Category Archives: Culture

A Multi-Layered American Part III — French Connection

It is now time to switch to the French connection. While I was born into the Jewish and Russian parts of my identity, the French part only occurred due to my family’s 12-year residence in Beirut during my childhood, which I wrote about previously. It was there that I got a French education in an academically oriented French Lycee.

I not only learned to speak and write French but also absorbed the French world view which is rational, secular and totally oriented to critical thinking. I was very influenced by the 18th century great philosophers, and the Enlightenment remains my favorite period of history. Some other Frenchmen I have loved: Moliere for his beautifully written and shrewdly observed comedies, Voltaire for defying the Established Church, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, in spite of their being classics which had to be admired.

Later I loved Sartre and Camus for their ideas, and finally I must mention Henry Troyat, a very prolific novelist who like my family left Russia as a boy and wrote about both Russian and French life and their interconnections. I read him for pleasure.

The French connection got a big boost when I married a Frenchman in 1943. David Klugman had the same Russian Jewish background as myself and we were introduced by mutual friends in Tel Aviv. David had lived in Grenoble with his widowed mother from age 13. In 1940 when France was under German occupation, he and a companion secretly crossed the Pyrenees and escaped across the border to Spain and from there to Portugal. There he joined De Gaulle’s Free French Forces and fought in North Africa’s Western Desert along Montgomery’s British troops. We met during one of his leaves, started corresponding, and eventually married.

At the end of the war David was demobilized in France and I joined him there. We lived in France for 3 years during which my daughter Dina was born. Throughout our whole marriage French was spoken at home. As a result both our daughters Dina and Helen (born in Oakland) are totally fluent in French.

 

 

And so one might say that Jewishness has been a constant but unobtrusive presence in my life, Russia has fulfilled my emotional needs, and France lodged itself in my brain’s frontal cortex which deals with problem solving and intellectual life. I think they all live together in harmony.

Next time I will tell about our move to the United States and how we fared in yet another new country.



Burkini, France, God, Man, Power

_73378377_violencewomen-splthreateningmanFrenchphotodune-681082-god-xsburkini

Editors note: Just wanted to encourage you to open this posting. I think it’s one of Simone’s Best!

This summer the burkini (a bathing costume which covers all of a woman’s body except for the face) made a brief appearance on French beaches and an almost instant disappearance. The mayor of Cannes, quickly followed by mayors in other resort cities, simply banned it. He cited a city ordinance prohibiting swimming in street clothes.

This, of course, is about much more than safety measures. The French Prime Minister has called full body swim suits archaic, anachronistic and a symbol of the enslavement of women. The French aversion to any ostentatious religious fervor goes back to a law of 1905, itself based on principles first enunciated in the French Revolution, which established the separation of Church and State. The law forbids any display of religious symbols in public places. The French call this “laicity.”

So this is about what it means to be French.The French are a secular nation. Religion is to be confined to to the place of worship and is not to encroach on civic life. For instance, head coverings are not allowed outside the house. Unlike the United States which calls itself “One Nation under God” and where Presidents routinely call on God to bless America, the French are literal about separating the two realms. (The reaction against the burkini was, of course, exacerbated by the July 14 events in Nice when a religious fanatic simply mowed down families with children who were celebrating the holiday.)

In the 1970s nude Swedish women began to appear on the beaches of The Gambia in Africa. The local population was shocked and nudity was banned. The French are just as averse to full clothing when swimming. In both cases, local sensibilities must be taken into account.

The Koran, I am told, makes no mention of hijabs, niqabs or burkas. It simply enjoins women to dress modestly. When I lived in Lebanon which has a sizable Muslim population, women wore Western clothing and were not always veiled. It is only recently that Muslim men invoke the Sharia to force women to cover themselves completely.

In Iran before the revolution, women also wore western clothes. Now the mullahs have decreed that women who do not wear the hijab on the street must be arrested. I even notice that in current Iranian films women and even little girls are shown wearing shawls and head covering inside their own homes. Iranian men are not allowed to see womens’ hair, even in films.

It is supposedly the need to protect women against men’s lust that motivates this dress code but what about the 72 virgins promised to martyrs in Paradise? Who is protecting them against lust? Or are the laws different in Paradise? So it is only natural that the French people feel that this controlling behavior represents a threat to hard-won women’s equality rights and a regression to more primitive times when religions ruled the world.



Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.



Better or Worse?

Simone & Daughter Dina

Simone & Daughter Dina

Recently my daughter Dina and I were talking about how some things had improved in our lifetimes and how some had gotten worse. Were things better in the “olden days” or today? So we made lists. Some changes are for the better – such as opportunities for women and some things have gotten worse – political discourse seems out of control. Some changes are more important than others, but it was fun to try to list them – major and minor both.

Simone: I love Google and the Internet! In my work as a librarian I specialized in computer information retrieval. People filled out search request forms and we had to find the information for them using an algorithm designed to give them as comprehensive a listing as possible and at the same time eliminating extraneous information. The end product was usually a bibliography, which is a list of sources. Sometimes it included a digest. Rarely was it a full-text result.

Google finds the actual information and seems to have an in-built intuition of what is wanted. We have designed it to reach beyond what we can do, as an extension to our senses and capabilities, just like a microscope or a telescope can look further and deeper. A caveat: We still have to assess the reliability of the source of information. Wikipedia itself warns us to sometimes look further. In general, though it’s two thumbs up for Google.

Dina: Women’s lives have been vastly improved by the development of the birth control pill, which gives women a lot of control over their own bodies and reduces unwanted pregnancies.

And look at the improvements in medicine including vaccinations. No longer are chicken pox, mumps, measles, and rubella (German measles) a normal part of childhood. Other conditions have been eradicated by the vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumonia, and flu. Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence.

Simone: But where have all the doctors gone? In my childhood the slightest ailment, a sore throat, an earache, caused a doctor to materialize. Equipped with a big smile and a black bag of miraculous cures, he would touch, probe and declare reassuringly that everything will be much better “tomorrow.” Now health care is a cumbersome bureaucracy. It takes a long time to get a doctor’s appointment. So instead you go to an emergency service where you are placed on a conveyor belt and moved from one station to another, with repeat questions and no real diagnosis. You also get a big bill afterwards. In France, doctors still make house calls at a modest price.

Dina: We both feel that one thing that has deteriorated is service! We are both bothered when work that used to be done by trained employees has now been turned over to us. The first thing to go was the gas station attendant. If you are in a hurry, nicely dressed, tired, ill or old, you are out of luck. How do “little old ladies” put gas in their cars?

In supermarkets, we still have a choice between regular check-out and “self-service” check-out.” How long will this choice last? Most of us do not know the code for Belgian endive.

Worse still are the airlines. No longer does the nice clerk behind the counter print out a boarding pass. You are now expected to do this yourself at a “self-service” computer even if you are holding a squirming two-year old, keeping track of all your luggage, or don’t know English.

Simone: There are several establishments I use often that have greatly reduced their services: The Post Office and the Banks have cut back on their employees. The result is empty service windows and long lines.
At the Public Library, you can now check in your books, pick up your holds and check out without any human interaction. I must admit that after an initial period of resentment I am now used to this but I miss the niceties of personal contact.
The telephone tree is an abomination the likes of which has seldom been seen. Its originator should be shot on sight without benefit of a trial. Who in their right senses would replace contact with a warm human voice with even a modicum of intelligence, by prearranged messages that have no relation to your information needed? It is a dehumanizing experience.

Dina and Simone: We both love email!

Simone: Let me end with a recollection from my childhood in Lebanon. It wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, but I certainly miss it now…Even though our family was not wealthy, we did not buy clothes in stores. Instead we had a seamstress who had our measurements. What we provided was material and patterns and she sewed clothes to our requirements, adjusting hems with pins while we pivoted this way and that. At the time, I longed for store-bought clothes not realizing that garments made to order would be a luxury some day.

What do you think? Which things were better during your childhood and which ones are better now?

A note from the Editor…Your comments on this blog are like a nourishing rain. You are encouraged to put in your two-cents worth. -ed.



Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

(Editor’s note….Simone has several thousand loyal followers and readers and we are very proud of that. But let me take this opportunity to ask you to respond and comment on her blogs. Her thoughts expand your world and your response will greatly expand hers. Just click below on “leave a comment”)



How We Learn #3 – Science, Humans and The Infinite

Previously I mentioned that in my school days the sciences were taught so as to never kindle any interest in me. Our teachers seemed more interested in laying traps (Gotcha!) than in imparting knowledge. I thought of physics and chemistry as bitter-tasting medicine that had to be swallowed. No more.

Nowadays sciences which were strictly separate seem to have coalesced and melded together. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” combines anthropology, history and geography. Diamond links the human trajectory through time and space to climate, terrain , invasions, scientific discoveries and other unpredictable elements.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an Oxford Professor of Public Understanding of Science and an excellent teacher with a gift for making the esoteric comprehensible. I like his proposition that we humans are only the disposable wrapping that allows our genes to travel on without us. I think that is what immortality really is.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum in New York. He follows in the footsteps of Carl Sagan whose television show Cosmos helped to debunk the idea that we humans are at the center of the universe. Sagan showed that we and our planet are but a tiny dot in the immensity of the cosmos. Tyson notices children’s natural curiosity about the world and observes how it can be drummed out of them by making them adhere to a structured way of learning. This famous scientist encourages daydreaming.

I now leave the familiar sphere altogether with Physicist Lisa Randall. She explains dark and light matter, black holes and introduces us to the Large Hadron Collider which reenacts the Big Bang by accelerating particles and simulating the birth of the Universe. She also explains the recent discovery of Higgs-Boson, an elementary particle that gives other particles their mass and is sometimes called the God Particle. In her latest book she explains how meteorites deposited the seeds of life on earth, and how the dinosaurs disappeared making possible the birth of mammals.

My mind is stretched to its outer limits. Dizziness is imminent as I am desperately trying to hold on to these new ideas. I shall stop with this slippery and elusive knowledge before it totally eludes my grasp.

In Part 4 I will attempt to understand time/space and dwell on our very limited senses.



How We Learn #2 – Missed Opportunities

palmyra (Above, Palmyra, Syria)

How We Learn – Missed Opportunities

In the last post, I discussed the ways in which some of my teachers discouraged learning. I also realized that my own family missed opportunities to help me understand the world.

At home in Beirut, Lebanon we had a curious way of ignoring the very world we lived in. My parents never thought of taking us to the many historic places which were very close to where we lived. There were Roman ruins at Baalbek in Eastern Lebanon which I did not see. I also didn’t get to visit the nearby old city of Damascus, Syria with its colorful souks (markets). I also never made the trip to Palmyra, Syria, which is now all the more regrettable because many of the sights are disappearing before our eyes. We had snow in the Lebanese mountains, yet we never went skiing. Perhaps I should not be too harsh on my parents. They were strangers in a strange land and my father’s main preoccupation was to adapt and survive which he did very well.

I have since learned to open my mind to science topics thanks to reading and listening to wonderful communicators like Neil DeGrass Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Lisa Randall. I will write about them next time.



How We Learn #1

Schulhaus

On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.



Me and J.P. (Sartre)

J.P. Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize

J.P. Sartre when he refused
the Nobel Prize

In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.

But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.

De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.

In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.

Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.

French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.

Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.

Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.



The Other Africa

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi

Mma Ramotswe and Mma
Makutsi

Our constant news cycle gives us a very skewed view of the world. We are at the mercy of the media which have a penchant for the brutal, the sensational and the disastrous. Take the coverage of Africa. We know all about greedy dictators who accumulate obscene fortunes while their people are destitute. We know about rigged elections and corrupt rulers who cling to power long after their terms have expired. There is chaos in Somalia and Eritrea, mayhem in Congo and Sudan. Nigeria has an infestation of terrorists (Boko Haram) and in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has instituted a North Korea-style brutal dictatorship.

But what do we know about countries where people lead ordinary lives, going about their business, not causing trouble or bothering anybody? We never hear about Malawi, Senegal, Gabon, the Gambia, Tanzania or Botswana.

For this reason I would like to give a huge thank you to Alexander McCall Smith who takes us to Gaborone, Botswana in his series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He shows us another Africa that is not torn by violence and mayhem. Granted he has idealized Botswana a little, but the good thing is that he introduces us to a different culture, one of people who show much kindness and consideration for others and who look at life in their own unique way.

He introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, the founder and owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, presented us to her secretary-assistant-partner Mma Makutsi, and to her husband J.L.B Matekoni, proprietor of the Tolkweng Road Speedy Motors garage. Mma Ramotswe’s name is Precious and she is euphemistically described as “traditionally built.” Mma Makutsi whose first name is Grace is the proud recipient of a 97% final grade in Secretarial School. Mma is a polite and formal way of addressing ladies. The equivalent for men is Rra. J.L.B. Matekoni’s first name has never been divulged. We are also told that Mma Makutsi has many virtues which “she is the first to admit to.”

We all have an inner voice which talks to us. Mma Makutsi who has a weakness for colorful shoes, has projected this voice onto her shoes and they talk to her and guide her choices in life.

Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B Matekone live in a comfortable house on Zebra Drive, with a verandah where they drink bush tea, and a shady garden with an acacia tree. They have two adopted children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. In Africa it is very common to raise children who are not your own, sometimes nieces and nephews, sometimes strangers, because of the large number of orphans, and to treat them as your own children. Although Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni obviously love each other, they have a curiously formal way of addressing each other.

People come to Mma Ramotswe ‘s agency with problems that she solves with a combination of common sense, determination, empathy and astuteness. The detection aspect of the story often serves to demonstrate the Botswana way of thinking and to illustrate a way of life which is essentially leisurely, old fashioned and unassuming. There are, of course, also villains, cheaters and baddies or Precious Ramotswe would be unemployed. Gaborone’s inhabitants have a circuitous way of conversing, going off on tangents and meandering before they get to the point (if they ever do.) They have a knack for making a short story long and the author loves to poke gentle fun at them. People’s wealth is measured in heads of cattle.

The country they live in has been democratically ruled since its independence in 1966. It is sparsely populated and has a modest standard of living. Once in a while we are reminded of medical epidemics (AIDS) which leave children orphans. The Limpopo River and Kalahari Desert add a note of exoticism. There are still some wild animals and human hunter-gatherers in the desert.

There are now 15 titles in this series and they are all a pleasure to read. The latest one is “The Woman who Walks in Sunshine.”