Category Archives: Current Events

A Multi-Layered American Part IV – The American Experience

Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco beyond

I came close to never being an American.  When my husband, David, and I arrived in France at the end of World War II, it was with the firm intention of settling there.

But post-war France was totally devastated: the economy was in ruins, food rationing was in effect, housing was simply impossible to get unless one paid a hefty bribe. It was very cold inside and out.

We might have struggled through it all were it not for our intense dislike of Communism which was then spreading like a wild fire. The Communists had been the backbone of the internal Resistance Movement in France and nothing was going to stop them from claiming the rewards of their struggle.  My father, whose dream had always been to come to America persuaded us to apply for visas as did he.

We did not know at that time that The United States (which had already saved Europe during two World Wars) was about to intervene once more. The Marshall Plan would halt the forward movement of Communism which we observed when we first arrived in France.

Our visa application was accepted. We were going to San Francisco.

And so it was that in August 1948 we landed at San Francisco Airport on a freezing and foggy night while carrying a very tired 13-month-old child. We were greeted by friends of my parents who lived there. I must admit to an instant dislike for the city with its grey and hostile ocean, its ridiculously perpendicular streets, and undulating alien landscape. And in our first rooming house, they served dinner at the uncivilized hour of 5 PM!

But gradually, we came to enjoy our new city.  On our very first Sunday, friends took us to Sigmund Stern Grove for a picnic and free concert in a majestic outdoor setting.  Across the Bay in Oakland, Lake Merritt became a frequent destination where we watched birds and people enjoying their free time. Our daughter Dina happily waddled around, fed the ducks and delighted in the egrets and herons.

 

Both Sigmund Stern Grove and Lake Meritt introduced me to the uniquely American concept of the private philanthropist who, having amassed a fortune, uses it to contribute to the happiness of his fellow citizens.

As we settled in, we learned how to minimize living expenses by renting very cheap rooms in other people’s apartments (this was quite a few years before Airbnb.) Once we lived almost rent-free when we were asked to keep an eye on an eccentric older woman whom her son didn’t want to leave alone. Later, we had a basement room with a view of the sidewalk and the feet of passers-by.

We enjoyed the American experience of openness and accessibility. We loved the public libraries (thanks to another Philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie) and it was remarkable that one could just stroll through a University Campus. (It didn’t work that way at the Sorbonne in Paris)

Eating out was very cheap and places were open flexible hours unlike in France where restaurants had rigid eating times. We found out that in stores they expected you to serve yourself and bring your purchases to a counter to pay for them. That was a very alien concept to us, but really quite practical.

Dina enjoyed the many playgrounds where she met other children. It is funny to remember that it made no difference that she didn’t know a word of English.

And so, we gradually learned to operate pragmatically rather than to follow generations-old ways as we slowly inserted ourselves into a very different world.

My husband David made his way in the working world. In those days, unions were strong and he was able to get a well-paid job that allowed him to support the family which was soon one daughter richer;  Helen, was born in 1952.

(more about my career in a later blog)

I have now lived in the United States longer than anywhere else. Becoming American was very gradual and almost imperceptible. We simply took it for granted. Our family became part of the “salad bowl” of America, each person retaining their distinctive flavor and yet mixing in and contributing to the taste of the whole.

So there is the final of my various layers…French, Jewish, Russian, American. Me.



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.



A Multi-Layered American Part II –Russia

The Kremlin

 

In 1921, my parents and an as-yet-unborn me were forced out of Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. My mother never lost her emotional ties to the country of her birth and the Russian component of my character has been a constant rhythm in my life ever since.

My mother always maintained the cord which attached her to Russia. Throughout the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik days, World War II, and the Cold War era, she maintained an active correspondence with her mother, my grandmother Elena. Elena survived the Siege of Leningrad, in which a third of that city’s population starved to death. She received a hero’s medal for the things she did during that period.

As I was growing up, wherever we lived, Russian was spoken at home and among our acquaintances. Later, in college, in the U.S., I majored in Slavic Languages and Literature because I knew that I too would continue this communication and return to the land which I had never known but longed to know.

After my grandmother Elena died, my mother’s correspondence shifted seamlessly to her brother, my uncle Volodya. Then my own mother died and, just as naturally, I took over and kept the contact with Volodya, who also lived in Leningrad. On his demise I sought out his daughter, Natasha, and wrote to her and so the torch was passed once more and the contact was maintained.

It is amazing to me how continuous and meaningful this contact between our families has remained and how it was never interrupted in spite of all the upheavals in all of our lives, especially in the Soviet Union, where wars, purges, arrests, and famines disrupted so many lives.

In 1989, during Gorbachev’s Glasnost period, my husband David and I decided to take a trip to Russia and meet my family. It was the first of many such visits. Natasha was married to Semyon and they had a son, Ilya. I was very nervous about seeing them. What if they were ardent Communists who despised Americans? I need not have worried. They were warm and friendly people who somehow had managed to remain “human” in a robotic Soviet Union.

Semyon had a car in which he took us to see the sights, and then we walked around Leningrad which at that time was a dead city. We could not even find a place to sit down and have coffee. I asked Semyon how it was that we had not seen a single statue of Lenin, arm raised and pointing to a glorious proletarian future. He smiled with a twinkle in his eye and replied: “Because I have avoided taking you to those places.” On many other visits we got better acquainted and both my daughters met and loved their Russian relatives.

 

St. Basils



A Multi-Layered American – Part I

 

 

A friend, who is herself a hyphenated American, recently asked me: Do you think of yourself as Jewish, Russian or French and which comes first?  As I think about it, I am tempted to reply: The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.  Actually, I do have those three strata below the American identity, and I am  glad for the opportunity to unearth and untangle them.

Being Jewish is the foundation. It comes from long ago and far away and is actually part of a person’s DNA. It is a way of experiencing and viewing the world. It means being tolerant and self-deprecating, appreciating justice, respecting fairness, and seeing the funny aspects of life. It can be expressed in a shrug or a hand gesture which is immediately recognizable. It also means appreciating the richness of the Yiddish language even if you can’t speak it yourself. A character in a Woody Allen film is asked about his religion. He replies: “I was born into the Jewish persuasion but I converted to narcissism.”

My parents were not observant Jews, so in my case Jewishness was stripped of synagogue attendance and of the archaic and obsolete dietary laws and of the nonsensical interdictions about doing any work  on the Sabbath: No writing, driving, cooking, shopping etc.  I am glad that no one forced those ridiculous concepts on me because it has left me free to evolve my own philosophy and conduct of life.

But Judaism is much more than a religious practice.  It is an identity and membership in a tribe, and being Jewish has always been an important part of me.

Next time:  The Russian layer

 

 



Beirut – Part III—The Mountains

 

Before we depart for the mountains of Lebanon, here are two people you should meet.

–There is my brother Dorian who is 6 years younger than me. He is part of all these excursions, but because he is a boy and much younger, his life does not intersect very much with mine.

–There is a maid named Zahieh  who spends the day with us and goes home every evening to her Muslim husband. Her life does intersect a lot with mine. We communicate in a pseudo-Arabic lingo all our own. It has the structure and intonation of Arabic but with words of our own making. No self respecting Lebanese citizen would recognize it as his own tongue.

And now for the fabled resort towns overlooking Beirut.  The closest ones are less than an hour away. One of them is called Beit Meri and boasts of a “Grand Hotel.” A Grand Hotel is a typical get-away destination, which offers far more than a bed for the night. It has extensive grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, billiards rooms and other amusements. It is like a stationary cruise ship.

We eat lunch in a spacious dining room. Two rows of servers with huge platters are lined by the doors like a corps de ballet. At some inaudible signal they quickly scatter around the room delivering an abundant and delicious meal.  In the afternoon a good size band plays light classical music in between dance numbers. My favorite is the tango, for which the lights turn red. Tea and goodies are served. Everything is designed for the pursuit of pleasure.

Further up,  there were other resort villages called Broumanna,  Dhour el Chweir and Hamanna.   I recall a season when we rented a house in Hammana. During this visit, all of us were coughing and wheezing with whooping cough. Even Zahieh and the cat Miki had caught it and were quarantined with us.

Dhour el Chweir was the farthest away of the resorts, on the road to Damascus. The air there was fragrant and bracing. All of us children played in the forest and collected pine cones which we smashed with stones and emptied of their tasty pine nuts.

All around us were remains of the region’s past, a real archaeological paradise, layers and layers of history piled on top of each other, from Neanderthals to Phoenicians , Romans, Crusaders and Muslims. The mountains were also dotted with monasteries perched on high summits. I don’t remember any visits to any of those sights. What kinds of boors we were to be so dismissive of these civilizations?

Two explanations come to mind. Locals are often afflicted with surroundings blindness. A person could be living all his/her life in the 13th arrondissement in Paris and never think to venture to see the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees.  The second explanation concerns my wandering parents who were forced out of Russia and into moving from place to place and probably had a surfeit of traveling.

A long time ago I read a book by Aldous Huxley called “Usually Destroyed” In it he muses about cultures being annihilated and supplanted by other ones. He says: “Perpetual perishing is also perpetual creation.”

And so we come to the end of my life in Beirut. Maybe Beirut too will be reborn as has happened to other civilizations in the past. Usually destroyed but just as usually rebuilt.

 

 



Growing Up In Beirut – Part II

 

Lebanon Beachfront

In Beirut we lived in a neighborhood called Ashrafieh. According to Wikitravel it is an “old and charming district.” I remember it as a perfectly ordinary place. I walked to school at The Lycee Francais which was close by.  School hours were 8-12 and 2-4 which meant that I also walked home for lunch, the big meal of day, eaten punctually at 1 o’clock.

The hours between 12 and 2 were “sacred” just like in Europe, and no one in their right mind would dream of disturbing you during those hours, mostly because everyone else was also occupied in eating or resting. My parents often took a siesta after lunch.

Our street was called Abdel Wahab al Englizi. It means Abdel Wahab the Englishman. Who he was  and why  he merited having a street named after him remains a mystery to me.  The street  is also described as one of the most beautiful in Beirut. Again I only saw it as a plain cul-de-sac at the end of which stood our three-story apartment building.

The apartment had a big “salon” adjoined by a roomy dining room and surrounded by 3 bedrooms.  The bathroom had a bathtub and water heater and the toilet was in a separate little room.  The kitchen was spacious and communicated with the dining room through a little window where dishes could be passed through.

There was no central heating and the winter months were quite cold, so we used small electric heaters in the rooms.  Sometimes at night we ironed our sheets before jumping into bed.

When I came home from school I often found a note tacked to the front door saying: “The key is at the Mussor’s family.” There was no such family. Mussor means refuse in Russian, so the message was: “The key is under the garbage can.”

My father had a green Ford which he used for work and for family outings on Sundays. The beach was at some distance from the city so during the week I went to the “Etablissements de Bain” (Bathing Facilities) where you could rent a cabin and bathe in a perfectly calm sea. It was there that I taught myself to swim using a rope which stretched from shallow to deep water toward a raft where you could rest and sun yourself. (Getting a tan was quite the rage in those days).

On weekends we sometimes drove to the beach outside town and I cannot help getting teary-eyed just remembering the incredibly limpid water where you could see each grain of sand under your feet and feel your whole body relaxing. I do not even want to think about what it must look like now.

Waters of Lebanon

The heat and humidity in summer in Beirut were quite intolerable and everybody who could leave town retreated to the nearby resort villages. An hour’s drive through ascending winding roads transported you to places where the air was dry and smelled of pine trees and where you could still see the city at your feet. Sometimes we stayed at a hotel but more often we rented a house for the summer. Because of his work my father joined us on Saturday afternoons and drove back early Monday morning.

Lebanon Beach Today

Next time, more on resort towns in the mountains.

Editor’s note: We’ve had a few technical glitches with the blog recently so if you notice anything that isn’t right, know that we are working on all of this.

 



Growing Up In Beirut – Part I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lived in Beirut, Lebanon for 10 years between the ages of 7 and 17, those formative years when personhood is being built. When I left at the beginning of World War II, life was about to change drastically, both for me and for the country. I never returned.

Those days are gone forever. Everything I knew has been erased by years of conflict, civil war, the birth of religious dogmatism and terrorism, and its attending chaos and hatreds. The whole Middle East has exploded and Beirut has not been spared.

Are my recollections tinted by nostalgia for those Golden Years? Of course they are.

This is what I remember. I remember a sparkling and tranquil indigo blue sea bordered by a sunny esplanade and many fashionable hotels. I remember a public square called “Place des Canons.” I remember at least four movie houses called Roxy, Empire, Majestic and Rialto where we went to watch classic French and American films on Saturday mornings. Some of the films were serials continued on the following week. Such was the case for “Les Miserables.” Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert and Cosette were played by the best French actors. American films were all dubbed, so Gary Cooper, Loretta Young and Clark Gable all spoke perfect French.

Beirut in the 1930’s

I remember streetcars crisscrossing the whole city and the conductor ding-ding-dinging to clear the way of cars and pedestrians. I remember a policeman perched on a pedestal at an intersection gesticulating and shouting: “Tarraverrrsez” when it was pedestrian crossing time.

Lebanon in those days was ruled by the French under a Mandate given to them by the League of Nations. Before that it had been a part of the Ottoman Empire.
Many foreigners like us lived in Beirut in relative harmony and mutual tolerance: Russian emigres, Armenians, Turks, Jews and other mixed race people.

The native population was divided into Muslims and Christians (Maronites.) Both tended towards secularism and their relative religions were more an attribute like curly or straight hair, blue or brown eyes than a sword to brandish. Everyone wanted only to be “modern.” Even my father’s engineering business was called: “La Technique Moderne.” Women were stylish and fashion conscious. The city had many hair salons and nail parlors.

Muslim women wore thin transparent veils which added mystery to their appearance. Nobody in those days had ever heard of garments called niqabs, hijabs or burkas. Had any women in such attire been seen promenading on the Corniche the sight would have been as jarring as crows at a wedding.

Those peaceful, easy-going days are gone forever. Now I can only remember them, perhaps even embellishing them in my mind.



The Golden Age of the Detective Story

dorothysayers

The 1920’s and 1930’s were the golden age of the detective story. Many of the authors were British and it was a genre in which women excelled: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh were some of the most famous ones. Their detectives were Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Roderic Allen and others. Because of the affinity of the British for clever dilletantes, they tended to create amateur sleuths
whose skills were: knowledge of human nature, psychological insight and shrewd observation. The authors also loved to use misdirection, distraction, and legerdemain to impede the reader’s progress to the solution.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Because detective story writing is such a huge topic I have imposed restrictions and limits to the areas I am going to cover. Excluded from this presentation will be the many professional police crime solvers. Also absent will be the hard-boiled gum shoes created by American authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Those private eyes dealt with professional crime occurring in the streets of big cities.

So I am left with the “cozy” aspect of the genre which features certain settings such as the country manor, local hotel, and the rural village, and characters such as the village spinster, country vicar or local doctor. A favorite ploy of this kind of story telling is the “locked room mystery.” You are supposed to figure how a seemingly impossible murder did in fact occur. Since these were constructed as games or puzzles, the reader was actively encouraged to participate and the authors were supposed to facilitate his/her way by observing certain rules.

These were the 10 rules (slightly simplified here) which the London-based Detective Club came up with in 1930. Some will seem bizarre or dated:

1. The criminal must be mentioned early but cannot be someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to follow.
2. No supernatural agencies.
3. No more than one secret room or passage.
4. No esoteric poison or complicated appliance.
5. No Chinaman.(?)
Did they mean: no deus ex machina?
6. No accident must help the detective.
7. The detective cannot be the criminal.
8. The detective cannot hide clues from the reader.
9. The slightly-below-average-intelligence side kick (Captain Hastings?) must not hide his thoughts.
10. No twins or doubles.

rexstout

Almost from the beginning some rules were transgressed, and much else has evolved too. There has been a shift towards merging the detective story with the mainstream novel and the detective tale has become a “crime story.” Authors like Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and George Simenon, though still dealing with murders, have inched closer to the psychological drama of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As they have done so, the stories have gotten longer.

The who, when and how have become incidental and the “why” took central stage. Often we know who committed the crime but go on reading because we need to discover what set him/her off, we need to understand the passion , terror, humiliation which resulted in this final action,. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret practically crawls into the skin of the murderer to feel what he felt. Ruth Rendell plunges into the family history, fears, insecurities and delusions of her characters and P.D.James probes deeply into the passions and unhappiness of her heroes. Their stories become deeper psychological studies.

The lines are now truly blurred and and that is probably a good development.



Where’s That Wolf? (Animals Part 3)

 

PeterAndTheWolf

 

Composers’ talent for wit, parody and light-hearted fun seem to cause them shame rather than providing a reason for celebration. Such was the case for Saint Saens and his wonderful  Carnival of the Animals.  Arthur Sullivan (Gilbert’s partner) also wished to be a “serious” composer. He wrote a symphony that hardly anyone remembers whereas everyone who ever heard the tunes of the Mikado or HMS Pinafore cannot help singing or whistling them.

This was not true of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) who truly had fun with animals as a child. Prokofiev was a child prodigy and like Mozart started composing at the age of 5.

Peter and the Wolf was written for children in two weeks and was intended as a child’s introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. Each character is represented by a different instrument and has his own musical theme.

The narrator tells the story of Peter, a young pioneer (the equivalent of a boy scout), whose friends, a duck, a bird and a cat are threatened by a wolf from the woods.

Peter lives with his grandfather (represented by a bassoon) who has strictly forbidden him to go into the woods. The duck is announced by the oboe, the bird by a flute, the cat by a clarinet and the wolf with a chorus of menacing French horns.

There are also hunters (tympanic drums) whose aim is to shoot the wolf. Disobeying his grandfather, Peter climbs over a wall, captures the wolf and in a joyful parade takes it to the zoo.

There is  a moral to this tale: it promotes the virtues of resourcefulness  and risk taking. It is also joyful and encourages audience participation. Peter and the Wolf has been adapted for a puppet performance by the “Spitting Image Puppets” marvelously decorated and costumed , whimsical and hilarious.

And to end on a completely different note : Listen to Walking the Dog by George Gershwin, a joyous, careless saunter  by a two legged and a four legged  creature  happy in each other’s company.

Editor’s note: When I was five years old, the wolf music in this story scared the hell out of me.

 

 



Visitors from Birdland

White Crowned Sparrows

White Crowned Sparrows

On a recent mid-afternoon, I was sitting in the backyard reading, absorbing the quiet and admiring the white roses. Then two visitors appeared: two fat grey sparrows.  They headed straight for the little water fountain which my housekeeper had filled that morning.  I was holding my breath trying to become invisible but they paid me no attention whatsoever. One plunged in the water and the other perched on a high branch and pip-pip-pipped softly as if to reassure his companion that all was well. Then bird #1 started splashing merrily, spreading his wings, dipping his beak to drink, then thrashing some more. This went on for a while until they reversed roles. Bird #1 went   to take up his position as sentry while bird #2  went through the same ritual in the basin. I felt as if I was watching an episode from Nature in real time.  Quite a magic moment.

 

Baby Sparrows

Baby Sparrows