In my Paris neighborhood, I am discovering France’s historic fear of outsiders. Indifference to the fate of those not inside their circle is the underside of the French passion for privacy, for la discretion. A country that has experienced multiple invasions and a catastrophic loss of life in World War I has low expectations of humanity – and an understandable fear of les etrangers – strangers. “C’est normale,” accompanied by a gallic shrug, is an expression I hear often. Even death in mid-life is deemed “normale,” something to accept and live with. In New York, death is not “normale.” It is a shocking intrusion into life – a failure. No one in hyperactive Manhattan wants to be reminded of mortality.
Here in Paris, every block tells a tale, and cautions the visitor against undo optimism. The past – and death – is so present in Paris because every neighborhood has some sort of a monument to the two million men – two out of every nine – lost in World War I. Every step forward is followed by one backward – the ancient stones of my neighborhood seem to say. I am reminded of that as I sit in Le Café Metro, on the place Maubert. Léon Blum, elected Prime Minister in 1936 was the first Jew to hold that office. He was driving through place Maubert, where I am sipping my café au lait, when a group of right wing thugs tried to overturn his car. Did anyone sitting on this terrace move to intercede? Blum was arrested by the Gestapo. He survived Auschwitz, but his brother René did not.
What would have happened to Paris had its citizens resisted the Germans more forcefully? Would it have shared Budapest’s fate – with every major building and monument bombed? It’s a devastating thought: Notre Dame pulverized like Coventry’s cathedral? Still, Vichy is a name uttered with shame and as rarely as possible by the French.
My reverie is interrupted by a young man with a shaved head who leans over from the next table at the Café Metro to ask, “Can you recommend a good sushi place nearby?” He has an unmistakable Hungarian accent, so I answer in Hungarian. Again, I circle back to the scene a Parc Monceau. Will this exposure to the Other—a Hungarian skinhead looking for sushi in Paris—be enough to douse the next eruption of hate?
Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.
One morning as I continue my Parisian ramble, I enter a hyperrefined Proustian world furnished with the carpets, tapestries and bibelots of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. I picture glittering soirees in the dining room where the table is permanently set – as if awaiting Proust, Herzl, and the other great figures of the day. It is hard to conjure a more quintessentially French décor than this ode to the 18th Century, the Age of Reason. But the host and his children and grandchildren are missing. The patriarch, Moïse de Camondo, built this temple to French civilization and left precise instructions that it would all remain untouched, as they left it – the Jewish Camondos’ gift to the French nation. Moïses’s son Nissim, after whom he named his museum, gave his life for France. His plane went down in flames during World War I , when he was shot photographing German military installations from the air.
Nissim’s sister, Beatrice, converted to Catholicism, no doubt assuming that would protect her during the Age of Hate. In her family’s mansion, with its priceless French treasures and its vast collection of Impressionist paintings – all gifts to the French Republic as spelled out in her father’s will – Beatrice may have felt safe. Her father had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He was a founding member of the Friends of the Paris Opera. Marcel Proust, the greatest French writer of the day, was a habitué –a regular—of their salon. Why leave? So Beatrice did not heed the warning signs, as French police under SS supervision began rounding up less well placed Jews, from their schools and homes. She continued to ride her beautiful horse in the Bois de Boulogne, sometimes accompanied by a German officer. Until the summer of 1942, when the same people who seized eight children from the Ecole Maternelle in my neighborhood, arrived at her splendid house. Parisian officers packed Beatrice and her children into a wagon bound for Drancy. She and her children, Fanny and Bertrand, spent the next nine months in that grotesque antechamber to the Auschwitz bound trains. (Drancy is just a station en route to the airport now—but an ugly stop in any weather.)
On the morning of March 10, 1943, Beatrice and her children arrived at Auschwitz – from where they never returned. They were the last of the Camondos.
Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.
In Paris, life and death, beauty and violence are forever colliding. I take the rue de Poissy, a picturesque, cobblestoned street with stunning windowboxes that spill over with geraniums, toward my home. At number 5, I pass the Ecole Maternelle. Like all French schools, it flies the French flag. But this nursery school also features a gold lettered, black marble tablet, which stops me in my tracks. “To the memory of the children – students of this school,” it states, “deported from 1942 – 1944 because they were born Jewish. Victims of the Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them. October 5, 2002.”
Facing the Ecole Maternelle is a recently renovated Benedictine monastery, which occupies most of the block. It is spacious, airy and well scrubbed. I wonder now, did the monks inside the beautiful monastery hear the bleat of the siren that signaled the approach of the Gestapo to collect the children from the school across the street? Did they see the black uniformed SS and their Vichy agents lead the children from the nursery school to the waiting van? Why didn’t the monks hide the children in that cavernous Abbey? I hesitate to knock on the school’s massive front door, though I’d like to know more about the children.
I return in the late afternoon. A teacher is leading a group of students into the monastery on a school field trip. Across the street, mothers are picking up their children from the nursery school. The front door is ajar. I walk in. Inside the vestibule, there is another black marble tablet. “Eight boys,” it says, “from this school were exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Albert Aronowicz, age 7, was the youngest, and Baruch Tuchbard, age 16, the eldest.” Did the school call the parents’ of Albert and Baruch and the others, to inform them they weren’t coming home that evening? Or had the parents already made the same journey themselves?
As I continue my deeper exploration of Paris, I am suddenly aware of these black marble plaques, and their sad message. There are over three hundred of them in the city, most of them erected since 2000.
For a long time, the French blamed the Nazis for what happened to French Jews. And yet, as early as 1940, the French Vichy government defined Jewish status, barring Jews from all state jobs, including teaching. Vichy France published 168 laws governing Jewish life.
During the 1998 World Cup finals, I learned what a tender subject race is in France. France’s victory set off an explosion of celebrations in Paris, with wildly exuberant crowds pouring into the streets , kissing strangers, and honking their horns until the early morning. It was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in New York. “How wonderful,” I enthused to my French brother-in-law, “to see this multicultural team.” For, indeed, the French soccer team, led by the legendary ethnic Algerian center field player, Zinedine Zidane, was the very portrait of a rainbow coalition., “We do not remark on such things,” my brother-in-law chided me. “They are all French.” This is national policy and you will not find official French statistics on race or immigration. It would run counter to the founding principle of la Republique: the doctrine of assimilation. From the time of the Revolution, Protestants were given equal status in Catholic France, as were Jews and the children of immigrants. Of course, the black marble plaques tell a different narrative.
In my last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.
But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.
So I decided that I needed to include a chapter towards the end of The Promise of Israel to address this. I needed to remind them that Israel isn’t just a homeland far away, but it’s actually the generator that provides an enormous portion of the energy for the American Jewish community. Sans Israel, I decided to argue, American Jews would find themselves without perhaps the one issue that truly motivates and energizes their community. Without Israel, after all, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long-since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel shame, or anger, or exhilaration? What else in Jewish life evokes the same intensity of emotion? It’s actually hard to think of examples.
When JCC’s discuss whether or not they should be open on Shabbat, do people get exercised? Not really. When a Jewish home for the aging decides to cease offering kosher food, does the issue bring out the masses? In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco that both saw Jews at the forefront and had clear anti-Semitic overtones; but did it provoke a stir anywhere near as powerful as what happened after an Israeli naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before? Not at all!
When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why, though? Sometimes, it seems that American Jews get much more worked up about what Israeli rabbis who are not of their denomination say than they do when their own local rabbis speak!
We should not ignore this peculiar phenomenon, because it speaks to something very deep inside us. When we think about it, we understand that on some level, we intuit that a People without a state is missing something critical. We can’t articulate precisely why, but we know it’s true. American Jews, secure and confident though they are, need Israel because whether we want to admit it or not, even in the Diaspora, Israel is key to making the Jewish experience whole.
That is why issues in issue electrify American Jews in ways that many “domestic” Jewish issues don’t. This, too, is a conversation that I hope that The Promise of Israel will help to foster.
In my previous blog, I wrote that I hoped that The Promise of Israel might give new shape and direction to the conversation we’re all having about Zionism. That seems like a tall order for a book, I know. But we’ve become too cynical about power of books and ideas to change the world. The Promise of Israel probably will not change the world; of that, I’m pretty sure. But books have done that in the past, and ideas are still formidable weapons. Our community of writers and readers ought to remember that.
In an era of nuclear weapons that can destroy the planet several times over, the notion that ideas are the most formidable weapon we have in our possession may sound strange. But it is true. Many of the world’s most important revolutions were spurred by a book or its central idea. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848; by 1905, Russia was rocked by revolutions that peaked in 1917 and overthrew the Czar. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract in 1762; the French Revolution followed a mere twenty-seven years later. John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government in 1690; less than a century later, the American Revolution changed the course of modern history. Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, and fifty-two years later, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 and declared Israel’s independence. And all that those people did, essentially, was to write books and disseminate ideas.
Ideas do matter. They shape history. It is ideas, even more than territory or money, over which people go to war. Witness the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world today. That conflict, one of the gravest dangers facing our world, is really about ideas. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists do not seek the West’s wealth. What they are doing is attacking the West’s culture and ideas.
Israel, I wanted my book to argue, can be our way of fighting back. For Israel is not just about borders or an army, great universities and world class medical care. It’s a story, and even more than that, Israel is the platform from which the Jewish People says something to the world about the ideas that we have been cultivating for millennia.
Jews have never bought into post-ethnic, post-identity ethos so in vogue in today’s discourse. We’ve always believed it was good that people were different, that we could learn from each other precisely because we were not the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile, more than a century before Theodor Herzl began his campaign for a Jewish State, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” Well, now we have that state. Our responsibility, I think, is to make sure that we’re speaking not only about borders and security, but about the very ideas that lie at the core of Israel, and that hopefully, the world will come to understand that it needs to hear.
People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if The Promise of Israel changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.
The Promise of Israel makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state—a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
So I decided that what we really need to being speaking about is how the conflict over the nation-state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.
The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If The Promise of Israel contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.
Earlier this summer, I mingled among a group of amateur and professional genealogists at an international Paris conference exploring the study of Jewish roots. A fascinating question emerged: is the history of all our ancestors somehow a part of us? Does genetic memory exist?
There are scientific studies exploring what we inherit in unexpected ways through epigenetics, a chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the core of this field is the notion that genes have a memory and that the lives of our great grandparents – what they breathed, saw and ate – can directly affect us decades later. Ongoing studies in Sweden are examining statistics about famine and abundant harvests to determine the impact on the health of descendants four generations later. Researchers, for instance, found a statistical link between the increased longevity of the descendants of paternal grandfathers who had lived through a period of famine while young.
I’m intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and, perhaps, an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries. In the case of my own Catholic Carvajal family, I wonder what prompted them to guard the secret of their Sephardic Jewish identity for generations long after the Spanish Inquisition that prompted them to flee to Costa Rica in Central America.
In the 1990’s, Jerusalem psychotherapist Dina Wardi worked with children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents typically designated certain children as “memorial candles” who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a strong compulsive ambition to achieve.
A similar strategy existed among the Anusim, Hebrew for the forced ones who converted to Christianity to survive during the Inquisition. Usually elder women took the role of passing on information about their secret identity to particular younger family members. In our family, the historian was my great Aunt Luz – which means light in Spanish.
At one seminar on genealogy, a speaker, Jonina Duker, talked about a phenomenon of “the blood calls” among Anusim to describe how they find their way back to the mainstream of Jewish people.
Recently, a Spaniard named Fernando Carvajal Acebal contacted me from Madrid after reading something I had written and spotting our shared Sephardic Jewish name, Carvajal. He tried to explain the feeling that he said has lingered with him since he was a young Catholic. His mother told him he started insisting he was Jewish when he was about six years old.
“Nobody transmitted this feeling to me,” he told me. “I could have felt I was a Muslim, but I always felt profoundly that I was Jewish. I would say this intimate feeling is almost genetic, an emotion that tells me, yes, you are a Catholic, but do not forget that you are Jewish. I have a deep Christian faith and I pray every day. I do not know the Jewish rites, their customs, or roots. But it does not stop me from feeling Jewish.”
Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.
By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, The Forgetting River, I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.
I’m a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.
But one of the most crucial mistakes I made was that I lost my own journalistic skepticism when I questioned family members about delicate subjects. I didn’t gather much information when I asked directly if we were the descendants of Marranos, forced Christian converts who maintained a dual identity to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. To probe sensitive family history, I realized belatedly that it’s best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign questions and searched for records that allowed information to seep out about customs, household rituals, job patterns, prayers. I found that the older generation sometimes confided more in their grandchildren and nieces than their own children. From this strategy, I learned about a hidden menorah kept in a bedroom dresser or fourth cousins marrying fourth cousins, an almost tribal habit of trusted secret Marrano families intermarrying and maintaining the appearance of being Catholics.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about other strategies that families can exploit to start conversations and unlock memories. An acquaintance organized a family reunion for a large black family on the East Coast with some painful history dating back to slavery. Some relatives were reluctant to remember those times, but they settled on the idea of creating a griot cookbook, asking relatives for family recipes along with submissions of personal memories evoked by the dishes. The griot is a reference to a traditional West African storyteller.
Once conversations start flowing, seize the opportunity. Make a recording. The StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that offers advice about preserving personal history, down to suggested conversation openers (What is your earliest memory? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?).
For the finale – and a gift to future generations – make a digital slide show with a soundtrack that mixes music and their words. There are many iPad applications that allow amateur genealogists to turn into multi-media producers. Make sure the slide is show is about two minutes and focus on a time or a story that can lead to more conversations.
The moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, The Forgetting River.
I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It’s a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.
Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim – Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos – which in Spanish literally means pigs – typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.
“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie wrote to me. “She asked me: ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditos?’ Of course when I brought it up to my mother, she refused to talk. Come to think of it, I actually took a small tape recorder and without their knowledge recorded our conversation.”
When I read those words, I felt chills. One of my biggest regrets about trying to recover my family’s secret identity is that for years I missed numerous opportunities to gather information from older generations because I was simply not curious about our past. To bring life to a chart of a family tree, I realized belatedly that conversations have to happen to tell a vivid story to pass on to new generations. Indirect approaches need to be pursued to tackle delicate subjects. I discovered all this by making many mistakes.
Rosie’s late mother – my aunt and godmother – had always been interested in my book research. I had asked her several times about our family history and secret Jewish background, but she told me politely that she knew nothing. “My mother knew, but was too diplomatic with you to say she didn’t want to talk,” Rosie said. “When I brought it up, she absolutely refused to comment. I knew that she knew something.”
Today I’m preparing to mail copies of my new book to relatives in California and Costa Rica – too late to write another chapter with tape recorded quotes of a voice from the grave.
This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Today, Joshua responds to Justin’s post from yesterday.
I like this idea of the computer being an “extension of [your] bedroom.” But I’m not sure it’s extended enough. Because for me it’s an extension of my bedroom as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too—sorry if that’s creepster.
I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your optimism with regard to the (other) options available. I would like to say the computer has enlarged my world in a positive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlargement-of-world (TK Heideggerian German compound) is or could be positive. Rather to bastardize Wittgenstein I’m convinced that the opposite, not the world, is everything that is the case. I am too much the information addict, too much the hoarder. My head’s an uptown brownstone tenanted by the bros. Collyer, who’ve recently stopped paying rent.
My only hope, I tell myself, is surveillance, self-surveillance. So much of my life is lived under the sign of this limitation, this autorestriction. In the same way I can’t be around drugs, because I’ll take them. All of them. I’ll never keep a firearm in the house (the apartment, I mean, not the Collyer cortex). This is one feature of my personality it’s painful to admit to my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends/myself, but !unsurprisingly! less painful to admit in an email to be posted on a blog to be read by googolions, including, I’d assume, my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends. Myself. One way I have of explaining this unsurprise is through fiction: If I write it, then it can’t be true, ergo it is not true. Another way is through nonfiction: By writing it, I have freed myself to live a fiction (denial). Regardless, it’s a fact that there’s never been an access I haven’t advantaged. It’s also a fact that I derive a certain pleasure from the intropunitive. I feel like, lamb spines aside, I should be paying you by the hour.
It’s out of this regulatory impulse that I wrote Four New Messages—what I told you on that drive up to that crazy Jewish bookery outside Amherst still holds (I was being “honest”). These messages were meant to be instructional, exemplary: “Emission” telling you to be careful about what you say, anything and everything will be held against you not in the divine court/congregation/community marketplace, but everywhere—even by strangers, who are the freshest gods. “McDonald’s” exchanges a sacred fear of words—the Tetragrammaton, for instance—for a profane fear of being labeled “the type of guy who lunches at/writes fiction using the word McDonald’s.” It’s an exercise in typing—not with the keyboard but with the mind: typology. “The College Borough” warns against exogenous ambition: beware of challenging the world. “Sent” warns against endogenous ambition: beware of challenging one’s self. It’s a depressing msg, further burdened with a don’t mistake the real for the virtual sermon straight out of Antiquity, whose transmission was also “wireless”. A crude summation, but at your request and, again, I can’t help myself.
I’ve always loved “the cautionary tale”—stories wherein a hero’s felled by worst weaknesses in a fashion so schematic as to put the lie to art. From Aesop to Belloc’s travesties, to Der Struwwelpeter (my father’s favorite book growing up) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (one of my own childhood favs), these are moral works not just because they contain morals but because of why they were written, or what they were written for/instead of (their justification) (raison d’êtiolation): implicit in all of them, in their very bound being, is this auxiliary lesson that it’s good to make good art, but it’s even better to save a soul. That’s why I chose the title, which rings to me like a companion to How Much Land Does a Man Need? or What Is To Be Done?
Of course I understand how deep my tongue is in everyone’s cheek with all this didactic pedantic pedagogical ethical shit. Obviously too I believe in art, good words (gospels) in good sentences, and haven’t yet discalced the Nikes to go a’begging. But the impulse remains: I needed rules for myself, I wanted rules, and these are they—narratized only because it was never the blank prose of the NJ criminal law code that kept me out of trouble, but the case histories of strangers, acquaintances, friends.
I’d like to conclude by noting that writing itself developed this way (the Book Council will appreciate this, trust me): the ten commandments appear only in the second book of the Bible, condensing a Genesis that less efficiently, but more effectively, formulates/dramatizes what happens when you take a life, lie, cheat, covet.
We’ll sacrifice our lambs on the morrow and dedicate all but their spines to yud hey vuv hey,