Copyright 2004 by Tracy Koret
When I set out to learn "la langue française," I had to face some painful truths about "le monde."
On that first day of June in 1990, we had no words. We made silent choices of chairs; the dark curly-haired man headed straight for the window, the tiny Asian woman preferred the seat closest to the door. I wanted the center. And, because I was the first to arrive, I could have it. I'd come early to take a placement exam which I’d left almost entirely blank. What I did answer was generally incorrect. In fact, the only phrase which I could say well was, “Bon jour, parlez-vous anglais?” This was more fluent than most. We were the beginners.
We followed the models our lovely and laughing professeur, Andrianne, wrote across the board. “I am called (a name). I am (a nationality).” Pedro was Mexican, Valentine, Brazilian, Ole, Norwegian, Tee-Jah, Korean, Sharon, British. Besides myself there were two other Americans, women in their fifties, both named Susan, one with a Georgian accent that made her croon bon joooor like Bing Crosby. At my table, conversing in a steady but quiet current of what I thought to be Hebrew, were Yoav, the Israeli, and Jueda, the Syrian. All eyes fixed upon the chalked introductions; all mouths recited mindlessly, ignorant but hungry.
Allegiances formed. The Susans talked to me at break. Did I know where they could get a box of Wheaties? Smokers were banished to the landing huddling beside the only ashtray the teachers hadn’t grabbed for their office. I gathered with the other people under thirty in the courtyard, shyly smiling and shrugging as we failed to communicate. We were marked and organized by our own few words. Even in class it was this way. Tee-Jah could not whisper a word without coaching and cautions. From Valentine they flooded, grammatically nonsensical but obviously earnest, his farcical body language making him barely intelligible. I began to laugh watching him and he was hurt. Andrianne helped me apologize.
Pardon-moi: the first words I formed of my own volition.
We progressed. We could say what we do. We were students and teachers, ministers and artists, businessmen and diplomats. The Susans described themselves as wives. Our limitations frustrated us; how could we really explain? Yoav, for example, could not even pronounce the word for his profession: eclairarist. He did lighting for the Israeli cinema – read: chronically unemployed. Mostly, he cared for his infant daughter.
Jueda was a professor of Arab.
"But what do you teach?" Andrianne coaxed twice in French.
"Oh. Okay. Well, next."
Yoav had a habit of standing too close, breathing his ever-present breaktime cigarette in my face.
"Why you come here?"
I explained again, as I had finally learned to do in class some days later, slowly, in French.
"Talk English already," he said, disgusted, "What? English not good enough for you?"
So I explained a third time, slowly, in English. Passing an exam in French translation was the only obstacle between me and a masters degree in Art History. After two years of miserable underachievement in university French, landing in this spoon-fed class only proved that I had made a wise use of a student loan. Immersion language is the fast track; everybody said so.
Yoav listened intently, squinting at me over his smoke, Bogart-style. "You know what I do if I go to America?" he asked. Then, without waiting for my answer, he said, "I never go. If I go to America," he said, patting his chest above his heart, “I get off airplane. I kiss the ground."
I know the stories. Every American Jew knows the stories. My ancestors, once, when the world was a still black and white photo, emerged from the dim steerage of huge gray ships with tired and torn bundles slung across their shoulders, and shielded their eyes from the blinding brightness that was America. And before they stood in the long lines, before they had their teeth scrutinized and their scalps checked, before their names were changed to simple, clean, unthroaty American consonants, they knelt. They knelt and kissed the ground of freedom.
Though most of the class still sat in the same place they chose that first morning, the Susans had moved, taking the same table, chairs angled slightly towards each other. Jueda and Yoav moved also, directly opposed across the U where they could watch one another.
We wore the same things again and again. Only the Susans showed any sign of having sampled la mode de Paris. They asked Andrianne about the best places to shop. I never saw Jueda in anything other than her shin-length black satin overcoat, coffee hose, sensible shoes with laces, and the blue-gray scarf which covered her hair. The rest of us reacted to the record-breaking heat. Yoav said he felt at home, that he preferred sandals anyway. Sitting in the center between them, I was unabashedly American – Reeboks, baggy shorts, and a T-shirt celebrating the fledgling friendship between the US and the USSR.
There was a unit on regional cuisine. In French cultural studies this precedes Moliere, Flaubert and the Revolution. We studied the small photos featuring cookbook presentations of daring specialties and were asked to make sentences saying what we would like for lunch.
Andrianne asked Yoav if he liked escargot.
"I cannot know," he tried to say. "I am kosher."
Andrianne didn't understand so they both looked to me. My hard work had been paying off and I had become the unofficial class translator. Yoav began to tell me what being kosher means but I put up my hand to silence him. I explained. Later he asked how I knew.
"C'est evident, n'est pas?" I responded.
"You?" he asked, then several more times, "You? You?"
Yoav moved to sit next to me. At first I was pleased, after six weeks in this country, including faithful attendance at a French-English conversation group on Wednesday evenings, I was delighted by the first really friendly gesture anyone had shown me. But he talked all the time, making me crazy with his questions and babble. He could not take his eyes off Jueda. Everything she said, he commented on. He loved when she was wrong. Every time she moved, I had to know about it.
"Look how she shout out answers," he protested. "She must always have first the answers."
"We all yell out the answers, Yoav,” I said. “Though you're right; it is annoying. Why don't we stop?"
He shook his head and tapped his pencil on my open page. "You miss point. She does not shout answers always. She only does this when it is my chance to be right."
I was skeptical and must have looked it.
"You have heard the word gleibschtack?" he asked.
"Yes, yes, it mean the bag for the back with everything for battle. Every morning the Arab soldiers do their exercises and they say, 'Captain, do we do exercises today with gleibschtack?' and the captain always say 'Yes.' They must always be ready for the battle. This is Jueda. She is ready."
Jueda stopped me in the hall at break, too shy and embarrassed to meet my eyes. In French she said, "I do not know 'La Louvre'."
My American enthusiasm frothed. Only the biggest, the best, the most famous, I spilled. She nodded, unimpressed. As she thanked me politely I became suddenly very sad that this woman would never see the great repository of Western devil genius, never even visit the treasures of her own country torn away in pillages.
I looked back at her gentle smile. I could see that she thought I was the one who should be pitied.
Yoav overheard and laughed. "See how ignorant?” he said. “She knows nothing."
"Yoav she is a young woman, and a professor." I think there can be no argument. After all, I look forward to being one myself in time. If I have learned anything as a Jew, it is that there is no nobler endeavor
"A professor of Arab," said Yoav, pointing at me, "is nothing. You must only to repeat back."
The room was too warm and Andrianne knew it. She gave us a game. We broke into pairs and composed personal ads to exercise our adjectives. Yoav and I pretended to be a tiny Italian man searching for an obese Japanese woman who cooks good Swedish food, wanted for love and perhaps a future restaurant. We finished early.
"This is a good announcement for American," Yoav said, leaning onto the back legs of his chair, hands behind his head.
"Why," I asked, drawing my breath slowly, preparing for yet another of his vague generalizations.
"Because in America you have all these differents peoples."
Okay, I thought. That seemed fair. I nodded.
"Not like Jueda," he said, "She don't even like other peoples to answer right the questions."
I knew we'd be getting to that soon enough. "Look," I said, exasperated, "If you don't want her to yell out the answers, tell her not to. She speaks Hebrew perfectly well."
"I will not tell her. She is my enemy."
I rolled my eyes.
"You tell her," he said.
"What am I? The United Nations?"
"You don't understand,” he said. “She is not just my enemy. She is not just enemy of Jew. She is Jihad. She is enemy of world."
I have to admit, a chill ran through me at that word. I too have been taught to fear it. I looked across the room at the enemy of the world and was startled by the mild blue eyes returning my gaze. She smiled.
Since the word was not in the American Heritage Dictionary that I had brought from home, I took the metro to W.B. Smith's, the English-language bookstore, and combed the reference section. At last I found it. Jihad: a holy war against infidels; a crusade. Now, how could a person be a holy war against infidels?
Okay, so if I was an ambassador, I'd be an ambassador. I sat next to Jueda. We both knew enough French now to have a pleasant little conversation. Her voice was small and girlish and I liked it. She wanted me to know that beneath her scarf her hair was the same color and length as mine. Then we talked about husbands and children. She wondered why I was not married at my already advanced age. I told her that we tended to wait a little longer in the U.S. She nodded, as if reminded of something she already knew. She reached for her dictionary. "Oui, égoïste."
I was stunned. Well, maybe she was saying something else. I reached for my dictionary and searched: égoïste - a selfish person.
"You are wrong," I told her in French. She returned my gaze with a smile as patient as that of a mother whose child tells charming and fanciful lies. Oh, what difference could it make? I sighed. In French I said, "That word is pronounced with long 'E's."
At break, a furious Yoav pulled me back into the classroom. He was so upset I had to lie and tell him I joined Jueda so I could prevent her from yelling out the answers.
"You say you are Jew," he said, bending to bring his face close to mine.
"That's what I say."
"You say, 'Yes teacher, I like escargot." He did this in falsetto, batting his eyes.
I saw the point but pretended I didn't. "Um hmm."
"Why do you not be kosher?"
"I don't think it's necessary anymore. I –"
"What you mean? You don't eat?"
"Pork was dangerous then, Yoav,” I said. “People didn't cook it properly and they died. Milk was not pasteurized. These were health laws. A religion creates laws to keep its followers healthy..."
"A religion! A religion! God make laws. God! And you must follow or you are not Jew."
"Now wait just –"
"Meat. Meat is blood. You see? Life. You must cook the meat until there is no blood. You see these French people? They eat the meat, all this blood everywhere. This is not good. They eat life."
"Well fine –"
"No. This not 'fine.' This –"
"Are you going to let me complete a sentence or not?"
He stepped away from me, hands folded over his chest, eyes intent as an eagle ready to swoop.
"As I understand it,” I said, “the main law is about mixing meat and milk. And that – and you can't tell me differently –" I shook my pointed finger at him, didactic and silly, "was because of different kinds of bacteria. But even if you do want to get symbolic about the whole thing, can you say that milk isn't life? Why isn't milk as much 'life' as blood?"
"Milk not life."
"And what has any of that got to do with shellfish?"
"You understand nothing."
My mother is defiant. For one thing, she went to college. This despite the tears of her immigrant mother who feared a lonely old age and a path of wickedness would befall her daughter. My mother loves to tell me this, to tell me how far she has come and hint at how far I may go. My mother loves to put cheese on a juicy pink burger. Her favorite dish is beef stroganoff. In my family's house, we still show proudly the heavy brass Sabbath candlesticks. They are pillars atop the mantelpiece, shrouded in dust.
Jueda was flushed with sweat in her black satin overcoat, her hands tightly clasped before her on the table. Yoav was increasing his territory, notebooks and dictionaries spreading all around him. The Susans table was empty. They would not be back. I sat twirling the hem of the skirt that I have traveled enough to know looks like it could have come from anywhere, when Sharon, the British woman, said she could use a bit of coaching and asked me to sit next to her. At last I had a place in the classroom.
The morning went well. But after break, Jueda picked up her possessions, and for the second time in the two months we'd been in this class together, changed her seat, this time to be next to me.
We did a unit on office language – a typewriter is a dactyl, payroll, a register du personnel.
Jueda asked me for a lot of help. I was happy to give it. Still, she threw up her hands and complained in French how difficult it all was.
I nodded sympathetically. In French I said, "You are not even accustomed to an Arabic alphabet."
She leaned toward me, pointing to my open page of vocabulary, words connected to pictures with lines. "These words must be the most easy for you," she said, nodding. "Your language is about money."
That afternoon, I nearly collided with boisterous, laughing children running down the center of the street, throwing a small red ball, chasing back and forth. It was an all together common scene, I supposed, and yet it astonished me. In fact, I realized, it was something I had never seen on a Parisian street. In the parks, sure, or the fenced lots of schools, but never until then on the open street. I felt as if I had left Paris and been transported. To where I don't know, but I liked this feeling, and the warm sun. I was glad it was early yet.
I touched my camera. Why did I bring it? For more than two months, I had not carried it with me on my afternoon explorations. I thought it would mark me as a tourist. I told myself again that I wanted these pictures for my mother.
Diagonally off the Rue Pavé, the oldest paved street in the city, is the Rue des Rosiers. For two and a half centuries, Jews, many even today wearing the traditional black hat, sideburns curling beside eyes averted from wigged or scarved women, have fled from persecution here, to the narrow tenements lining this old and still-cobbled street. I was almost afraid to make the turn onto it, afraid that I would not belong there, equally afraid that I would.
The first store to catch my eye was a cramped, chaotic nest of books and magazines – Yiddish or Hebrew; they looked the same to me. I stepped inside the dimly lit space and browsed. I was disappointed that, except for a few photographs, everything seemed to be essentially unillustrated, and of course, I didn’t understand a thing. Still, I picked up some of the books, sort of weighed them in my hand, mildly surprised that the pages felt new and fresh.
The proprietor, an enormous and obviously wigged lady, came towards me. As if awakened, I excused myself in French, telling her I was just looking. I had to repeat myself twice more for her French was poor.
Back on the street, I was drawn to another window crowded with beautifully worked metal objects. I recognized mizuzas, the small cases containing a bit of Torah that some Jews hang in their thresholds to bring blessings to all who pass through. Many peoples, I know, from Latins to Scandinavians, have similar customs, but with Jews, it is “the word” that is protected and protective. I recognized too the nine-cupped candelabras used at Hanukah and the tall brass Sabbath candleholders. But that is all I recognized. And there were so many more things in the windows, whole classes of objects for which there was surely a use, but not one that I'd ever know.
I continued on, window to dim and dirty window, the experience repeating itself at the dry goods store, even a place selling nothing but differently shaped candles. It was like a museum in a way, just like another afternoon spent wandering and wondering about things made for a people as far away as time and as forgotten.
My father often tells this story: When the Poles began to push rural Jews into special city ghettos circled by high, locked, walls where they frequently died of starvation and cholera, my great grandfather did not wait for his invitation. He sold everything he had and then begged his family for more so that he could book passage on an ocean-going ship and a train ticket to a place called Chicago. He promised his mother and father and sisters too that he would send for them when he had found his fortune in America.
Now the way my father likes to tell it, this young man, Ishmael Alecheim, was not even in America for two days before he found himself standing bewildered and hungry on a Chicago street corner, looking with greed at the window of the first bakery whose signs were in a language he recognized. But though he was hungry, he knew he was not hungrier than his own Mama in Poland. And so, his head light, stomach grumbling, he walked on.
The fat baker saw this and was moved. He left his store and stopped my great grandfather Ishmael Alecheim.
"You are a greener!" he said in English. My father pronounced this like "chrener", deep from the back of his throat, and always said it more than once for dramatic effect.
And still not understanding, but at least hoping he might be fed, Ishmael Alecheim followed the fat man, who indeed, filled his belly and let him sleep. When he awoke, more people came to see the chrener. They helped him find a room, a tailor to cut for. He married his second cousin and brought one sister over before the Nazis rose to power.
It is not French I heard flooding from the crowded cafés, nor the Yiddish I remembered my mother speaking to her parents, but whatever this language was, it was spoken while waving one’s arms. I was so tired. I chose a table in a corner and let myself sink into the chair, opening my eyes only when the waiter nudged me, offering a menu. I’d expected borsht, whitefish, kishke and tsimme. I half expected that I would be served with some of the objects from the metalwork shop's window instead of a fork. I was surprised. I could have falafel, tabouleh, or goat's milk cheese. There were hummas and grapeleaves and filo dough pies. Perhaps I’d chosen badly. Perhaps this restaurant was so popular for its difference.
I escaped into the light and continued on, this time taking more care with the posted menus. One after the next, they were all the same, all filled with men and the smell of a coffee more spicy than French roast. I came to a large place, glassed in and expensive seeming. Its name was Goldstein's. Surely here I thought, and though I doubted I could afford it, curiosity led me inside. Again the same menu, the same smells, no sign of the food my mother prepared the two times a year when she wanted us to eat like Jews, the food that made me feel my family had a history larger and more important than the life that I knew.
My stomach was empty. Surely that was why I was so disoriented. I returned to a place that seemed popular and cheap. Until the waiter handed me the menu, I did not notice the establishment's name: L'Algers. Of course, Algeria! Yes, I had read about an influx of Algerian Jews. But why here? Why now? What was it to be a Jew in Algeria?
The food was good; it was very good. I even ordered more cheered considerably by just being where I was. And by the time I'd finished, the sun was setting, the sky clouding and turning to gray. I knew I should go, should crowd into the metro before the rain came, but I liked it there, in that transported piece of Algeria, a wandering Jew in the New World.
Just one drink, I decided, just one to celebrate the wide world and I would be on my way. But what did they drink? I moved to the bar and leaned against it studying the bottles, by now smart enough to expect nothing. When there were no bottles of syrupy sherry, I was, frankly, relieved. What I did see was French, an almost definitively Parisian bar. I ordered my favorite – pastis – the drink that made the eyes of Degas' drifters bleary and soft. I watched as the barkeep poured; it was not a common brand. Then I noticed the six-pointed star, the familiar capital "K".
"It's kosher!" I said out loud, in English.
The barkeep looked up, surprised. "Bien sûr," he said.
I raised my glass to him, but said nothing. I drank a silent toast to a people – my people –who, forced to call new lands home, took from them, and gave to them, and finally, made it their own.
"You tell teacher you go to Orsay on Saturday." Yoav had waited outside the building in the rain to ambush me.
"Yep. It's half price," I said, opening my umbrella and beckoning him beneath it.
His breath was hot on my face. "Why you not go to synagogue?"
I shook my head. "That's not my thing, Yoav."
"God say you must keep Sabbath holy." He folded his arms over his chest, an expression coming across his face that I had come to know over the course of the summer. He was ready to pounce, waiting for me to cross some sort of line. But this was his game; it was not mine.
I had come to Paris to learn the language of diplomacy so that, eventually, I would be allowed to share with young people the beacons of civilization, that which comes from humanity's finest instincts and lasts beyond time and borders. I began to walk on, furious at him, furious at myself, but a storm was gathering, the summer was coming to an end, and somehow walking away was just not enough this time.
I turned and looked back at him, his curls stuck to his head, his hands balled into fists. "You must keep Sabbath holy," he hissed, the rain washing over him. Then, suddenly, he was yelling, waving his arms. "You are no Jew," he shouted. "No Jew."
I can't say what it was, my Paris adventure fleeting, the rain, his rage? Or maybe it was the fact that, though Jueda and Yoav could now speak two languages in common, they would never be able to communicate. Or the fact that there was nothing anyone, not presidents, nor prime ministers, nor rabbis, nor ayatollahs, could do about any of it. Or the fact that their intransigence – their beloved, cherished intransigence – would occlude any light my beacons of humanity might possibly throw, might be in fact, the end of us all. I can't say which it was, or if it was all of them at once, but I burst into sobs, inconsolable desperate sobs, not for myself, but for us all.
I had come to learn the language of diplomacy, but when I pulled myself together, it was an Englishman I quoted. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," I said.
Yoav reddened. “What this mean?” he demanded.
“Just something written by a gentile who probably didn’t keep the Sabbath, Yoav. It wouldn’t interest you.” And with that, I did walk away, this time for good. I never returned to my language class. Instead I spent my final days in Paris wandering the Louvre, reminding myself of why I had come and where I was going.
Tracy lives and writes in Berkeley, California .
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