Eventually, we all leave home. For most in our tiny subsection of the universe, we go to college. Some head off to participate in some gap-year program in a distant land. Others go to serve in our nation’s Armed Forces or in some other nation’s. Ideally, this is a gentle experience, this leave-taking, one in which the sense of caring parental oversight is delicately replaced by the less overtly watchful but no less real and responsible guidance of…someone: an R.A. in the dorm, a superior officer, a counselor of some sort. For many, the first big step away is presaged years earlier by an experience in summer camp where one leaves home physically, but acquires no actual responsibility for one’s life in any truly meaningful sense: even bedtime is pre-ordained in camp, as is the time you can swim in the lake and what happens if you’re caught smoking in the woods behind your cabin. You’re on your own, but also not on your own; your counselors are adults in a certain sense…but most campers have the insight, I think, to realize even at ten or eleven that their college-aged counselors are not quite adults in the sense their parents are. They too, it turns out, have a whole slew of rules to follow if they don’t want to be expelled from Eden on the next bus heading south. Or north. Or wherever….
I myself had a different experience, one that in retrospect still, even after all these years, seems odd for me to contemplate. Before I changed course entirely and set sail for the rabbinate, I was preparing myself for a career in the diplomatic corps. I was taking courses in French and German all along, then added in Russian and Chinese. I liked my studies, then liked even more the opportunity that was suddenly presented to me to spend a year abroad in a country unlike my own, in a place like the one to which I was still vaguely fantasizing our government would send me as a well-meaning torchbearer of American culture and beneficence. I should have gone to Israel. I wrote a letter to myself that I placed in my desk drawer at home in which I said that I hoped this worked out for the best, but that if it didn’t I wanted later on to remember that I went into it knowing I was learning the lines for a play that had already closed. The full force of my intellectual curiosity was focused on the Hebrew language at that point…and on classical Jewish texts. (Later on, when I returned for my senior year, I would have a wholly unsatisfying experience studying both—language and text—with a teaching faculty at Queens College that featured both highly qualified academics and totally unqualified others who simply got the job because they had the word “rabbi” before their name or could speak Hebrew adequately.) But that was all to come in the future…and so, packing up my things, I said goodbye to my parents and, clutching my $200 round-trip, open-ended Air France ticket to Paris, I flew to Europe.
To say that I landed in a different universe is to say nothing. I grew up in Jewish Queens. Our elementary school was closed on Sukkot. Or maybe not closed closed…but de facto closed because no one went to school on Jewish holidays. I had no non-Jewish friends. The handful of non-Jewish families in our apartment house were not known to me as such; I remember being vaguely surprised when I asked my father why the doorman had to work on Yom Kippur and he explained to me that Joe wasn’t actually Jewish. I was amazed! Eventually, I figured things out a bit. (It turned out Pete, my barber, also wasn’t Jewish.) But this was an intensely ethnic neighborhood in those days, Forest Hills. I certainly never had to tell anyone I was Jewish! And, besides, who could I have told who didn’t know it already?
And then…I landed in France. I spent a few days in Paris in a hotel near the Gare du Nord, then headed to Reims for a two-week introduction to French university life. I was skating along on the surface, understanding every twelfth word, trying to be brave, to complete the assignments as they were handed out…and then that part of things was over and I was escorted to my new home, a men’s dormitory on the outskirts of Nancy not too far from the university. I knew no one. I could barely speak French. (I could read Corneille and Racine well enough, but there was no emphasis at all on speaking in college language courses in those days.) I was not only the only Jew, but also the only American. (This was la Francophonie in its fullest flower—my dorm mates were from Chad, Niger, Laos, the Seychelles Islands, Madagascar…places like that. Not a Quebecker in sight! There were a few English students, it turned out, but it took some time to locate them.) The city was plastered with anti-Israel posters, most showing one or two scary-looking fedayeen brandishing machine guns and the words Palestine Vaincra (“Palestine Shall Vanquish”) in huge black letters beneath their booted feet. I felt intimidated and alone, unsure of myself, insecure in the extreme. And then…about two days after my arrival, news came of the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich.
For my dorm mates, it was just a news story. No one seemed too upset, let alone devastated. Life went on. The guys in the dorm responded, I suppose, not unlike the way I responded the other day when I opened the paper and read about the massacre of twenty shoppers at a market in northern Nigeria the other day by a ten-year-old suicide bomber, a little girl: I felt awful, sickened, horrified…then turned the page and read about something else. The fact that I could barely understand the radio and was ashamed to admit it out loud…plus the fact that it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, that I really didn’t know what these people all around me did or didn’t think about Jews or about Israel, that I had no idea what any of my new neighbors thought of those posters—together those anxiety sources alone were enough to paralyze me and made me feel not only lonely, but truly alone. Eventually, I found my way to the city’s sole synagogue with the intention, maybe, of finding some kindred souls, of making some friends, of seeing what kind of Jewish life my new city had to offer.
This is the background I bring personally to the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher massacre. I was raised to find no complicatedness at all in thinking of myself as a full-fledged American and as a proud member of the House of Israel. My parents were both deeply patriotic; neither ever missed an election, in the case of my mother even when she was only weeks from her death. Our synagogue was packed to overflowing the Friday evening following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 because we were responding to a horrific American tragedy by speaking in our own language, just as did the nation’s Catholics and Lutherans, and just as also did countless other groups within the warp and woof of American society. The debates others have reported to me experiencing in their youths between their American and Jewish identities were not part of who we were in Jewish Forest Hills; I think I would have thought it crazy even to ask there were some substantial issues to debate in that regard.
But what I found in France was different. I’ll never forget the pile of newspapers at the door to the sanctuary that the older men all used to wrap their tallis bags up in so as to carry them home unobtrusively. I never did that myself…but I eventually began to wonder if perhaps I should have been following their example. The supermarkets had kosher food, but it was a big secret: you had to know in advance which brands were kosher because they bore no “mysterious” Hebrew or non-Hebrew markings that might have identified themselves as such. Nor did the handful of kosher places in Paris that I was eventually directed to have any overt signage: you had to scrutinize the menu to get the idea. No one, not even the rabbi, wore a kippah in the street. (The rabbi wore a hat and everybody else, including the most observant families, went bareheaded.) And yet…the synagogue was a huge building, one so imposingly massive that even the Nazis eventually gave up on the idea of demolishing it and used it as some sort of storage facility. It was right there on the Boulevard Joffre, too, facing the city’s railway tracks and as prominent as any public building could be.
And so that was how it was in this new world for me, this strange combination of presence and reticence, of formidability and shyness, of being there proudly and prominently…and also not wishing to be noticed. Eventually, I settled in. I made some friends, began to be invited for Shabbat and occasionally for other things as well. I bailed out of all my French and German courses and registered solely for courses in Hebrew offered by the university’s Centre des Langues Sémitiques. I found myself in the company of a strange group of teachers and an even odder group of students, but I felt I had found my home. I liked going to class. I got to like living in the dorm. (My friend from the Seychelles Islands invited me to his parents’ home—in Paris, not in the Seychelles—for Christmas, which was quite the experience.) I eventually became a bit malnourished after trying to avoid unkosher food in the restaurant universitaire, which was basically impossible. It’s a whole story, that year I spent finding myself and deciding which course my life would take forward. Eventually, I came back to New York (a teenager no longer—I came back a day or two after my twentieth birthday), indicated my intent to start over and complete a major in Hebrew in my senior year, applied to JTS, was eventually accepted.
But the ill ease that now haunts the Jews of France is familiar to me. These were people whose communal ancestors have been present in France for far longer—for centuries upon centuries longer—than any of our ancestors have been present in North America. And yet theirs is a host civilization that is Catholic in a way that our American cultural milieu is republican…a detail that mystifies outsiders a bit given the lack of commitment to Catholic dogma or ritual that characterizes secular French society as a whole. (For a survey of recent attitudes and practices, click here.) Or maybe it’s not the Catholic thing per se, but the notion that the nation itself is its own ethnic group, that outsiders are welcome but that there is no way to become French in the way Americans mean it when they talk about “becoming” an American. Tolerance towards others is laudable, but it doesn’t necessary make those others feel like they belong. And so the Jews of France are a kind of a puzzle: so totally integrated into the fabric of French society that there is no corner of French life closed off formally or de facto to Jewish citizens, yet also unsure how deep their roots in French soil would have to go for it to be physically impossible to uproot them or how willing their neighbors are to understand that tolerance and acceptance are not the same thing…and particularly in their extreme versions.
If any of you can understand French, click here to hear a remarkable clip of a longer speech by Manual Valls, the Prime Minister of France. He speaks boldly and clearly, very forcefully and articulately…and his message couldn’t be clearer: La France sans les juifs de France n’est plus la France (“France without the Jews of France would no longer be France.”) This is just the kind of life preserver that French Jewry needs now to embrace, shaken to the core by these attacks and worried about their future in a way that American Jews can understand intellectually perhaps, but not really emotionally. It is a stirring clip—I wish I could find a way to present it in translation to you, although you can click here for a summary—and one that makes Manual Valls a true hero in my mind, someone who said what needed to be spoken aloud and was apparently unworried about the response his remarks might trigger, which response was at any rate warm and very supportive.
So I hope there’s hope. I feel very connected to the Jews of France, as connected as I am deeply concerned. My prayer is that the community there find the courage not to flee but to stand its ground, to deepen its commitment to its own self-preservation, and to find the strength necessary to raise a new generation of proud, young French Jews. And if the events of last week serve as a wake-up call for the rest of France to the dangers of allowing Islamicist extremism flourish among home-grown, disaffected French youth, then perhaps some good can yet come from this horror.