My Students Will See Horror

France is home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel, with approximately 4-6 million Muslims and a rapidly dwindling 5-600,000 Jews. This spring I am teaching a course called “Jews and Muslims in France” (a light topic…) at a small private college in New England.

As I am preparing the course schedule – what books to read and films to see and in what order – I worry about keeping a balanced syllabus. I hesitate; perhaps it’s not necessary to show the film about the grisly gang kidnapping and murder of 23 year old Jewish Parisian Ilan Halimi in 2006? One NY Times film critic called it full of melodrama. That means things like “sensational,” “exaggerated,” and “appealing to emotions.” Who wants to use that as a teaching tool? Teachers are supposed to be objective and cool-headed.

For a moment after I read the review, I thought, maybe this film is just too much and not really relevant. Too “Jewish,” too victimizing, and too focused on the gang of a sick, twisted and motley crew from the Paris projects known as the Barbarians who committed the heinous crime.

It matters to me that students will read and watch varied stories about how immigration to France by North Africa’s Jews and Muslims since the 1960s has not been a walk in the park for either group. How, sometimes, they have co-existed quite well in various neighborhoods within schools, shops, restaurants and cafes, and other times, it has been tense, complicated and as we know too well, violent. This waxing and waning has been deeply affected by a complex set of catalysts: among them the baggage from the colonial era and of the arduous process of decolonization; by social inequality in France, and of course by events in the Middle East as they radiate out into the world and are adopted as personal battles by disenfranchised Muslim youth as well as by French Jews in their support of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Preparing to preview the French film 24 Days based on the tragic Halimi affair, I again thought about the voice of the reviewer and how it annoyed me with negative comments about “screaming women and worried looking men” and her questioning about why we don’t learn more about Ilan’s father’s estrangement from the family, as if this is critical information in understanding the profundity of the human drama portrayed: loosing a child. And then there’s this: “Even Ilan’s mother (Zabou Breitman), whose viewpoint we are sharing and who directly addresses the camera, emerges as little more than a tireless advocate for exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Imagine that. Little more, melodrama and screaming women.

Everything that happened to Ilan Halimi happened to him because he was Jewish. He was targeted as a Jew, not as a Frenchman, nor as white, or European. A Jew. Thank goodness for Ruth Halimi’s courage and fortitude to have written the book and taken on the burden of “exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Had the French Police and justice system not delayed and resisted recognizing this evident fact, perhaps Illan might have still been alive.

But then I watched the film, and I made up my mind. Every time a woman screamed (Ilan’s mother, sister or girlfriend) I screamed with them. It felt as though my guts thickened my throat. Yes, indeed the film was a dramatization of a real life event, but if the character who played Ilan’s mother had stood in the Paris streets and screamed her guts out while pulling her hair out and clawing at her face, or been lying in bed in the fetal position whimpering while drugged up on valium, I would think it a more accurate depiction of how a mother could and should have the right to react in a situation like this.

Melodrama is defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”

Can you imagine exaggerating when portraying a mother who knows her son is being tortured for 24 days and then finds out he is killed. Eventually exhuming his body from the Parisian cemetery to bury him in Israel in order for him to rest peacefully, preventing the criminals from spitting on his grave when they are released from jail. Alive and free to be with their families, with their mothers. I can’t imagine how to exaggerate portraying this experience.

Although the Barbarians were a motley crew from diverse backgrounds, the leader, Youssouf Fofana, was a Muslim from the Ivory Coast, who made the more than 600 terrorizing phone calls to the Halimi family during the ordeal, and played Quranic verses into the phone. This is also part of a reality.

So, my students will see the horror of a most despicable anti-Semitic crime. But they will also read stories and see films depicting Jews and Muslims coexisting, co-operating, helping each other and even romantically involved. These are all scenarios part of the complex reality between Jews and Muslims in France since the 1960s, and as an educator I hope to open minds and encourage discussions on this timely and often difficult topic.

Jewish_and_Muslim Mourners

 

 

 

Rejections: It’s All About Perspective

I recently received a rejection letter from the established Down East, The Magazine of Maine. I wasn’t too shocked; I know they have a pretty particular eye for what fits their image. It might be possible that an essay with too much Jewish content made them a tad uncomfortable, at least on behalf of their imagined readership. The essay ­–  Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake – tells a story of my chance encounter off the beaten path in Maine with these happy campers.

I’m a big Maine fan and I also I have a strong Jewish identity that is reflected in much of my writing. Although there aren’t many Jews in Maine, relatively speaking, my idea was to give folks in general a little peek at how everybody can have a grand old time frolicking in Maine.

No matter how well we may understand rejections we are faced with, initially it is a pretty sucky feeling. With some luck, slowly and over time, a blessed concept called perspective seeps in to our consciousness. For me, this is akin to survival. That’s when things starts to feel all right again, despite how down I may have been initially. With some perspective gained, it becomes imaginable to see new possibilities and sometimes even more rewarding trajectories take shape, from different angles.

Let me explain how perspective matters:

Down East, you say? But I say Up North, every time I migrate to my second home in Mid-Cost Maine. “Up, up and away!” from the bustle of my life here, Down South in Connecticut, which is really Up Country to our cousins who live in Hell, um, I mean New York City. Which of course is pure Heaven when you have money, time and a suite booked at the Plaza.

Then there’s this: Did you know another name for North Africa is Maghreb, Arabic for “where the sun sets” also known as the West. What we in the “West” or North (Europe) call North Africa, Africans or people who live to the East of Africa, call “the Land where the sun sets; The West.”

Is it a wonder we sometimes don’t have the full perspective, or have to work a little at acquiring it?

Meanwhile, rejections become more manageable when they are occasionally interspersed with acceptances. Whether it was the uber-Jewish content of my short essay on the religious Jews jumping in the Maine lake that made the editors tell me that it wasn’t a good fit (“fun read, but not right for us at this time”) I can only guess, but the other day I got a letter from a publisher who wants to publish my book Out of North Africa, on Jewish women writers. These guys are all about Jewish writing and especially Jewish women’s writing that is not from the familiar West.

So right about now I’m feeling pretty excited about my particular perspective having found a home from which to be launched – Up, Up and Away!

***

Oh, and so here it is:

Forthcoming from Gaon Books, Spring 2106: Out of North Africa: Sephardic Women’s Voices 

“Séph-Arabe” – About Imagining an Alternate Bridge

Hamsa4Jews and Arabs. Right off the bat, you probably think about conflict, but it hasn’t always been that way. Did you know that less than 60 years ago, Islamic lands in North Africa and the Middle East was the home to almost 1 million Jews? Jews that for many generations shared the Arab majority culture with their neighbors. A Jewish baby would nurse from the same breast as an Arab baby.

Imagine Arab Jews. Jews that identify positively, even passionately, with this culture. Jews who refuse to see the two terms as mutually exclusive. For that would negate who they identify as.

Today there are 0 Jews left of Algeria’s 140,000 Jewish inhabitants before 1948. 1,100 left of Tunisia’s 105,000; 60 left of Iraq’s 135,000….3,200 left of Morocco’s 365,000 Jews. The last kosher butcher of Marrakech is an old man who just opens his store to have a place to sit during the day. He has almost no customers left.

Mind you some of these Jewish communities predated the Arab conquest in the 7th century C.E., as they had landed there after the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in years 586 B.C.E. (by the Babylonians) and 70 C.E. (by the Romans) respectively.

The modern Jewish exodus from Arab lands – since 1950’s – was not easy for the families involved. Nor was it easy for their Arab neighbors to be left with the vacuum that was created. Relationships were lost. Scars and traumas resulted. Problematic memories constructed.

Literature and art was created to express these experiences.

I write about this in my “Academic Stuff.”

For those of you with an interest in literature and Jewish cultures in general, and Jewish culture of the Arab world in particular, or if you would simply like to read an article that will doubtlessly give you something to think about, check out my “North Africa, France, and Israel: Sephardic Identities in the Work of Chochana Boukhobza” published here:

http://sephardichorizons.org/Volume3/Issue2/Identities.html

As I note in my article, Boukhobza has written many extraordinary novels in French, some prize-winning, and If you are a Francophone, you can order them from Amazon.fr. It’s pricy, but they do ship to the U.S, of course!

One of her books is published in English: The Third Day, available on Amazon.com.

You can read about it here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Third-Day-Chochana-Boukhobza/dp/0857050966/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399000562&sr=8-1&keywords=boukhobza+the+third+day

And one is translated to English, (by yours truly) and is looking for a publisher: For the Love of the Father (or Pour l’Amour du Père) which I discuss in my article linked above.

So call your publisher friend today, who owes you a favor, and spread the word!

Yalla! (= “Let’s go!” in Arabic)