” organization – international journalists alternately call the members “militants”, “activists” or “fighters” – to represent them, which starts sending suicide bombers into Poland in an effort to break Poland’s resolve and obtain the sympathy of the international community. Miraculously, the strategy works. Thus, once a fortnight or so, Szczecin (Stettin), Wroclaw (Breslau) and scores of other Polish cities and towns where the ethnic Germans used to live become a backdrop for carnage: an outdoor market, a crowded bus, a discotheque, etc. Occasionally even cities as far away as Warsaw and Krakow are targeted. It doesn’t matter how many civilians are killed during these attacks, because the world forgets about them quickly. However, it remembers that the exiled Pomeranians and Silesians are so desperate that resorting to indiscriminate violence is, alas, all they can do.

The Pomeranian and Silesian “militants” also forge ties with other European “militant” organizations, such as ETA, the IRA and the Red Brigades, who supply them with an arsenal of weapons of ever-increasing strength. Before long, they can fire rockets deep into Poland, generally from within the refugee camps, vowing to destroy the “Polish entity” and to drive every last Polish man, woman and child into the Baltic Sea.

In an effort to avoid civilian casualties, Poland generally takes no military action, but instead imposes a blockade around the refugee areas, carefully inspecting everything that goes in or out. This is only partly effective, however. Through complicity with their German friends to the west, the Pomeranian and Silesian “militants” smuggle in weapons, but don’t pay much attention to their people’s need for food, clothing, medicine or other basic necessities. The world condemns Poland for “besieging” the refugee camps and decries the abject living conditions of the people there.

Occasionally, Poland does take military action to crush the “militants”, calling them by their real name: terrorists. When this happens, Pomerania and Silesia become the world’s most important geopolitical hotspots, and with one voice, the entire international community calls for an end to the violence.

Now I ask you: could you imagine for one second that such a situation might actually be allowed to exist? And even if you could, how long would Poland put up with these shenanigans before losing its patience?
a) a month
b) a year
c) five years
d) 60 years

Now suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine such a situation were possible and that Poland did put up with it for 60 years. Now, finally, imagine that “Poland” is less than one-tenth its actual size, has around one-fifth its current population and has enemies not only on its western border but on its eastern and southern borders as well, and you have approximately the situation in which Israel has lived for much of the past 60 years.

Israel’s demands are so unreasonable, aren’t they?

Does peace still have a chance? I still hope so.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Hope trumps fear

When my family and I were in the States last summer, we bought a poster that now hangs in our home. It shows Martin Luther King Jr. at various stages of his public life, accompanied by excerpts from his speeches. We bought it because our son B. learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in eighth grade history class last year and in so doing, communicated a fascination about the man to his younger brother D. Last Spring, I listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech for the first time in its entirety, with D., enraptured, sitting next to me.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s victory speech yesterday, I heard many references to the African-American experience, and Obama’s effective use of repetition reminded me of the rhetorical techniques used in the speech given 45 years ago by the “preacher from Atlanta”. But what inspired me most was not that African-Americans must now have a “special pride”, as Senator McCain said in his concession speech. Rather, President-elect Obama made that experience stand for the universal dream of hope for a better future.

John McCain and his campaign tried to use fear to win votes, albeit a less toxic variety than the fear-mongering of the current administration. Fear that Barack Obama will raise taxes, fear that he hangs out with terrorists, fear that he’s a Muslim. (I’m glad that Colin Powell pointed out in his endorsement of Barack Obama that the real answer to the question “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?” is “So what if he were? Is there anything wrong with being a Muslim in America?”) Fortunately, it didn’t work. Hope has trumped fear.

As gracious and magnanimous as he was in his concession speech, I wish John McCain had addressed the question of hope vs. fear. Rather than saying that he would leave the job of analysis to others and leading the Republican party into the political wilderness, I wish he had said that now was the time for soul searching. Rather than taking the blame off his supporters and putting it onto himself, I wish he had recognized that a candidate is – or should be – a reflection of the electorate he represents, and it is the electorate that must now try to understand why it is out of phase with what the majority of the country’s voters want. Sure McCain made mistakes, but so did Obama. Those mistakes were not the only reason for McCain’s loss.

Obviously, this election represents a huge “first”: the first “person of color” to be elected to the presidency of the United States. But it represents some other less obvious firsts, too. Barack Obama is the first sitting member of Congress to be elected President of the United States since JFK. (John McCain would have been, too.) Maybe this indicates some kind of renewed faith in the people who have experience, however minimal, in the workings of the federal government.

Barack Obama is also the first urban, Northern liberal to be elected president since JFK. All other Democratic presidents since JFK have come from rural, Southern backgrounds. Arguably, they won the White House because they carried at least part of the Southern states. In all other presidential elections since 1964, the deep South has voted overwhelmingly against the Democratic party. Now in 2008, Obama has made important inroads into the South. Perhaps the strength of the African-American vote had something to do with that.

Or perhaps it was his charisma. Or his cool, even-keel command. Or that voters, regardless of the color of their skin and his, simply felt Obama’s vision of the future corresponded better to theirs.

Finally, this was the first presidential election in which neither major candidate was the incumbent president or vice-president since Adlai Stevenson faced Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. I don't think any comment is needed as to why Dick Cheney was not the Republican candidate this time round.

I wonder how many American voters knew how closely this election campaign was being watched outside the United States, such as here in France. It absolutely dominated the airwaves and the press. You would have thought French people were going to vote, too. When I first moved here nearly 20 years ago, I naively discovered how much more “world news” there was than I had ever seen or read about back home. The United States became just another country among many others, albeit an important one. Yet over time, I realized that in many ways, people here really do look at the United States as a beacon, a country that can lead the way to redemption … or to crisis.

Viewed from afar, the United States has seemed over the past few years, to be turning ever more inward, shutting itself off from other points of view and dealing truculently with other nations. Indeed it seemed our motto had become “Speak loudly and carry a big stick.”

French people I know struggled to understand the appeal of a John McCain candidacy. Barack Obama’s win has polished up the tarnished image of a country where – French people now realize once again – everything is possible. Perhaps this is because “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals – democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

When I was young

When I was young, I sat outside my parents’ house at 3AM looking at the stars through binoculars. Once a policeman drove by and asked me what I was doing. So I showed him the Pleiades.

When I was young I calculated how old I would be in the year 2000. The number seemed preposterously high. As if I had accidentally hit the “factorial” button on my first hand-held calculator instead of the “sum” button. I was sure there was an error somewhere. Some force would intervene either to prevent the year 2000 from coming or to prevent me from reaching it.

When I was young I worked on Wall Street. On October 19, 1987, I was on jury duty at Foley Square. I called my girlfriend, a graphic artist, during a break in the jury selection process. I thought she would wish me a happy birthday, my last before turning 30, but instead she asked me what was happening on Wall Street?! How was I to know? I was on jury duty at Foley Square. When I did find out, I was sorry I had missed the excitement, but otherwise I didn’t really care, because I didn’t have any money invested in the stock market.

When I was young, I rose at 6AM to do three laps of Central Park on my bike before work. I spent at least one day every weekend on a group ride outside the city. My vacations often consisted of bike tours. France, the California coast and Vermont were some of the destinations. When I coasted down a big hill, I thought to myself, “It’s great to be alive.” Buying a new derailleur and freewheel cluster was a big event. I had to save up for it....and for the bike tours.

When I was young I was an avid baseball fan. My obsession with the sport peaked in 1969, then again in 1986. In that year, I saw the seventh game of the World Series after spending what seemed like a small fortune for one ticket. In the days prior to the game I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Then the big day came. It was the fifth inning, and my team was losing. It wasn’t possible that I had come through all this to see them lose in the seventh game of the World Series.

When I was young in New York taxis would have been a strain on my budget. So if I had to go somewhere with no convenient subway connection, I walked. I covered the distance from my sister’s apartment on 53rd between 1st and 2nd to my apartment on 55th between 8th and 9th innumerable times on foot. I virtually had the buildings memorized, and I enjoyed being out in the fresh, albeit urban, air, regardless of season.

When I was young I cooked. It seemed everyone else in New York was going out to the latest, most sublime eatery, and only I couldn’t afford them. I learned a lot about the culinary arts during those years, much more than I would have from going to those trendy restaurants.

In another week I’ll turn 50. Now I worry about the stock market.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Toughen up the questions

It was recently reported that one of the vice-presidential candidates could not name a single Supreme Court decision she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade. This got me to thinking.

So far debate moderators Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer have asked questions such as, “Who do you think was at fault for the sub-prime lending meltdown?” or “What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?” These questions are too broad and easily avoidable.

What’s the use in asking these vague, sweeping questions about what the candidates would do once elected? What difference does it make? They’re going to break their promises anyway. So come on Gwen, come on Jim. You can ask tougher questions than that. My tenth grade history teacher could and did, and the only wounds my classmates and I sustained were temporary ones to our pride.

So rather than ask the candidates what they’ll do, why don’t we ask them what they know, on a wide variety of topics. Let’s focus on their knowledge of the past before we ask them to predict the future. After all, the past is all we have: the future is unknown, and the present is only a fleeting instant. Your reading of the first part of this post is already in the past.

Here is my proposed list of ten questions for the next presidential candidates debate (no wireless devices and no lifelines, please):

1) Name the nine Supreme Court justices and provide a brief biography of each.
2) An in-depth knowledge of our neighbors being necessary for the maintenance of a free state, who are your three favorite Russian authors/playwrights and how has their work informed the cultural heritage and collective unconscious of the Russian people?
3) How and when did Oklahoma become a state?
4) Compare and contrast the hotly contested US presidential elections of 1876 and 2000, including an explanation of how they were resolved and your conclusions, if any, about how our system for electing the president could be amended.
5) Who is the prime minister of Hungary?
6) Cite five of the [insert astronomical number] times your opponent has voted in favor of increasing taxes, including the names of the bills, their main provisions, and the approximate dates of the votes.
7) In studying the current financial crisis, what lessons can be drawn from the panics of 1837, 1873 and 1907 and the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930? Choose any two, giving specific examples from each period.
8) What are the main provisions of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and how do they affect the lives of Americans today?
9) Summarize the primary scientific accomplishments and contributions of a) Niels Bohr, b) Linus Pauling, c) Marie Curie, d) Christiaan Barnard. (Choose any two.)
10) Which three 20th century economists do you most admire and why? In your answer, include an explanation of their economic theories and how you would use them if elected.

Now I suppose none of the candidates would excel on 100% of these questions, but wouldn’t it be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff? Of course, we’d need a new slate of questions for each debate, lest the candidates study in the interim, but that shouldn’t be too difficult, either. Subjects abound!

Karl Rove, one of the great sages of our time, said in a recent Newsweek article that Ronald Reagan was a better leader than Woodrow Wilson, even though Wilson could have "given you 100 Supreme Court decisions he disagreed with whether you wanted to listen or not." Well, clearly Karl would not have wanted to listen, and the disdain for the lessons of history that he and his cronies have shown over the past eight years is what got us into the present mess. Oh, and personally, I think that Ronald Reagan was no better leader than Gary Cooper or John Wayne. He just had a larger stage on which to act.

Now I hear some people ask, “But what one person can answer all those questions? I bet only 1% of the population could.” This is exactly my point. I want the president of my country to be from that 1%. I don't want him or her to be a "regular guy" just like me. I don’t want an “elitist”, but I want someone from the country’s elite. Someone who's smarter than I am, who's better educated, more experienced, more dynamic, more courageous, more diplomatic, more articulate, more inspiring, more visionary, more compassionate, more able to multi-task, to analyze and to make the right decisions. It's a tall order, one I don't think an ordinary person can fill. But being president of the United States isn’t an ordinary job.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Safety in Israel

Since our return from Israel several people have asked us if we felt safe there. The short answer to this is "Yes".

I now understand the feelings of the many French Jews who are buying property in Israel. On the one hand, if you are bothered by the anti-Semitism coming from parts of the Arab-Muslim community here, you might think, as I did, that moving from France to Israel is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. On the other hand, they say, at least the Jews call the shots in Israel.

Such was our sense, for better or for worse, of the balance of power there. Incidentally, the feeling of long-time Israelis towards these French newcomers is ambiguous. The former see the latter as at least partly responsible for the sharp rise in real estate prices, while much of that now French-owned real estate remains unoccupied several months of the year.

The tortured relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors, in particular the Palestinians, was barely noticeable during our stay. There are plenty of Arab neighborhoods, almost all of our taxi drivers were Arab, as were many of the employees in the Jerusalem Novotel. But we sensed no undercurrent of hatred, animosity or threat of violence. We didn’t venture into Hebron, Jericho, Nablus or Ramallah, however, the main cities of the West Bank, nor into Gaza.

The most recent cycle of violence began while we were in Israel, but I wouldn’t have known anything about it had I not picked up a newspaper. On the day before we left, a rocket fired from Gaza landed in an open area near Ashkelon. Here is the title of the article that appeared in the Jerusalem Post:

Israel fears 'strategic threat' as Katyusha hits N. Ashkelon.
250,000 within rocket range
IDF kills 9 Palestinians in Gaza strikes

Here is the title in the International Herald Tribune from the same day:

Israelis kill 9 in raids into Gaza

It wasn’t until I read the IHT article that I found out that Palestinians from Gaza had fired a rocket and even then, it wasn’t exactly clear which action was in response to which! Ironically, in the paper version of the IHT, there was a subtitle in smaller print that said something like “Rocket lands near Ashkelon.” The contrast was striking: the same two items of information were announced in two newspapers on the same day, but in reverse order and font sizes. So much for the impartial media!

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Holy Land

No matter the feelings I might have had about Judaism when I was growing up – joy, guilt, wonder, sorrow – the Jewish identity is so strong, so compelling that sooner or later it always reels me back in. In some periods of my life religion has played only a minor role, but it has always been in the background and always a part of my character, ready to sally forth at critical moments. Judaism’s values, the importance Jews place on education, the notion that everything is grist for the mill and therefore debatable are hard-wired in me. There’s some ineffable beauty about the 4,000-year tortured journey of this tiny people.

In the Diaspora, especially outside the United States, it’s hard to express your Jewish identity fully without singling yourself out or even cutting yourself off from the surrounding, Gentile world. This is frustrating. Jewish children know from an early age that they are somehow different from everyone else around them. This has always been both Judaism’s strength and its weakness.

Israeli hospitality and Jewish identity
Stepping off an airplane in Israel is like meeting an old friend. The barriers fall away and you can be yourself. You can live Judaism fully and completely. Indeed, our Israeli experience started with passport control in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. The woman in the booth looked at our passports and saw that B. had just turned 13. “Ah, bar mitzvah,” she said. “Mazel tov. Which parsha (Torah portion) did you read? Miquets?”
“No, Vayigash.” Not bad though. Miquets was the previous week.

This was to be a recurring theme during our two weeks in Israel: many ordinary people, not Yeshiva students or rabbis or other religious Jews, had a great deal of basic Biblical knowledge. We asked my cousins about it, and they confirmed that children in Israel study history starting with the Bible, or – dare I put it another way – study the Bible as history.

Our visit to the Great Synagogue reinforced our feelings of belonging. B. & D. were amazed by the sheer size of it: fifteen hundred seats (Temple Emmanuel in New York is bigger, but they don’t remember it). This was their first tangible piece of evidence, soon to be substantiated elsewhere, that they were truly in a country where a majority of the population was Jewish. This intrigued them. Soon they (and I) were wearing a kippa around Jerusalem. Granted, three or four times a day we’d walk into a place that required us to wear one, anyway. But that wasn’t the reason. We were just proud to belong, and to show it. Now I know some American readers might now be wondering if it’s “dangerous” to wear a kippa in France. In truth, it does attract some unnecessary attention from elements of the Arab-Muslim community, but mostly, it’s that if you’re not religious, it just feels out of place. As I would if I wore my cowboy hat here in France. In Jerusalem wearing a kippa doesn’t feel out of place. Au contraire, it makes your heart beat in rhythm with your surroundings.

Whenever our guide book gave us bad opening time information, people seemed determined to help us. At the Rockefeller Archeological museum, we were initially met with an amused, but firm, “No, the museum is closed today.”
“But our guide book says …”
“I’m sorry. It’s closed every Tuesday.”
And then miraculously, “But I can let you in to climb to the top of the tower and have a look at the Old City? Would you like that?” Would we ever! He also let us walk around a sculpture garden in the museum. I felt like Jamie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.

At the Tel Aviv “safari” and zoo, the entrance was closed, earlier than expected, but the young attendant at the gate felt sorry for us (must have been my brilliant Hebrew, more on that later!), and let us in, asking us just not to tell anyone. Oops, I just did …

Towards the end of our stay, I noticed that we hadn’t been subjected to the kind of gentle urging to move to Israel, to “make aliyah”, that I had experienced on my previous visit 25 years ago. Israelis we met this time were certainly very proud of their country, but they didn’t ask us why we weren’t planning to live in Israel. Was it my imagination, or was this just another of the ways in which Israel has changed in the intervening time? The country has been through a lot since then, including several waves of immigration.

Old City wanderings
The Jerusalem Novotel is just a stone’s throw from the Damascus Gate, near what was “no-man’s land” until 1967. From there, we set out on foot for the Old City. But first I took my family on a detour, guided by my 30-year-old book of walking tours, Footloose in Jerusalem. I figured if this stuff has been here 2,000 years, what’s another 30? Well, after circling a busy, tired-looking bus station outside the Damascus Gate for 15 minutes, what was supposed to be Jeremiah’s Grotto turned out to be a warehouse with a 14-year-old Arab boy driving a forklift. We never did get to the bottom of that mystery. We headed back to the gate, but not before visiting another out-of-the-way attraction, King Solomon’s mines. These are a series of underground galleries that extend deep into – that is, under – the Muslim quarter of the Old City. This is where stone was quarried for the First Temple and where King Zedekiah allegedly tried to hide from the Babylonians before his family was put to death before his eyes.

Then it was in through the Damascus Gate and into the bustling Muslim quarter of the Old City. Here, gravity draws you into the colorful, main market streets, but through diversionary tactics, I managed to draw may family off them and into the back alleyways. At one point, while looking at the map, as any good tourist would, I heard children playing around me and felt something plastic strike my foot. When I looked away from the map I saw a youngster holding a gun, which had presumably just fired the dart that had landed on my foot. Somehow, I understood this instinctively, although I will admit to a split-second of anxiety. Along the via Dolorosa, we asked a man for directions. His name was Mafouz. He told us about his love for the city we were exploring and that he was born in. He was Christian, and that evening, December 24, he was going to Bethlehem. He was already reveling in the expectation of it. We also saw kids pushing or pulling huge carts, laden with bread, sundry supplies or even eggs. I took a picture of the boy pulling the eggs. B. thought I shouldn’t have done it, that it was a form of Schadenfreude. Of course, he didn’t say it that way. He said, “He’s poor, he’s working hard, and here you come, a tourist, you take his picture. Ha ha, isn’t that funny, all those eggs?” He’s right, of course, but isn’t 13 a bit young for such middle-class guilt?

When we reached the Jewish quarter, the family breathed a sigh of relief. The first sounds we heard were those of children in a classroom. We were on familiar turf. We turned left and saw an archaeological museum. We turned right and saw a cultural center. We went straight and saw a group of four historic Sephardic synagogues. We turned another corner and came out onto a large open area where a group of female soldiers were sitting on benches, guns strapped across their backs. We walked down some stairs and found ourselves on the Cardo, flanked by art galleries.

We were home. All that remained on our agenda for the day was a visit to the Wailing Wall, the Kotel in Hebrew, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple, destroyed in the year 70 of the common era. The Kotel is at one end of a wide plaza (access is through metal detectors), and is divided into two sides, one for men and one for women. So we split up, without much ceremony, S. to one side, B., D. and me to the other. It was only afterwards that I realized how emotional it was going to be for S. Her mother, who passed away last July, had never been to Israel. But how she had dreamed of going! So now here was her daughter, on a pilgrimage by proxy, with strangers to either side of her and no way of communicating. It was emotional for us, too. I felt a physical connection to the Wall and the 2,000 years of history since the destruction of the Temple that it represents for me. B. & D. were busily writing notes and searching for available cracks in the Wall. So was I, but I hadn’t noticed the tables and chairs set up for just that purpose. So I squatted. When I started to get up, however, I felt a shooting pain in my back. Usually that means that within 24 hours, I will look like a walking question mark; that is, if I can walk at all. The “Muslim prayer” position sometimes alleviates this, but it wasn’t the place for Muslim prayer. Miraculously, the pain did not recur.

Nearby a man was talking animatedly on his cell phone. Then he balanced the phone on a stone in the Wall and left it there for a few minutes. Why not? If you can fax a message to the Wall, why not phone one in directly? I offered to put D. on my shoulders so his note would be higher on the Wall (and possibly get read sooner), but he declined. Occasionally men came over to me to ask for donations to charities that allegedly help poor families. In truth, it was hard to tell where the charity ended and the begging began. Later in the week, we took a tour of the tunnel that runs along the wall under the Muslim quarter. It runs alongside the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, of which the Wailing Wall is part, and in certain places you can see just how far down the wall goes. Or rather, just how high the wall was before the intervening 2,000 years of building, destruction and rebuilding raised the level of the city up another 15-20 meters.

When I first walked through the Old City 25 years ago, it was a magical four-dimensional journey. Back then, I had never seen anything like it. The layers of time, the diversity, the strangeness of it, the beauty of it. This time, it was even more wondrous than it was then. More has been finished, excavated and developed, especially in the Jewish quarter. But something in me had changed. The sights were somehow familiar.

Every time we take a trip somewhere, we set out with grand, idealistic notions about how much our children will learn about the culture and history of the country or region we are visiting. Idealism usually gives way to disappointment at the first museum visit. At the Palacio Real in Madrid, jewel of Spanish architecture, decorative arts and repository of a few centuries of Spanish royal history, B. & D. spent most of their time playing with the buttons on the audioguide. So with the Palmach Museum, the Hall of Independence and the Museum of the Diaspora on the schedule, we expected the worst.

But that was then, and this was now. For the first time, they felt the museum exhibits were meant for them. They, especially, B. felt a personal, albeit distant connection to the people, whether Biblical or contemporary, whose lives and destiny were being explained to them. I certainly never felt this way growing up Jewish in the United States. Maybe because being Jewish was so ordinary to me, whereas they, growing up in France, see it as extraordinary. Perhaps those feelings then found full expression in Israel, where they began to understand just how extraordinary the destiny of the Jewish people has been.

The Hall of Independence is perhaps the most understated museum I’ve ever seen. It used to be the Tel Aviv art museum and is the place where the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. The visit consists of watching a short film and listening to an impassioned presentation of the events of that historic day, delivered by museum staff. No multimedia experiences, no ancient artifacts, just the tables and chairs used that day. Not to worry, the Palmach museum filled in our knowledge about the birth of the State of Israel with its multimedia journey into the lives of members of this pre-statehood defense organization, which initially received training in the British army. The Museum of the Diaspora was a wondrous journey through the ages. I could have spent a few days there, but luckily, my family, as fascinated as they were by what they learned, reminded me that we might want to do a few other things in the next few days (eat, sleep, bathe, etc.). Finally, the Time Elevator, a cross between a cinema and an amusement park, helped us to sort out the Jeremiahs, the Hezekiahs, the Zedekiahs, the Herods and the myriad other important characters who have left their mark on the history of the Jewish people.

History is omnipresent in Israel. I suppose if you live there you get used to that and lose your wide-eyed innocence, just as I have become used to France's history. We Americans are very impressed by old things, I'm told. But it's hard not to be impressed by the ruins at Caesaria, which line about a kilometer of shoreline. Herod had another palace here, in addition to the one at Masada and the Temple he rebuilt and expanded in Jerusalem. Indeed, it was not François Mitterrand who invented the notion of "grands projets".

We did not go to Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust. I don’t remember much detail from my visit there 25 years ago, only the piercing, harrowing nature of it, and I remember being overcome with grief and despair by the end of the visit. We didn’t want our kids, who are just learning to enjoy Judaism, to have that joy snuffed out, nipped in the bud. We were afraid that they, especially D. (9), might interpret, even unconsciously, the dehumanization and extermination of Jews as a deserved fate. We do not want them to think the whole world is hostile to them before they’ve had a chance to know why Judaism is so worth holding on to. Are we overprotective? Ironically, we have had two Holocaust-related experiences since returning to France, but discussion of these will have to wait for a future post.

Family & Friends
When my grandmother emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1917, her elder sister was already in Palestine, and her younger twin sisters went there shortly thereafter. Their descendents now live in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Haifa and elsewhere in the country. So our family was largely spared the horrors of the Shoah. But if we were comfortably settled in the United States, the same expression couldn’t really be used to describe the way of life in Palestine and then in Israel since 1917. On my previous visit, I remember family members describing those years, saying “’We had nothing. Nothing.” Everything they had now, they had worked and fought for. Twenty-five years ago, I thought they were materialistic when they boasted about how much they had achieved and how much they had. This time I understood differently. They were proud, in a way that comes only through personal hardship, much more than I have experienced in my life. They’re still proud, although maybe they don’t wear their pride so much on the outside anymore. Israel has made it. It has an advanced, technological, Western-style economy.

We spent an evening in Jerusalem, an afternoon near Tel Aviv and an evening in Haifa with family members, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years or had never met. But there was lots to talk about. There was much discussion of genealogy, as one cousin tried to glean as much information as he could about our family history from another point of view and input it into his genealogy software. R., our hostess in Jerusalem, is the widow of one of my mother’s first cousins. He was the first Israeli cousin I remember meeting. In 1968 he came to the States with his family, and the emotional link I formed with him and his immediate family was strong, and still is.

The emotional bonds extended beyond our family. We also saw a woman with whom my mother- and father-in-law had become friendly when we lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It’s not always easy to make friends in later life, but she did. We moved to Lyon, her husband died and she moved to Israel, then my mother-in-law died. Through all this, she remained faithful, writing to us on all occasions, happy and sad.

S. was my roommate for two years at Princeton, and he has been in Israel a few years longer than I have been in France. He is now married and has five children, and all but one of them, plus his wife, were there when we came to have dinner with them at their home in Beit Shemesh. Their family seemed so loving and so united, and I imagine that the importance they place on their spiritual life and the energy they put into it had something to do with that. Life seemed like a common adventure they were all taking part in. S. was so enthusiastic about our coming to Israel that he wanted to get together more than once during our stay, which we did!

The Desert
The road from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea loses altitude very quickly after leaving the city, ultimately plunging to 400 meters below sea level, the lowest point on Earth. It also loses moisture. One might say it is the beginning of the Negev, and it is dry! Its barren slopes of ochre earth make Wyoming prairies look like lush, well-manicured lawns in comparison.

Ein Gedi is an oasis on the shore of the Dead Sea. The kibbutz there includes guest accommodations and now earns much of its revenue through tourism. We toured the celebrated botanical gardens containing plant species imported from all over the world, but our guide fielded more questions about the life of the people in the kibbutz and on the changes currently taking place on Israeli kibbutzim, than on the plant life we were observing.

At the Ein Gedi spa, you can see just how far the shoreline has retreated in recent decades. When the spa was built, I think the water came right up to it. Now it's about 500 meters away. You can even take a little shuttle bus to it. In fact, in the summer, you're probably well advised to do so. I'm not sure about the healing powers of Dead Sea mud, however. Either it or the water turned my skin white and left it smelling of sulfur until the end of our stay.

Masada, the ancient fortress that first served as a palace for King Herod, then as protection for the Jewish zealots who held out against the Romans for a few years after the Temple was destroyed, is only a few miles away. The one-hour climb by flashlight up a narrow, twisting pathway in the July pre-dawn darkness 25 years ago was much more technical and dramatic than ours was this time round. There was also a lot less to see back then. I remember kicking around the dusty mountaintop, looking into a huge cistern and a mikvah (ritual bath) and most of all watching the sun rise. Now at the base of the mountain there’s a museum housing imaginative displays of the artifacts excavated on top, with commentary piped right into your ears from the audioguide. The sheer number of everyday objects is astounding. You can now spend an entire day touring the top of the mountain, where much has been restored and another audioguide feeds you information for the duration of your visit. While we were there, a bar and a bat mitzvah were taking place. Interestingly, the tourist information seemed to place less emphasis on the collective suicide aspect of the zealots’ fate than I had remembered from my previous visit. S. had a similar recollection from her visit 17 years ago. We later learned later that there’s now some controversy over exactly what happened at Masada during those final months way back in the 70s. Back down at the gift shop I looked for the book written in the 1960s by the excavation team’s leader, Yigael Yadin, who had also been an Israeli military leader, but B. said bluntly, “No, it’s too old. Come on, let’s go.”

The Modern City
Weatherwise, if our late December / early January visit was anything to go by, a winter in Tel Aviv is like a summer in Brittany. We spent part of one sunny day lounging on the beach and playing beach paddleball, right behind our hotel. We even dipped our legs into the water. Tel Aviv shopping centers glitter, there are some dazzlingly new office towers, and the oldest part of Tel Aviv, a neighborhood called Neveh Tzedek, bustles with activity, galleries and trendy shops. Nearby is an even older section, technically part of the old Arab city of Jaffa. Old Jaffa is now almost entirely Jewish, has great views of the city (sort of like viewing Los Angeles from Palos Verdes) and is also filled with galleries, shops, etc. But I wouldn’t hasten to call Tel Aviv a beautiful city. The construction materials used to build most structures seem to age poorly, so relatively new buildings look worn. This is in contrast to Jerusalem, where all buildings must be built with Jerusalem stone.

I wandered into one of the non-Jewish structures in Old Jaffa, St. Peter’s Monastery, while the rest of the family walked on into the large nearby plaza where several newlywed couples were being photographed. It was near the end of our stay in Israel. Inside, the church was decorated for Christmas with a tree, a nativity scene and other trimmings. Somehow it all seemed strangely familiar. Here I was in a country where most people are Jewish, where my background, customs and foods are dominant, yet seeing the church decorated for Christmas made me realize I was far from home. Normally at this time of year, I’d be seeing these decorations every day.

I tried to speak as much Hebrew as I could while we were in Israel, but whenever I did, especially if we were in a bit of a hurry, the cry of “Speak English” came from the back seat. Every once in a while, I met someone who spoke very little English. This was like manna from heaven, as new Hebrew words, phrases and conjugations would rain down upon me without the conversation switching to English. I was constantly looking at signs and printed material, trying to figure out as much as I could. Every language has its difficulty. In Hebrew, it’s hard to see a word and connect it with the spoken version you might have heard a half-hour earlier, because you’ll usually see it without the vowels. The word “renaissance” for example, becomes the equivalent of “rnsnc” in Hebrew characters and can be pronounced in myriad ways if you don’t already know the word. So, it’s easy to be put off by a mass of Hebrew text, telling yourself you can’t read it. But in fact, when I tried, I could always make out a few words, sometimes even whole sentences. R., one of my Jerusalem cousins, has been encouraging me to speak more Hebrew, and I want to, if only so that I can read her novels someday.

I began to wonder how Israeli children learn to read Hebrew, if they cannot “sound out words”. In France, debate has raged for decades about the best method: global or syllabic. So I thought that if Israeli children learned to recognize, to photograph new words, that could deal a coup de grâce to arguments claiming that only the syllabic method works and that the global method handicaps children for life. After all, 7 million Israelis can’t be wrong. Right? But then I noticed that books for children are usually written with vowels. So I asked some of our Israeli cousins about this and they said that in fact the same debate has raged in Israel for decades!

One of my cousins is a retired tour guide and used to take Israeli groups to many parts of the world. Once, he said, he was in the Basque country of Spain and people asked him how the Jews of Palestine ­– the future Israelis – had revived the Hebrew language. Indeed the advent of modern Hebrew is probably the most successful example of the revival of an ancient language. He answered that the Jews had a secret weapon: the Bible. The Bible is written in Hebrew. It’s all in there, verb conjugations and all.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bar mitzvah

Many events over the past two years could have warranted a blog entry: the World Cup, the death of l’Abbé Pierre, Marcel Marceau or Saddam Hussein, Nicolas Sarkozy’s election and subsequent escapades, the release of the iPhone, the Arche de Zoé affair, the most recent round of strikes, or France’s newest anti-smoking laws, which ban the practice in all public buildings, including bars and restaurants. S. and I are looking forward with glee to telling restaurant owners that it is now a pleasure to dine out.

But I had decided that the next time I wrote, the subject would be personal, not political. That subject has come: B.’s bar mitzvah and our subsequent trip to Israel.

For those readers who might not know what a bar mitzvah is, suffice it to say that it’s a rite of passage for 13-year-olds in the Jewish religion. The bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) reads a passage from the Torah (the Pentateuch) and/or the Haftarah (a selection from the Prophets), and is recognized as an adult member of the Jewish community, responsible for all of his/her subsequent actions. This is usually followed by much rejoicing.

In our case, it was joyful, but it was also an emotional bar mitzvah, in particular because there was a big downside to the event. B.’s grandmother A. passed away at the end of July after a four-year battle with cancer, less than five months before B.’s big day. I remembered her involvement in the planning of our wedding and thought back on all the years I knew her since then. What a treat it would have been for her to see her elder grandson become a young man. We missed her softness, her savoir-vivre, her wisdom and most of all, her presence.

Also, our synagogue had been through an upheaval over the previous year. Our president fell ill and died rather suddenly just about a year ago. She had devoted her life to our congregation, but with her gone, the factions were laid bare. The rabbi, who had inspired B. and other bar mitzvah “candidates” to devote themselves to study, found himself in profound disagreement with many prominent members of the congregation and resigned in September.

Now, you don’t replace a “liberal”, i.e. conservative/reform rabbi in France at the drop of a kippa. If you wanted to count the total number of such rabbis in France on your fingers, you wouldn’t run out of fingers. All the others are orthodox. So since September we have had to call upon a rabbi who also officiates at another “liberal” synagogue 500 kms away in Toulouse. Luckily, our shared rabbi was to be in Lyon on December 15.

Rather than lose interest and drift away, B. was dedicated and determined to go through with this. After all, he had already invested several years in Hebrew school and 12-15 months in bar mitzvah preparation. So was I, for B. had asked me to read (i.e. chant) the Haftarah and I had already invested three months in that! In fact, the whole family felt involved in a common endeavor.

Not only did B. read from the Torah, he also led most of the service on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. In this respect, he did more than many bar mitzvah boys in orthodox synagogues. He sang in Hebrew and read in French and English, all with remarkable fluency, as if he had been doing it for years. Oh yes, he had been (see above). Then there was his sermon, his commentary on the week’s Torah portion (“Vayigash”), focusing on the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers when they come to see him in Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. At first, the idea of preparing this sermon terrified B. He did not know where to start. Especially as there had developed within the congregation a sort of arms race. In the preceding months, it seemed that each successive bar/bat mitzvah tried to equal if not surpass his/her predecessor in terms of intellectual prowess. If one cited Rashi, the next would cite Maimonides, and so forth. B. did not feel up to this. In the end, with coaching from a teacher at the synagogue, he described, in his own words, what the Torah portion meant for him, relating it to his own life.

He also thanked the people in his life who had helped him in his achievement. Then he had a very emotional moment. He was thanking his grandfather for driving him to and from his bar mitzvah lessons, even though his grandmother was very sick at the time. Suddenly the tears welled up in his eyes, his throat knotted and he couldn’t continue. It was a pregnant moment, and everyone waited. Then he reached down somewhere and brought up the courage to go on.

I could go on for many screens praising my son, but I’ll stop now. I’ll just add that all the emotions so close to the surface must have touched other people too, because several of our guests told us how moved they were, how beautiful it all was. Perhaps they were also thinking of that particularly emotional moment.

With A.’s passing so heavy on our hearts, we had no real desire to make a big party, but we wanted B. to enjoy a celebration of some kind. So the next day we had a lunch, primarily for our closest family members, and a week later, we took off on a two-week trip to Israel. But that will be the subject of a future post.