Archive for June, 2011

Postcards from Paris

June 29, 2011

Day 1: Taking the RER into Paris from Charles De Gaule, startled to pass through Drancy station. I was just reading about Drancy. It’s where the Jews went from Paris on their way to Auschwitz. Hadn’t even heard of the place before now. I hadn’t expected to see even this much of it.

Day 2: Looked down a side street near our hotel and spotted this Tunisian bakery, with its window full of fantasy sweets in improbable shapes and colors. When my sister Rachel and I visited Paris as teenagers in the summer of 1972, we ended up spending an evening with a bunch of kids we found hanging out in a park. At some point they took us walking through crowded, winding streets. Just about all I remember is the crush of the crowd, the unreality of being out so late at night, and a window full of fantasy sweets from North Africa. I’m pretty sure this is that place.

Day 3: I was reading about Drancy as part of my research for my new book. One of my characters is a French Jew who was middle aged in the 1930s, and I was trying to figure out how she might have survived the war. In the course of my reading I came across a story about the Grand Mosque of Paris saving Jewish children from the Nazis. I never even knew there was a Grand Mosque of Paris. Further research threw doubt on the story. I decided to check it out, so I visited the mosque. This is it. It’s a beautiful place. I still have no idea how much of the story is true.

Day 4: On my last full day in Paris, I decided to visit the neighborhood where my family lived from 1964-1966, when I was 6-9 years old and my dad was working at the International Edition of the New York Times. I went to the park where Rachel I used to roller skate. Much of it is as I remember, but a lot has changed, as well. One big change is two fenced off areas where parents can leave their children for supervised play. There’s one area for preschoolers and another for kids between about 5 and 10. These are the preschoolers. I was very impressed with, but not at all surprised by, how orderly they were organized for story hour. I spent a long time watching both groups, silently practicing how, if anyone asked, I would explain, in French, that I played in this same park 40-some years ago. No one asked.

Getting There

June 24, 2011

The cabbie who collected us at our home in Providence was the king of multitasking, sort of. He talked non-stop (mostly about his Bolivian ex-fiancee, who’s sitting in a Spanish jail because while she was in her friend’s apartment, her friend received a delivery of some number of kilos of cocaine), while acting as dispatcher (no, we don’t have any drivers available, no we can’t call you back, you call us), and deftly driving us – not to the Peter Pan bus depot, our intended destination, but to the train station. Well, no matter. He got us to the bus station eventually, and without missing a beat in his narrative. He was so keen on telling his story, in fact that when we got to the bus station, he got out of the car – not to unload out luggage from the trunk, but to finish his sentence.

At Logan, two Air France flights were checking in at adjacent counters – ours to Paris, and another to Cape Verde. Our flight was delayed by three and a half hours because of a maintenance workers’ strike in Paris. Although we were the third people in line, our line didn’t move for one hour. The Cape Verde line beside us slowly snaked forward. It was filled with family groups dressed like people going to a party. And it seemed to be the same party. They all seemed to know each other, and as each new group arrived, people who were already in line greeted them hugs and kisses.

The Cape Verde flight was also delayed. The airport where they were scheduled to land was closed. By 1 am, just about the only passengers still waiting to take off were ours and theirs. While we scattered around the terminal in our sedate, separate groups, they circulated, shared food, gossiped and passed sleeping babies arm to arm. I watched a short woman with a cap of curly hair and a pretty flowered dress chat and share a bag of chips with the women across from us. It was like a huge family picnic.

Is Cape Verde really so small? Were they all going to the same event? We couldn’t tell. The older people spoke in what we assumed was Portuguese. The younger people spoke in English, but mostly about boyfriends and dance clubs.

When their flight was finally called, the women across from us were so caught up in their conversation they didn’t hear the announcement. Eventually an Air France attendant came to tell them in person. They gathered up their babies and their baggage and hurried to the gate.

Our plane boarded around 1:30 in the morning. As we were walking down the jetway, the Air France people suddenly went into a panic. “She’s already on the plane!” One man shouted, and sprinted past us. When everyone was seated, the crew asked passenger Maria Something to identify herself, and then they walked up and down the rows asking each one of us if we were this Maria Something. They finally found her, a few rows ahead of us. They took her carry-on from the overhead and escorted her off the plane. It was our friend with the close-cropped curls and the flowered dress. She’d boarded the wrong plane.

Hours later, after the six-hour flight and the long walk through Charles De Gaulle and the long line for train tickets, after the train that took us as far as Gare du Nord and then suddenly stopped – railroad workers strike – after finding a metro and getting our bearings and rolling our carry-ons up Blvd St. Michel, after checking into our hotel and showering and changing, we wandered out into the neighborhood to find dinner.

We made our way to Rue Mouffetard, where a different band was playing at top volume on just about every corner, and the streets were crowded with mostly young people laughing and strolling, the older young people were carrying around glasses of beer, and the younger ones were squirting each other with Silly String.

It was a Tuesday. Do they do this every night? We wondered. Don’t they have jobs? Don’t these children have school? Is it because of Solstice? (It was the annual, national Festive of Music, we eventually learned.)

We found a restaurant, where the proprietor sat us beside an American student – originally from Pennsylvania, he told us, going to school in the UK, in Paris for a few days to do research. He didn’t tell us what sort of research. Between courses, he was reading Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful.

“Evenings are my chance to see Paris,” he said. “It’s a pretty library, it’s nice to get out.”

Does he dress like that every night? We wondered, eyeing his brand new sport coat and vest, his pocket watch and chain. He and the waiter had a running joke about his dinner costing a million dollars. When the check came, he took a piece of paper and a fountain pen from his computer case, and wrote out an IOU for a million dollars. His cursive was impeccable.

Essential Skills for Grown-ups

June 15, 2011

I am really good at using a wine bottle opener. Yay me!

And another thing I am super-excellent at doing? Parallel parking. That’s right. Pull up beside the car in front of the open space. Back up, turn, back up, turn, and I’m in.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend much time reveling in these accomplishments. But every now and then, I’ll ease a cork from a bottle or my car into a tight space, and I’ll think, Uh-huh. I’m the one who did that.

Back when I was in kindergarten, there was a chart on the wall. All our names were listed down the left-hand column, and across the top were a series of skills we were expected to learn. Tie your shoes. Recite the alphabet. Write your name. Know your address. Whenever you felt ready, you could demonstrate one of the skills to Miss Marcelli. If you succeeded, you got a star sticker in the appropriate column beside your name.

Grown-ups get the equivalent of star stickers for academic accomplishments, and special licenses and certifications affirm our fitness to, say, drive a car, sell real estate or own a gun. But most of the skills we pick up along the way – by watching other people and asking questions, by trial and error, or just from life experience — go largely unnoticed. Unless we notice them.

Distinguish a flower from a weed.
Make small talk with a stranger.
Navigate a public transit system.
Know which battles are worth fighting.
Write a condolence letter.

If there were a Miss Marcelli chart for grown-ups, I’d include all those skills.

What would you add?

Intermarry Me

June 10, 2011

You might consider this the companion piece to my previous post. It’s my June column for the Jewish Voice and Herald — basically a shortened version of a piece I wrote for Seven Days five years ago. When it ran in Seven Days, I heard from lots of people who were preparing to enter their own intermarriages. A few years after it was published, I even heard from a mother who was looking for someone to officiate at her daughter’s wedding. I’ll be curious to see what sort of response it generates in this other venue.

My husband David and I celebrate our 30th anniversary next month. When I told my family we’d gotten engaged, my grandmother countered with an announcement of her own. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll just go upstairs now and kill myself.”

My parents were more gracious. Sure, they would have preferred for me to marry a Jew. But they liked David.

The ceremony would take place at my family’s house. I would wear my mother’s dress. It would be a Jewish service, complete with canopy, broken glass and rabbi. Once we were married, I would keep doing what I’d always done: attend services a few times a year and celebrate Hanukkah and Passover at home. Our kids would go to Hebrew school. They would be named Horowitz, rather than Christensen.

All of this was fine with David. His father was raised as a Protestant, his mother Zoroastrian. They’d brought him up religion-free, and he had no interest in converting. But he understood what my legacy meant to me. Plus, he liked lighting candles and eating latkes.

Finding a rabbi to marry us proved harder than we’d expected. Traditional Jewish law is clear: Intermarriages aren’t valid. Visceral reactions like my grandmother’s are driven by demographics. The Holocaust made horrifyingly real the possibility of Jews disappearing as a people. Ironically, as anti-Semitism declines, intermarriage rates rise. Jews who “marry out” are less likely to raise their children as Jewish, and those offspring more often intermarry, themselves.

Rabbis who officiate at marriages like mine believe welcoming mixed families is the best response to the reality of intermarriage. Interfaith couples who have a Jewish wedding are a lot more likely to pass down a Jewish legacy than those who get turned away.

Similar arguments are taking place among Zoroastrians. In the West, Zoroastrian intermarriage rates mirror those of American Jews. But their existential calculus is more dire. There are only 130,000 Zoroastrians in the world, compared to 13 million Jews. And, unlike Judaism, Zoroastrianism doesn’t accept converts or recognize the children of intermarried parents. Reformers want to loosen these restrictions in order to slow the group’s decline.

David and I found our clergy through word of mouth. We stood under a huppah. We shared wine. The rabbi recited the seven blessings. David stamped on the glass. After the rabbi left, David’s mother performed a Zoroastrian benediction. We held a tray arranged with fruits, nuts, flowers, rock sugar and coins – symbols of sweet abundance. His mother drew lines on our foreheads with red paste, and pressed rice into the stripes. The blending of backgrounds felt natural and relaxed. Even Grandma seemed to enjoy the day.

Afterwards, David and I followed our original agreement. On Yom Kippur, the children and I went to services, and then broke the fast at a meal David prepared. The kids learned about God in Hebrew school, and David read them a children’s book about atheism.

The arrangement worked well for a while. But we hadn’t counted on a crisis. My parents died and, in my grief, I turned to religion. My twice-a-year synagogue habit became a daily fix. Soon I wasn’t just attending services, but leading them. At home, I started surreptitiously imposing certain laws of kashrut on our family meals. When David realized I’d gone back on my word, he called me on it.

What could I do? In the 18 years since we struck our bargain, I had changed. I felt trapped between spirituality and my spouse. More and more, I felt like an outsider – both at synagogue and in my own home.

Ultimately, the solution came from within Judaism. My rabbi explained sh’lom-bayit, the value of harmony in the home. He reminded me about the concessions David had made so I could live Jewishly, and encouraged me to compromise.

I also realized I wasn’t such an oddball. Lots of our Jewish friends shared homes with non-Jews. And even single-religion households can have spiritual squabbles.

David and I started discussing religion more openly. I dropped my campaign to keep kosher and settled into a weekly synagogue schedule. We began lighting candles on Friday nights. David bought me my own tallit.

Then one day I got a call from a couple asking if I’d officiate at their wedding. She was Jewish and he wasn’t. They wanted a Jewish wedding, but couldn’t find a willing rabbi. I had never performed a wedding, but figured I could learn. We brought in a justice of the peace to make it legal.

We stood under a huppah in a field, my tallit fluttering in the wind. The couple shared wine. I sang the seven blessings. Together, they broke the glass. I looked out at the guests and there was David, cheering among the crowd.

Seven Blessings, Hold the God

June 8, 2011

As you may have heard, my daughter is getting married this summer. A friend is officiating, thanks to Massachusetts’s liberal officiant-for-a-day law. Sophie and Henry designed the service themselves, including elements from both their backgrounds.

I suggested they include a form of the Seven Blessings that are at the heart of a Jewish wedding, but they couldn’t find a version they liked. So I had a go at it.

My challenge: write a version of the Seven Blessings that

— doesn’t mention (or explicitly exclude) God

— doesn’t mention (or explicitly exclude) Zion/Jerusalem/Judah

— isn’t sexist or heteronormative (that is, makes no assumption about whether the couple is hetero- or homosexual).

Oh, and the language should

— be pretty but not cheesy

— be inclusive but not didactic and self-righteous-sounding

— reflect as much as possible the vocabulary, rhythm, spirit and meaning of the traditional Hebrew blessings.

Here’s what I came up with.

(1) Blessed be the fruit of the vine, symbol of our joy.

From the original: You are blessed, Lord our God, the sovereign of the world, creator of the fruit of the vine.

Wine is the traditional symbol of joy and abundance in Judaism, and the benediction over wine is an essential part of every joyous Jewish occasion.

(2) Blessed be the natural world and the glory of creation.

From: Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, King of the universe, Who has created everything for His glory.

(3) Blessed be humankind and our capacity to understand and create.

From: Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, King of the universe, Who fashioned the Man.

Our capacity to understand and create is my attempt to sum up what distinguishes our species from other animals.

(4) Blessed be compassion, graciousness, patience, kindness and truth, and all that humans should strive for.

From: Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, King of the universe, Who fashioned the Man in His image, in the image of his likeness and prepared for him from himself a building for eternity. Blessed are You Adonoy, Who fashioned the Man.

In a non-theist world view, what does it mean to be created in God’s image? An approach I like is to think in terms of “godliness,” exemplified by compassion, kindness and others of the 13 attributes of God  mentioned in Exodus 33.

(5) May joy and exultation fill this gathering. Blessed are we when families and friends are reunited and friends become family.

From: Bring intense joy and exultation to the barren one through the ingathering of her children amidst her in gladness. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who gladdens Zion through her children.

The original imagines Zion as an abandoned mother welcoming her long-lost children home. It expresses the hope of an exiled people to return to the homeland promised in the Bible, and predates the founding of the State of Israel by a few thousand years. Today, the language takes on political connotations that seem to have little to do with celebrating Sophie and Henry’s marriage.

But step back from the specificity of “Zion,” and the blessing expresses a more universal theme — a dispersed community’s longing to be reunited. And doesn’t much of the joy of a wedding come from being with old friends and extended family you haven’t seen in a long time, and celebrating the formation of a new family?

(6) May these beloved companions be as blessed in love as their parents and grandparents before them. Blessed be the joy of loving couples.

from: Gladden the beloved companions as You gladdened Your creatures in the garden of Eden from aforetime. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who gladdens groom and bride.

For “Eden” read, “since the beginning.” I wanted to avoid mentioning a mythological location, and preferred not to make assumptions about the happiness of couples back in the “old days.” (Especially since I suspect that no one today would really want to emulate the sorts of “marriages” couples had “aforetime.”)

Happily, David and I have been married 30 years. David’s parents will celebrate their 60th anniversary in September, and my parents had been married 49 years before my father died. Henry’s parents have been together even longer than we have. This record of lasting unions made it easy to rewrite this blessing.

(7) Blessed be joy and gladness, grooms and brides, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, friendship, peace, and companionship. Let there soon be heard throughout the land the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voices of grooms and the voices of brides, the sound of the couples’ jubilance from their canopies and of the youths from their song-filled feasts. Blessed be the gladness of marrying couples.

From: Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, King of the universe, Who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, brotherhood, peace, and companionship. Adonoy, our God, let there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the grooms’ jubilance from their canopies and of the youths from their song-filled feasts. Blessed are You Who gladdens the groom with the bride.

I pretty much left this one alone. I changed “groom and bride” to “grooms and brides,” and made similar changes elsewhere in the blessing, to remove the assumption that the marrying couple consists of a man and a woman. And I replaced the specific “The cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem” with the more universal, “throughout the land.”

If this language works for you, you’re welcome to use it. If you do, I’d love to hear from you.

Cutting and Pasting … and Pinning?

June 5, 2011

I’ve just started reading What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. There’s so much to love about this book: the warmth and humor between these two good friends; the leisurely, literary exemplars of the largely lost art of letter writing; the insider look at literary life in twentieth-century America.

The letters span five decades. Eudora writes from Jackson, Mississippi, Bill from New York. Both wrote short stories and novels, and they regularly read each other’s work – he not only as a friend, but also in a professional capacity, as Eudora’s editor at The New Yorker.

In September, 1953, Bob sends Eudora his latest story, “What Every Boy Should Know.” He tells her, “It’s the only copy I have with me – the other having gone off, but I thought it would amuse you anyway to read the past-up version.”

Eudora replies that it’s a lovely story, and spends a paragraph telling Bill why she likes it. Then she writes,

I do see from this how elegant rubber cement is. I’m so used to writing with a pincushion that I don’t know if I can learn other ways or not, but I did go right down and buy a bottle of Carter’s. The smell stimulates the mind and brings up dreams of efficiency. Long ago when my stories were short (I wish they were back) I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as whole and at a glance – helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction […] on the whole I like pins. The Ponder Heart was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (So it’s economical.)

Pins! To hold a story together! I’m old enough to remember the days when “cutting and pasting” was something you did with scissors and bottles of rubber cement. But pins???

For years, I wrote my first drafts in spiral notebooks, with Flair felt-tip pens – green, brown, peacock blue and, by the time I was in college, black. Second and third drafts got typed, but never first drafts. In my romantic, pseudo-flower-child world view, typewriters were impersonal machines that would interfere with my natural, creative flow. But once I finished something in longhand, there was nothing as satisfying as typing out my words – and often making small changes in the process. Subsequent drafts got marked up and retyped until I was satisfied, or gave up. (I usually gave up.)

I promised myself that when I sold my first story to The New Yorker, I would invest my earnings in an IBM Selectric typewriter – complete with feather-light keyboard touch, correcting ribbon, and interchangeable font balls that would let me produce beautiful typed pages in different fonts.

My dreams of a Selectric faded around 1980, when we bought our first personal computer – a Leading Edge with a cool amber display, and an accompanying daisywheel printer. About that same time, I also lost my aversion to composing first drafts at the keyboard. But for years I continued to print out every draft I wrote, mark the pages up manually, and then key in corrections.

Now I hardly ever print anything out. Everything happens electronically, including revisions. It’s so convenient, and it’s much more economical than replacing toner cartridges, not to mention better for the environment than using all that paper. And I’m running out of space to file multiple drafts of abortive writing efforts.

Still, reading a Eudora Welty’s letter makes me a little wistful.

I’m still waiting to sell that first story to The New Yorker. If that ever happens, maybe I’ll invest part of my earnings in a pincushion.