A Jew in France

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, 1920

A lot has been written lately about the rise in anti-Semitism in France. The New York Times and The Guardian have reported in the last week on increased incidences of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues with the painting of that most recognizable symbol of hate: the Nazi Swastika, and the denunciation of these acts by the Macron government. An article in Le Monde quoted Macron as saying in a speech to CRIF, a coalition of French Jewish organizations: the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France is unequaled since the second world war. In contrast to Mr. Trump, President Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unequivocally denounced hatred and the haters, saying “this is not the country we are.” It may not be the country they want, but it is undeniable that there is a long history of anti-Semitism in France, a country with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and the United States, and a country that deported 78,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.

Entrance to Camp de Rivesaltes
Camp de Rivesaltes

There is certainly an alarming increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents but it is unclear if this reflects a burgeoning hatred in the population or the increased freedom to broadcast opinions that used to be kept quiet. There is no doubt that as this and other western countries become increasingly polarized, the rhetoric becomes more heated and people gravitate to the extremes of left and right as moderates disappear. In France, Macron’s election destroyed the centrist Socialist and Republican parties; in Britain, Brexit has fractured both the Conservatives and Labor; and in the US, Democrats have moved to the left as Republicans lined up behind Trump. The void in the middle opens a path for populist demagogues as has happened in Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and the United States.
Macron seemed to be aware of this dynamic when in his speech to CRIF he supported the adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that is enlarged to include anti-Zionism.

What to make of this?

It can be perceived as a political act, both in attempting to woo a frightened French Jewish community and as a lightly veiled reference to the left-wing leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon who has been accused of cloaking his anti-Semitism in criticism of Netanyahu’s policies. Tarring the left with the same brush of bigotry that sticks to Marine Le Pen on the right, leaves Macron as the only acceptable choice for a majority of the country. Opposition to the Zionist policies of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic.
I support the right of Jews to a homeland. I oppose the destruction of the Palestinian people to annex more land for Israel. I am not an anti-Semite, but including opposition to Zionism in a definition of anti-Semitism seems to put all Jews in the same boat which is not very different from saying all Muslims are terrorists.
Macron also spoke of additional laws to ban online hate speech by anonymous postings and an investigation into the increasing number of Jewish students who have left school under the fear of violence.
Macron had to respond with more than words of sympathy. It remains to be seen whether his initiatives will become effective actions but it may not matter. Prejudice is as old as humanity and cannot be legislated away.
©2019 Ron Scherl

Camp de Rivesaltes
Camp de Rivesaltes

A Sunny Sunday

Square Saint Lambert

6 May 2018

I sat next to a woman just as she sighed with satisfaction and closed her book: Avant que les Ombres s’Effacent. Louis-Philippe Dalembert. Before the Shadows Fade turns out to be the story of a Polish Jew who flees Nazism to Haiti, of all places. Turns out Haiti had passed a law in 1939 guaranteeing asylum for the persecuted, and citizenship to all who asked. I keep getting drawn back into this story, first with the surprise of discovering the similar policies of Mexico, and now Haiti, two countries who saved many thousands of Jews turned away by the United States.

My parents adored Franklin Roosevelt—so much so that as a kid I thought he must be Jewish—but FDR bowed to the isolationists and anti-Semites in clamping down on European immigration. US visa offices were closed and all applications had to be approved by the State Department in Washington. People like Hiram Bingham and Varian Fry did their best, but their efforts were severely hampered by their own government.

I don’t know how much the American public knew at the time. I can only assume my parents were misinformed.

Square Saint Lambert

But, hey. It’s a beautiful day in Paris and this piece was supposed to be just an impressionistic summer observation of an ex-pat with a camera.

Reading woman left and was replaced on the bench by a young boy wearing glasses and reading Harry Potter et la Coupe de Feu. That’s more like it.

There’s a man juggling on the green—not very well—and the green is crowded. Balls are landing all over but the sun worshipers are happy and cheer him along. There are lots of kids on wheels and lots more kids with balls and when the two intersect, a few tears flow, but dads are there to brush them off and get them back on the bikes. Seems like a lot of dads watching kids, which would make me wonder about the divorce rate if I weren’t so intent on a sunny day.

Beach towels, football jerseys, books, and selfies. Young women in bikinis, sunglasses, and straw hats, winter pallor slick with oil. The young are all on the green, the rest of us seek benches in the shade.

Let’s close this with an unusual war memorial. I just can’t help it. If anyone can tell me who the three gentlemen on the left are, and what the inscriptions “T.O.E.” and “A.F.N.” stand for, I’d appreciate it.

War Memorial at the Mairie of the 15th.

Merci beaucoup.

©2018 Ron Scherl

The Louvre

Family in town so we’re doing the right things. Today was the big museum with the pyramid and the lady from the DaVinci Code novel. She is there. I know because I’m tall and my camera is bigger than most.

She is there

This is some really athletic art appreciation, something like a rugby scrum. I know nothing about rugby but I imagine it takes strength, determination and some sharp elbows to work your way through the scrummy thing, which is exactly what’s needed to get to see the lady in question. But all I really need is to get close enough to get a picture, so I’ll always have the memory.

Somewhere

I used to think people took pictures of pictures to have the memory and avoid the gift shop, but here’s the thing: It’s not the art, it’s the experience. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Paris ☑Louvre ☑What’s her name ☑

Big Museum. Big Paintings

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all snobby about this, wonder why people do it, and then blame Facebook. Not me. I live in the real world and I’d rather blame Facebook for much bigger crimes.

I see nothing wrong with people taking pictures of art. I’m glad they do it. Glad they support the museums with their tickets and glad the museums have wised up and allow it. I’m not sure what people take from the experience, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Shoot Pictures. Not People.

©2018 Ron Scherl

Democrats

Winter returned for its curtain call this weekend. Temperatures fell, a little snow flurried around and quickly departed, and I stayed home except for a visit to the American Church for a meeting of Democrats Abroad. This kind of event doesn’t hold much interest for me but I am committed to exploring as much of Paris as I can, and I thought a few hours of conversation in English would be a mental vacation.

This was the Annual General Meeting which meant most of the time was given to parliamentary procedures like reading the minutes of the last meeting and proposing changes to the by-laws. Yawn. I had hopes for the political summary but it was just a recap of the number of seats at stake and how much money had been raised for the next election. There was little discussion, few questions, zero conflict. I’d bet a directive had come from the DNC that mandated unity: There shall be no disagreements. We are united in opposition to the odious buffoon in the White House. This is not only boring, it’s anti-democratic and totally contrary to the spirit of the Democratic Party, which has never been unanimous in support of anything. Thank you, Barbara Lee. But when you want to stifle disagreement, overstuff the agenda with procedural minutiae and promise there will be time for questions later. There won’t be.

Owen Franken addresses the meeting

The only spark of controversy came from the appearance of Owen Franken, brother of former Senator Al. Owen was having none of this peace and love thing. He was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. What set him off was an announcement of a new party policy on sexual harassment. The terms of the policy haven’t been released yet, but the announcement gave Owen a platform to defend his brother and denounce Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who took the lead in taking him down.

Al Franken was shafted by his party and unnecessarily thrown to the wolves. This meeting was an appropriate place to discuss it, but the leaders were having none of it, and he was shut down by the chairwoman for violating parliamentary procedures. I called Owen to ask him what he was trying to get across and he told me that he just wanted to open a discussion of sexual harassment in the hope of creating a policy that might prevent someone else from being thrown under the bus over unproven allegations. He left when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.

Wine and cookies were served.

Wine and Cookies

©2018 Ron Scherl

Spring in Montparnasse

A beautiful weekend. Temperature climbing, no rain, even the sun made an extended appearance. Saturday I discovered a lovely little museum dedicated to the work of Antoine Bourdelle, a sculptor of monuments. Really big images of horses and generals, but also friezes to decorate theatres and museums. The man never thought small, but the most evocative room in the museum was his studio. Perfect.

Studio of Antoine Bourdelle

Entrance to the exhibits is free, but since I always manage to find a way to spend money—and you cannot leave without passing through the bookstore—I picked up a guide to the legendary locations of Montparnasse: cafés, ateliers, hotels, all the good stuff. And since I’m immersed in Paris culture of the twenties and thirties, Sunday became a walking tour.

La Rotonde

La Rotonde, Le Select, La Coupole, and Le Dôme are all within one block on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, so bar-hopping could be managed with a minimum of exertion, an important consideration in a time when drinking, smoking, and sex were the primary forms of exercise. The guide has historical as well as contemporary photographs and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. Of course, prices have gone up along with skyscrapers but in the 1930’s these places weren’t really restaurants, as they are now. Back then, there were more people than cars, so the sidewalks were wider, the roadway narrower, and the cafés spilled out into the street. There are night photos by Brassaï—the man only slept when the sun came up—that show crowded café tables stretching to the curb.

La Coupole

Of course it all changes and maybe it’s surprising how much is still recognizable. Rue Delambre still houses the three hotels where Man Ray, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Breton once lived.

Hotel des Bains

The rue de la Gaïté is still a street of theaters and the crowds were there for Sunday matinees. The Hotel Istria is still on the rue Campagne-Première although Duchamp, Satie, Rilke, and Kiki de Montparnasse no longer roam the halls, and down the street, behind a shop where Atget sold his photographs, there is a long low building known as Ateliers d’Artistes, a haven for those who abandoned Montmartre (too many tourists?), to settle down around the corner from Bal Bullier and La Closerie des Lilas. The rent wasn’t much, the neighbors were sometimes rowdy but always interesting. A few doors down, a plaque marks the former home of the writers, Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Probably a quieter place.

Entrance to Ateliers d’Artistes

©2018 Ron Scherl

Weather

All those years in San Francisco, I forgot about the weather. In winter it rains, except when it doesn’t and, twice a year—spring and fall—there’s a heat wave. Good lord, it’s 900, who can live like this? But the fog returns after a few days in hiding and we’re back to normal 60 and freezing tourists buying sweatshirts at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Then I moved to France and suddenly Weather became the most used app on my phone. In Maury it was 1000 before summer even started and I was miserable for the next six months. I’d check the forecast and raise a glass to days when it wouldn’t rise above 90. I’d look longingly at long pants, sweaters, and people huddled under blankets at Giants’ games. So I moved to Paris and the rains came in Biblical volume, flooding the Seine, and showing no sign of retreat—until it got cold and, of course, the snow arrived. Funny how that works.

I grew up in New York and went to college in Maine, so I’m no stranger to winter, but all those California years stripped away the insulation and left me with a thin skin and chilly bones. Or maybe that was just the years and California had nothing to do with it. “Buck up,” you say. “Get a grip, buy a hot water bottle, wear your socks to bed, and, please, stop your whinging.”

Good advice. Thanks. After all, I came to France for the challenge of something new, and Paris is beautiful in the snow. Enjoy.

Place du Général Beuret

Jardin du Luxembourg

Statue of Marguerite d’Angouleme, Reine de Navarre Luxembourg Gardens

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg  

©2018 Ron Scherl

 

Gypsy Jazz

La Chope des Puces translates as a “Jar of Fleas”, the jar usually referring to a mug for serving beer, but on this Saturday afternoon the drinks of choice were Champagne and Scotch and Coke. La Chope is a bar, restaurant, lutherie (factory of string instruments), and a school of jazz manouche, but most of all it is a temple to Django Reinhardt, the great French Gypsy guitarist who lived nearby.

Ninine Garcia

Located on the rue des Rosiers in Saint Ouen, adjacent to the Porte de Clignancourt Marché aux Puces, la Chope comes alive every weekend with the music of jazz manouche led by Ninine Garcia, head of Paris’ first family of gypsy jazz. Seated beneath a portrait of his late father, Mondine, and a glass case of honored guitars, Ninine and his son, Roky host a family party every week, playing guitar all afternoon along with friends and family.

The Kid Sits In

Marcel Campion, the Proprietor of La Chope

Everyone seems to know everyone and many are, in fact, related but I can say with the confidence of experience that strangers are more than welcome. When one of the guests, a man named Samuel, raised his glass to me and said: “L’Chaim”, I thought I was at a Bar Mitzvah, and when the Garcias played Hava Nagila I was sure of it. Although there wasn’t enough room for a hora, and no one was carried aloft in her chair, the vibe was exactly the same. I had landed in a French Gypsy affair.

Annie Dancing

A little while later, fresh glass in hand, I returned the compliment, toasting Samuel with L’Chaim. He sipped and said: “Vous êtes Americain, non?”

“Oui”

“Et l’origine juif?”

“Oui.”  That brought a big smile and a hearty hug.

The Scene at La Chope des Puces

So it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re always the sum of where you’ve been. The past is never lost, it just takes a different shape today.

The Hat Has Been Passed

©2018 Ron Scherl

Bits and Pieces of Paris

The river is high, about five meters now, expected to rise another meter by Saturday. The embankment is underwater, Métro stations are soggy, nearby RER stations are flooding. None of this is particularly surprising because every day seems to bring some rain. Damp winters are expected but the persistent precipitation this year is extraordinary. But with convenient public transportation and numerous indoor activities, Paris keeps me busy.

Night Readers

I took in a reading by Nathan Englander at Shakespeare and Company. The book was a new novel: Dinner at the Center of the Earth, a tour de force of literary talent with multiple points of view, time frames, and locations, all skillfully woven together into a spy story and a meditation on peace in the Middle East. Or its absence. Englander’s prose is crystalline, his speech, a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that can accommodate four ideas in one sentence. If he wrote as fast he talked, there’d be a new novel every week.

Christopher Dickey addresses Democrats Abroad

Went to a meeting of Democrats Abroad the other night. It was, as expected, an hour of recounting the horrors of the past year, followed by an optimistic preview of Democratic prospects for the mid-term elections. The most striking, and perhaps discouraging aspect of the evening was the amount of gray hair in the audience. I might be wrong, but I think it possible that I was not the oldest person in the room. I doubt that’s a reflection of the Democratic Party in general, most likely just a function of how many old liberals have been able to retire to Paris.

Paris Creative Writers

Now for something I never thought I’d do: I’ve joined a writing group. I’ve avoided them in the past, thinking they were another form of group therapy, something I’ve also managed to avoid, but the need for feedback on a new book that’s been a struggle so far, and the desire to make new friends finally overcame my prejudice. This is a good thing. I like the members, there are about seven or eight regulars: from Australia, England, the US, all unpublished but skillful writers. Their criticisms are never cruel and sometimes helpful, it’s interesting to read pieces of other work in progress, and it pushes me to work harder to bring something new each week. This is causing some changes in my process. On previous books, I blazed through a first draft to the end of the story, then went through multiple revisions. Looking back, I think I never went far enough, needed more multiples of those revisions. The writing group is forcing me to revise and polish as I go along because first drafts are simply too rough for anyone to read. Now I’m revising each chapter down to the sentence level multiple times before presenting to the group. There are still flaws—must give my colleagues something to criticize—but I think working this way allows me to be more self-critical and helps me get closer to the precise prose I’m seeking. And I just read an article in which Zadie Smith talks about a similar approach so I’m thinking fame and major awards can’t be far behind.

©2108 Ron Scherl