Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.