Monday, May 27, 2013

After The Great Gatsby

After watching Baz Luhrmann’s, The Great Gatsby with my husband, my son and my granddaughter, we sat in Chipotle’s eating tacos and burritos, talking about the film—Luhrmann’s over the top party scenes, other scenes that were strangely like or unlike the novel. Some of us liked the movie; others liked portions. None of us was wholly enthralled, wholly engaged. My granddaughter talked about the acting, my husband about the party scenes. My son brought up the stereotypical Jewish character.
            “Which one was that?” my granddaughter said.
            “You didn’t get it,” my son said. His tone, both statement and question, remained kind.
            At fourteen, my granddaughter has experienced anti-Semitic remarks thrown at a Jewish boy in her class, Asian slurs thrown at her. She is both Anglo and Asian. My son, her father is American and Jewish, her mother Korean and Buddhist. I’m not sure how my granddaughter identifies, but she is very comfortable with Jewish rituals and Jewish holidays.
            My granddaughter guessed at the Jewish character. “Gatsby?” “Nick?”
            “Meyer Wolfsheim,” my son said.
            My husband talked about the character’s model, Arnold Rothstein, notorious for fixing the 1919 World Series. Maybe. As for me, I was thinking about literature, the Jew as villain, a theme that goes back to the New Testament. An English major, I remembered my anglophile professor lecturing and reading aloud from Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Such blatant anti-Semitism glossed over. Accepted. By everybody. Except me. In my one-armed desk, I shrank to my spine.
            Watching Wolfsheim on the screen, I felt disoriented. Who was he? Why was he dark skinned? Was the  director was playing back to a medieval stereotype—the Jew as devil with black skin and flashing eyes. Researching, I discovered that Luhrmann had spoken of a “non-controversial casting strategy.” Non controversial?  I found the Wolfsheim character both strange and offensive. Was Luhrmann contending that by casting the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchn in the role he had avoided a stereotype? Tom Buchanan calls Wolfsheim a “kike.” His name is Meyer Wolfsheim. Camera work exaggerates Wolfsheim’s lips, his nose. His features are coarse; he is coarse, a stereotypical Jew.
            Yet, my granddaughter doesn’t recognize him. In school, the buzz word is tolerance. Difference is played down. Both racism, anti-Semitism seem to be caught under an umbrella of anti-bullying. Yet, kids toss racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Better, I think, to let them know the history of those remarks. Why not have a discussion about stereotypes? Where they come from. Who perpetuates them and why. Why not let present day understanding illuminate a darker past? But a discussion of race and anti-Semitism would necessarily bring students to a discussion of class, perhaps a more sensitive subject in these United States than either race or Jews. And isn't that what The Great Gatsby is about, class in the greatest democracy on earth, a glass wall, a glass ceiling, the privilege of the Daisys and the Tom Buchanans?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Morning

          This morning, I got up early to ride the number four Metro to Saint Germaine des Pres. Then, winding my way through a maze of narrow streets, I found it, Dore, Dore, my favorite shop to buy stockings and socks. This was my second try. I'd failed Saturday evening. I'd found the shop's website, announcing hours, Monday through Saturday, nine to seven. But I'm not buying stockings, I'm sitting at a bistro next door, drinking a double espresso and eating baguette with butter and jam. I am waiting, but I understand my hopes are in vain. Speaking French and see-sawing his palm, my waiter had said, "Mondays, sometimes, yes, sometimes no."
             So, I sit and I write, preparing for my interview with a woman I will meet this afternoon. She was a hidden child during World War Two, hidden in full view in an orphanage run by the Eclaire Israelites of France, the Jewish Scouts. The orphanage was a rented house in the main square of a Beaulieu sur Dordogne, a village in southwest France. I am writing about this village, about another villages in south west France. About Jews who took refuge in both places. Beaulieu was a friendly village for Jews. I like learning that.
              I check the shop one more time.

Ah, Paris. Ah, the French.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

           I am in Paris alone, and I cannot think of a better way to spend this day, than letting it unfold. I passed part of the morning at my computer, transcribing notes, adding impressions Then, I walked to the Place Bastille to search for the entrance to the Promenade Plantee, an elevated walk built on the abandoned tracks of Bastille Railway Line. Here the walk is narrow, the gardens lush. People stroll; joggers jog; a few children ride bicycles, although bicycles are forbidden. They day is breezy and cool, partly sunny. Midway along the walk, I descend, find a patisserie, buy a small quiche, a bottle of water, then reenter the walk, passing the Jardin de Reuilly. Here, the walk turns surprisingly urban. Walking and searching for seclusion, I find a bench, eat and watch passersby, my thoughts drifting.
As the walk again becomes urban, gardens are strewn with winter’s debris. No one has raked fall leaves. Many of the city’s gardens remind me of Manhattan in the seventies when the city’s parks had been neglected. Money? Probably.
I’ve walked for more than three kilometers, one more until the end. But I lose my way. I’m on city streets. Making my way back to the Promenade, I descend at Gare de Lyon. In a bar, I order a double espresso and wonder what I’ll do next, go back to my hotel? Find the Musee de Nissim de Camondo? My phone rings. My son is calling to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, my husband to wish the mother of our sons a happy Mother’s Day. Their voices feel close. They feel close. Yet, I’m happy here at this far away table. This is the writer in  me, seeking not isolation, but the solitude of my own thoughts. I’ve come to Paris to go to the wedding of a friend’s son and to do research for a series of essays I’m writing about hidden Jewish children during World War Two. Today, though, I am absorbing the city.
            My metro stop is the Park Monceau, a beautiful eighteenth century park, filled with gardens, families, lovers. A carousel turns. There are statues, rock sculptures, small pools. Here, I’m happy to say, someone has raked. On the Avenue Monceau, I enter the Museum, built by Moise de Camondo, heir to a banking fortune, and mentioned in one of my favorite books, The Hare with Amber Eyes. In the book, Edmund de Waal, tells a the complex story of his family with simplicity (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) and grace. Waal’s family, the Ephrussis lived down the street from the Camondos, and like the Camondos, they were wealthy Jewish bankers. Inside the mansion, I walk with an audio guide, listening to stories of the family, of the house, its art, its porcelain, and as I listen I tried to imagine living in such wealth. Impossible.
Moise built the house for Nissim, his son, who, sadly, was killed in action during World War One. Moise’s daughter Beatrice wasn’t interested in the house or the art, so Moise donated the house to the Musee des arts decoratifs, upon his death, along with a foundation to fund it. He died in 1935.
Shortly, before the Nazi invasion in 1939, Beatrice converted to Catholicism. Thinking her French citizenship would protect her, she and her family stayed in Paris. An equestrian, Beatrice rode horses with German officers. In 1943, the family was arrested (Gestapo? French police?), sent to Drancy, a transit camp, then murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.  
            Meandering through the Parc Monceau, I sit on a bench, call my family in Colorado. It’s morning there, and my son has a made a frittata for breakfast. It’s ready, so we talk briefly. I speak with my grand daughters. It’s nearly six in Paris. Still, light, still breezy. I study a Metro map, then after three rides, I’m sitting on one of the large wide bodied boats that cruise the Seine. The motor is too loud, and it stinks. The commentary in four languages is overpowering. Still, I feel the comfort of motion, a slowing down, as if to settle the complexities of my day, the gardens, the carrousel, the children in the park, the sad legacy of the Camondos, their gift to the French state, their murder in Auschwitz.
            I’ve hardly eaten all day, and when I leave the boat, I realize I’m starving. Entering a restaurant on the Place d’Alma that I know will be overpriced, I allow myself to be seated at a table. I’m here because I like the décor, so French, scarlet banquettes, fringed lampshades, tinted mirrors, crisp white linens, attentive waiters. I’m here because I’m exhausted. My salmon is fresh, decent. Uneventful. Still, I’m content, sipping wine, watching traffic and pedestrians, the Eiffel Tower rising in the distance, my thoughts like wheels, turning and turning. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Memorial to the Victims of the Vel d’ Hiv

The memorial is easy to pass without noticing, which I did, Tuesday afternoon. What I didn’t know was that there are two memorials erected in memory of the 13,000 Jewish men, women and children who had been held in the Vel d’ hiv, a winter cycling arena, for six days in July of 1942 without toilets, with little food or water, minimal medical care as the temperature inside the locked airless building climbed and climbed, French police, guarding. All the Jews would be shipped to Drancy, a transport center, then to Auschwitz. This particular memorial, I assume, marks the exact spot where the Vel d’hiv had stood. It was torn down in 1958.
 I stand on the sidewalk of the Boulevard de Grenelle, just down the street from the Metro station, looking at a fenced plot of land, maybe forty feet by forty feet, the grass too tall and full of weeds. A daisy like weed blooms, a crumpled up piece of paper resting among its white flowers. Dandelions bloom. A low stone wall borders a garden. Like the grass, the garden is overgrown and very dry. A yellow hose coils on the ground under a faucet. A second hose lies among broken irrigation pipe. A plaque honors the dead. A red ambulance sits parked at the curb.
            In the sidewalk, a recessed date, a cigarette butt obliterating the last number, but I know the year this site was dedicated: 1994.
            A woman wearing faded jeans, a bold red and black striped shirt approaches. Flanked by two girls who look to be about twelve or thirteen, she rummages in her purse. The girls, too, wear jeans, sleeveless shirts, sneakers, one pair pink, the other white. I guess they are friends. The woman holds a tea candle, lights a match, then places the lighted candle onto cement just inside the iron fence. Silently, I recite the beginning of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, because that is all I know, the first five words.           
As they leave, I speak in English. I’m assuming they’re German tourists. They’re Dutch. “That’s was so thoughtful,” I say “to bring a candle.”
“They read the book. Sarah,” the woman says, tilting her head toward the girls. “Sarah,” she says again.
            “Ah,” I say. Sarah’s Key.”
            “Yes,” she says.
            The girls nod.
            As we speak, the woman, mentions a second memorial, closer to the Seine. Without her, I would not have found the magnificent sculpture depicting a family of five, a pregnant woman and her husband, a woman alone, all victims of the Vel d’ hiv.
            I didn’t read Sarah’s Key. It is not a book I would choose. But, wanting an easy way to gather history, I saw the movie. I got the visuals I wanted and more, horror that stayed with me, sensationalist horror. I didn’t think much of either one, book or movie. How wrong I was to judge. Sarah’s Key brought this woman and these girls to the Boulevard de Grenelle, not just to look as I was looking, but to light a candle. And what does this meditation have to do with my Bat Mitzvah? I have been brought to a new place of learning. Dare I say of understanding? I’m too judgmental. But not so judgmental that I can’t learn.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

First Evening in Paris

        First evening in Paris. Bistro Le Temps des Cerises. In a park I have seen blossoms. Cherries? I don’t know. Tulips bloomed. And lilacs, that deep French blue. I have made my way to this tiny restaurant after studying a map. Inside, wooden tables sit on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old pedal Singer sewing machine. The tables are low. I hardly have room to cross my legs. I order wine, a light rose, read the latest issue of Ploughshares, edited by Major Jackson, a poet new to me. In a profile of Jackson, poet Gregory Pardlo writes of Jackson’s double vision, encountering unflattering cultural allusions and still maintaining self confidence and pride within. Jackson’s work is grounded in a sensibility of having an ethical sensibility to his African-American community, and now I’m thinking about my Bat Mitzvah, and my reasons for continuing on my journey. Here in this Paris bistro, I have a flash of recognition. Like Jackson, I want to be responsible and responsive to my roots, my more recent roots and my ancient roots. And this is what my Bat Mitzvah is about, finding connections. This is also what my work is about, the reason I return to France, a country that gives me a glimpse of European Judaism. I could have chosen another country, but I have an ancestral link to France, and I love France, this bistro where I, a woman of certain age, feel comfortable dining alone. My fish arrives, a white fish I can’t name served on a bed of sautéed green beans and mushrooms, all seasoned with parsley, salt, pepper and  finished with olive oil and a balsamic glaze. Dipping a slice of baguette, I savor taste. I am both away and at home. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Back On My Journey

In the fall when I decided to become a Bat Mitzvah, I also committed to blogging about my journey. I’d envisioned writing a number of short pieces, perhaps once a week.  that I would write more regularly. Easy, I’d thought. That’s not the way things turned out. I’ve been stalled. Family problems have intruded, certain of my sons feeling as if I’ve violated their privacy. I’ve been asked to change names. Perhaps, choose initials. But naming is an essence. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to what I must do. In addition, without regular classes or assignments, I’ve been focusing on other work, a series of essays about Jews in southwest France during WWII. And just this week, my beloved standard poodle, Lucy, died. She was failing, but her death came suddenly. Unexpectedly. And in recent months, I’ve been shadowed by doubt. Why am I doing this? Is my journey relevant? And for whom? I’ve proposed projects that involve my grand children, my children, most of whom—in my opinion—find my journey either a burden or unnecessary. “Why now?” one son has asked.
I think of Rabbi Hillel. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if  I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
As Rabbi Lev has said my Bat Mitzvah will be my Shehecheyanu moment. The Shehecheyanu, that most beautiful prayer I recite often when I hike in the mountains, a prayer people recite at the arrival of any long awaited occasion. Holidays come once a year, as does the first hike in the spring. Life cycle events come less often. Some of us get our Shehecheyanu moments at births, others at weddings. Some never get those blessed moments. Mine will come in the fall, a stopping point along my life’s journey. In the Shehecheyanu, we give thanks to the universe—some would say God—for sustaining us and allowing us to reach this moment, whatever that moment is.
And so, I’m back on my journey, and along the way, I will try to be more faithful to this blog. And I have a new date. Did I tell you? September 28, 2013. Sue Horowitz, musician, educator, friend is my guide.