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.