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The Brownsteins in the Land of Israel 

Chapter 23: 

France: Reality Strikes

August 4, 2005


This summer I was attacked on a Paris subway car -- verbally, religiously and, yes, physically.

My life is a study of contrasts and ironies.  I suppose everyone feels that way about himself, but I can speak only for my own heretofore-fortuitous life.  I am moderately dyslexic, yet I created the largest transcription company of its kind; I am a small-town kid who thrived in the big world of Los Angeles; and I became increasingly religious and observant while meeting the needs of the notoriously immoral entertainment industry.  But the greatest irony in my life is that I married a French woman.

I was raised in Portland by classic liberal parents who went out of their way to fight bigotry and hatred.  Yet I can remember more than one occasion when my father -- the paragon of an ACLU (ADL) Jew, with all the accoutrements -- said without reservation that the French were, to be polite, at the bottom of his list of civilized people.  My father, who never dwelled on the Holocaust and had no relatives who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, held an unceasing grudge against our "allies" the French for their vile actions against the Jews during that terrible time.  He also voiced his opinion, which is not exclusively his, that the French are rude to the point of being nasty.  But I believe the latter sentiment was only a by-product of his contempt for French behavior during the War.

These almost genetically transmitted thoughts simmered within me all my life, but came to a head the moment I met my wife-to-be, 14 years ago at a bris in Bel Air.  Obviously, Sara (Patricia at the time) was not one of "those" French.  She was Jewish and her family had emigrated from Tunisia just a few years before she was born.  Her family were, and are, no more French than I am an Angeleno.  But with my years of indoctrination against the French, having never divested myself of a scintilla of the disgust that my father imbued in me, those negative feelings survived even the Bel Air Bris.

During my first visit to Europe -- just after we became  engaged -- I spent a few days in Paris getting to know my new family-to-be.  I made a point of not patronizing the famous Parisian museums, monuments, and cafés.  Instead, Sara and I almost immediately set out by train to visit Dachau and Terezienstadt.  From this example of my strong-headedness  my wife speaks in equally loathing and admiring terms of my contempt for everything French (except the kosher wine).  She acknowledges in her heart the historic French national anti-Semitism and cowardice (as I am keenly aware of American jingoism, being an intermittent practitioner), but it is still difficult to distance oneself emotionally from one’s birth country, whether it be Russia, Ethiopia, or…France. 

Like many Americans, I believed that French Jewry had all but disappeared in the Holocaust.  Within seconds of (patronizingly, probably) expressing my admiration to my future in-laws for having courageously re-populated France with Jews, I was made aware in no uncertain terms that Paris is not just another big European city with a handful of Jews; to the contrary, Paris is a bustling Jewish center with a hundred kosher restaurants, Jews in every quarter, and 27 Jewish day schools. Today France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after America and Israel.  And Paris, with its 350,000 Jews (some say half a million), is the fourth-largest Jewish city in the world, after New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.  I also learned that 90% of French Jews immigrated since the mid-1950s from North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) because they had been given automatic French citizenship by Napoleon in the 1800s in his attempt to divide the local populations.  Finally, I learned that most of those 90% were, in one way or another, related to my future wife's family and would all be invited to the wedding eight months hence.  I have visited France more times than I have gone home to Portland.  And never in all my visits have I ever confused the French Jews with the French -- and never have I felt comfortable there.

As with everything else that has to do with the French, their Jews are an enigma.  It's too easy, like making stupid beret or baguette jokes, to point out that French Jews are more French than they are Jewish.  I was about to entitle this piece "The Next Maranos".  But it became apparent that nothing I could say about any perceived French Jewish cowardice would survive inspection, especially when compared to the usual benchmark of American Jewry.  Yes, it's true that when I walk into a French electronics store that has a mezuzah on the door, I am more likely to be shunned for endangering than patronizing the establishment.  And yes, it's true that the only people who appreciated my yarmulke in France were the Chabbadniks whom we bumped into at a French amusement park and who thanked me for openly wearing it.

You might think, after everything I have written, that these are just stupid sheep being led to slaughter.  But the fact is that not only on a per capita basis but also on a real basis, many more French Jews make aliyah than do American Jews.  While only about 2,500 of America’s 6 million Jews will make aliyah this year, 3,300 of France's 600,000 Jews in 2005 will commit themselves to live in the Jewish homeland.  But the story does not end there.  While only about 15% of American Jews consider themselves to be "Orthodox", nearly 50% the French Jews consider themselves "Orthodox".  So who are the Maranos? 

As but one last example of the French Jewish riddle, Paris contains many more Jewish neighborhoods than does Los Angeles, for example.  (See arrows on left map.)  My in-laws, however, reside in a non-Jewish area called "The Bastille".  Nonetheless, within easy walking distance in their not-necessarily-Jewish neighborhood one can pick up provisions from many strictly kosher bakeries, butchers, and markets -- including one a half a block from my in-laws’ apartment. (See arrows on right map that indicate the kosher businesses I casually identified and can remember.)  Kosher restaurants, too, abound.  Yet, sticking with the theme, although each of these businesses is clearly identified as "cacher" (kosher), each with a mezuzah and a large certificate from the Paris Rabbinate, it is virtually impossible to find an employee, owner, or patron wearing a yarmulke.  By contrast, if I were to walk into a fancy kosher restaurant in Los Angeles and not see a yarmulke on the owner's head, I would be stunned.  On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the basic fact that the number of explicitly kosher businesses in this non-Jewish neighborhood of Paris rivals the density of explicitly kosher shops in Pico-Robertson.  Maranos these are not.

Finally, even the French Jewish reaction to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2004 call for immediate French aliyah was bizarre.  Sharon had declared, rightly, "If I have to advise our brothers in France, I’ll tell them one thing — move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately."  How anyone could be surprised by an Israeli Prime Minister urging aliyah is akin to being flabbergasted when Wisconsin markets cheese.  Nonetheless, one could expect the immediate overreaction of French President Jacques Chirac when he wrote, " Further, Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the National Assembly, said "These words are inadmissible, unacceptable and, furthermore, irresponsible."  Yet, as ridiculous and misplaced as were the comments of the heads of France who supposedly have a grasp of Israel's basic history and needs, the reaction was just as swift and harsh from the leaders of the French Jewish community, typified by Theo Klein, honorary president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, when he said with quite a bit of disdain, "He [Sharon] doesn’t have the right to decide for us."

Fast-forward to July 2005, when my wife and I (and our children, Batya, who is nine, and Yehuda, six) prepared to visit my in-laws for their 50th anniversary.  For many months my wife had been admonishing me not to even dare think that I would appear in public without a baseball cap covering (hiding) my yarmulke.  Fearing my wife more than any unknown assailant, and having been repeatedly lectured by her about not endangering our children, I alternated between ignoring her directive and reluctantly agreeing.  I was also repeatedly told by our friends-in-the-know that even the Chief Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, had decreed that French Jews are not to appear in public without a cap, saying: "I do not want young people traveling alone on trains or the Metro to become easy targets for attackers."  For those apologists who insist that France is just another modern country, Rabbi Sitruk's admonition should instill a final dose of reality about the state of France.

On our first full day in Paris, on the way to a bus that would take us to meet a sister-in-law in front of the Louvre, Sara pulled a Blazer’s cap from her backpack and commanded me to don it, having already put a cap on Yehuda.  I put it on with the enthusiasm of a condemned man instructed to swallow cyanide.  But then, about 10 minutes into our ride, blending in as merely the second most reviled object of French scorn -- the ugly American -- I saw three handsome young Jewish men walking down the sidewalk in white shirts, black pants, and velvet yarmulkes.  I turned to my wife, handed her the cap, and told her that if those boys had the courage to walk like proud Jews with their heads held high in a city that once provided gratuitous accommodations to Adolf Hitler (y’mach sh’mo), who was I -- an American and an Israeli -- to cower under the pressure of 5 million Arabs? Knowing me better than I know myself, Sara bit her tongue and slowly shoved the cap into her backpack.

The trip was pleasant enough. The splendor of the "city of lights" stood out during a daytime tour of Paris up and down the Seine.  Everybody on the boat, including myself, was awestruck by the sheer beauty of Paris.  The day was 80° and, unexpectedly, dozens of French Air Force jets paraded overhead in a rehearsal for the upcoming Bastille Day.  I was jingoistically amused that one of the featured aircraft was an American-made AWACS E-3 (Airborne Warning and Control System), a big radar depot made by Boeing (not AirBus).  Despite the excitement of the air show and the glory of the French riverfront, I may have been the only person on the boat considering the reason Paris was so beautiful.  How was it possible that I could be floating down the river under a dozen bridges that are more than 150 years old?  How was it possible that virtually every building, each breathtaking façade predates 1940 -- from the Louvre to Notre Dame to a thousand fragile riverside apartment buildings -- survived?  Perhaps the only one asking the question, I was keenly aware of the obvious answer.  Let’s just say, without being too mean-spirited, that the French seem to have a penchant for acquiescing to the wishes of those who do not necessarily have the best interests of my people at heart, whether it's October 15, 1894, June 14, 1940, or October 29, 2004.  Let’s just say, for example, that in Hungary not a single bridge remained over the Danube (including in Budapest) in 1945 and that every last one of them was destroyed by the Nazis during their retreat.  But Paris, somehow you cut a deal with the devil that left you unscarred.  

Two days into the trip we found ourselves in a subway under the heart of Paris on our way to the Champs Elysées, the same welcoming boulevard that accepted thousands of victorious goose-stepping Nazis after they strolled unmolested into France in June 1940.  Same street, same country. On the many occasions that I have met friends and family at the Häagen-Dazs on that central thoroughfare, I have never shaken the picture of the Führer standing atop the Arc de Triomphe that crowns this overblown traffic hazard, this overbearing tourist trap, waving at the gleeful Parisians.  We -- Sara, children and my mother-in-law -- were on our way to see the movie "Madagascar" on the Champs, a stone's throw from with the Arc.

We had traveled about four stops from my in-laws’ Metro station, with six to go.  Batya and I sat on the side closest to the door with our backs against it, one set of seats from the door.  Yehuda and Sara were on the other side of the aisle, and my mother-in-law was across from and facing them.  I was, of course, wearing my yarmulke, sans cap.  

A non-Arab, thirtyish Frenchman entered the train.  He had bushy hair down past his shoulders and glasses so thick that he could have been declared sight-impaired.  I would not have noticed him, being engrossed in a conversation about math with Batya, had he not started yelling the moment he boarded. I glanced up quickly, understanding virtually nothing he was saying, and tried to distract Batya with the question of how many seconds there are between subway stops if the subway stops at four stations every five minutes.  For a few stops the man continued to yell and I paid no attention to him.  Batya, bless her heart, was caught up in contemplating the answer to the subway question. 

Eventually the screamer noticed that we were speaking English.  For the next minute or so everyone endured a barrage of "F"-bombs and "S"-bombs that would have made Eddie Murphy cringe.  I remember that the voice got louder.  I heard something to the effect of, "Do not ignore me," and then I was struck from behind on the side of my head, apparently a downward swipe.  I immediately jumped up and spun around.  Moving forward toward the man, with at least 5 feet and a half-dozen passengers between us, I leaned in and inquired in a booming voice, which even frightened my children, whether he really wanted a piece of me.  Just as one might imagine putting his hand through a board before splitting it, I had no problem in that split second visualizing that man's face as a bloody mess on the floor of the subway, his glasses shattered, his mouth silenced.  I convinced myself in that moment that this would not have been much of a contest and that this was the right thing to do.  The rubber was going to hit the road and I was more than prepared to test my raging theory.

My wife and mother-in-law, however, had quite the opposite opinion of what was going to happen.  Sara quickly imposed herself in front of me and got into some sort of terse dialogue with the man (who never understood that she was my wife).  All he wanted to know was why she would come to the defense of a Jew and an American.  At the same time, even more impressively, my seventysomething mother-in-law, who has had her share of health issues over the years, secured both her hands around my bulging right bicep and yanked me off the train -- a good 2 yards -- with the strength of a stallion.  Before I could inquire for the third time, "Do you really want to mess with me?" I found myself off the train with Batya; mother-in-law, son, and wife remained on the ride from hell.

As the train pulled away, I glared at my attacker, who was just as interested in leering back at me, his face practically pressed against the glass of the door.  Then, as in some too-fake-to-be-believed movie, this dude grinned as he brandished in front of his face an object that was about 2 inches high, for me to think about.  I don't know if it was a knife or a cross, but I do know that it's entirely possible that my Kung Fu theory was faulty and my mother-in-law had just saved my life. 

Batya and I caught our breath and sat down to wait for the next train.  She was not sure what had transpired, but she was very afraid for me.  After I comforted her, two French high school boys approached us.  They had been on the train with us and had disembarked with us.  After huddling for a few moments, one of them in broken English shyly apologized for the incident.  Speaking for his friend and himself (and all of France, he believed), the boy tried to assure me the attacker was not representative of all Frenchmen.  Seeing that they were more embarrassed and shaken than I was, it did not seem the time to challenge his “not representative” assertion by citing the general French population’s enthusiastic participation in such hijinks as the Dreyfus Affair, French Nazi collaboration, and the current French politicians' drive to appease their Arabs with unceasing pro-Palestinian claptrap and policies.  Instead, I graciously nodded and told them I appreciated their sentiments. 

A minute later we were on the next train.  I assured Batya that the other three family members would be waiting for us at the next stop, and not to worry her little head over it.  Sure enough, with great relief, all our eyes met as the train pulled up to the next platform.  We satisfied ourselves that we were okay, and I related to my wife the conciliatory comments of the young men who were nearby.  She thanked them.  I asked her why they did not get off the train when I did, but she said it was too crowded from her side of the train.  (I also think that she wanted to give him a piece of he mind, which I learned later, she did, and then some.)  I was then debriefed about the man's diatribe.  My wife later informed me that from the moment the man got on the train he was screaming directly at me about Ariel Sharon and Israeli policies.  For five minutes we were all treated to a classic French barrage of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and eventually anti-American drivel.  Batya, added that attacker was yelling, "Kill you, kill you, kill you" as we got off.  I must have missed that.

Before reaching our stop, a station so ironically named that you would think I had concocted it for this chronicle -- the "Franklin D. Roosevelt" station -- my wife jammed the cap in my face and commanded me to wear it.  I informed her as gently as possible that the last thing I was going to do as an Israeli and American, after being attacked as a Jew and American in that anti-Semitic cesspool called France in 2005, 60 years after the Holocaust, was hide my yarmulke.  She knew better than to fight; she knew whom she had married.

We all spent the rest of the day (even while watching "Madagascar" with horrific French overdubs) replaying the attack.

My wife's family’s basic reaction was that I was a fool for going out without a disguising cap.  The only exception was one of my father-in-law's sisters, who, when she saw me again refuse to put on a cap, praised me for my "convictions."

The dearest people in my life, after my wife and children and siblings, are my in-laws.  I have come to know them well, spending about three months a year (over the past 10 years) with them as guests in our home.  They are generous and loving and caring and supportive.  No success has occurred in my life since I met them that they have not encouraged; I have had no moral or financial difficulty of which they been aware and not been pained about and tried to solve.  One small example of their devotion to me is that when I fly alone to America they wait by their phone for my wife’s call informing them that I have arrived safely.  Yet I watch these people, who saw their Tunisian city and homes blown to bits during World War II, and who uprooted their family to start over in France, emotionally torn apart by the notion of emigrating.  They know it is the right thing to do, as exemplified by their oldest granddaughter, Carole, who was officially making aliyah the very week that we returned home from this summer’s trip.  But they toil with the quandary of what to do with five other grandchildren and a host of their own siblings who depend upon them in France.  Their shame over what happened to me in the subway was far more painful than anything I felt, yet they feel they cannot leave.

Each of our lives is a study of contrasts and ironies.  We can only pray for a return to Zion.  Ideally, our return will not be on the back of terror or persecution.  But my prime minister was correct, and hopefully -- whether in America or France -- those who need a kick in the rear to come home will not have to be pushed over the edge by a blow to the head.


Anyway, thanks for reading this far.


I appreciate and look forward to your comments and greetings.


As you know, we are in the middle of a membership drive, so please get me the e-mail addresses of people whom you want to add.  (Let them know ahead of time, so I don't get in trouble with the spam police).


Please stay tuned for Chapter 24: “Disengagement.”


All the best,


Rich Brownstein

PO Box 8130

91081 Jerusalem


Phone: (310) 597-4230 (Free From America)

Phone: 011-972-2-6733-491




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