LUST, REVISITED

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[By the time you read this, I shall have spent the afternoon just past in Manhattan, attending a cello concert in his other grandmother’s apartment by my now-eight-year-old grandson. (She has a piano for the accompanist; that’s why it takes place there.)  Those of you who’ve been hanging around TGOB for a while, say ten months or so, may recall I did the same thing last year, when he was seven. The concert last year was to commemorate his having finished the pieces in Book One of the Suzuki Method and being able to play them all by heart. Now he has mastered the pieces in Book Two.  Given the amount of money his loving parents have poured into this lengthy learning process, I anticipate at least better finger skills and perhaps more interesting “music.”  Anyway, what are grandmas for, if not to fill seats at Sunday afternoon musicales by their progeny?

Not being one who is able to tap out posts on an i-Phone while riding New Jersey Transit into Penn Station, I thought it might therefore not be inappropriate to keep the blog going tonight by re-running the piece that appeared here last March after his first concert, which was not really about the concert at all.  Nothing much has changed.  Same crappy weather; same black down coat; same handbag and water bottle; same glasses on a chain. (Different book and different scarf, but those are mere details.)  Most important: the same feelings. Now if only the rest of the ride home were unchanged!  Well, we can’t have everything, can we?] 

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LUST

Last Sunday, I went in to New York by train to attend a cello concert given by my seven-year old grandson for his parents, grandparents and a few young friends from school who are also studying an instrument. He had finished Book One of the Suzuki method of instruction, and part of the Suzuki method is the requirement that the student play all of the pieces in the book from memory for an informal gathering of family or friends.The concert was a happy event, carried off with aplomb by its sole performer (who loves applause) — with plenty of tasty refreshments afterwards.

The trip in and out of the city, however, was a less happy event, as it always is, something realtors invariably neglect to mention when you are looking to buy in Princeton. Except for the politicos among us, Princetonians generally try to forget that Princeton is in New Jersey. When someone asked me over the post-concert refreshments if I was from New Jersey, I instinctively answered, “Well, yes, but not really. I live in Princeton.” To which he replied, “Ah yes. That is a separate place.”

The train to New York City from Princeton is the New Jersey Transit Northeast Line. It should come as no surprise to anyone who rides it to hear me call it a third-world train. It is slow, with antiquated cars, and passes through some of the most run-down parts of a state generally acknowledged to be blighted (despite the proud claims of its portly and vindictive governor). When it finally arrives, it pulls into the belly of hideously overcrowded Penn Station, itself located beneath Madison Square Garden in an unpleasant, highly commercial part of the city packed with human bodies pushing every which way against you as you try to fight your way out of the exits.

That said, the Northeast Line does boast a few — very few — newer cars, designed to carry more passengers per car length by being double decker (with one station-level section at each end of each car), and colored blue (in contrast to the dingy turd-brown color of the older cars). So it was my good fortune that the 4:34 to Trenton last Sunday afternoon (passing Secaucus, Newark Airport, Newark Penn Station, Metropark, Linden, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton Junction on its way) was one of the so-called “new” ones. And it wasn’t even crowded.

In fact, by the time I had phoned Bill to alert him to when I’d be home, reviewed the photos and two videos of the concert on my i-Phone, taken a swig of water from the water bottle I carry in my purse on trips, nodded off for three or four stops, and then pulled myself back into consciousness to check where we were on the itinerary, I found I was due to get off at the next stop and there were just two other people left in the lower level of the car I was sitting in. One of them was across the aisle from me and in the row ahead, so I had only a partial view of his profile from the rear, but something about it attracted my attention.

Was it the line of his jaw? The muscle outlining the side of his mouth? The slightly olive complexion? The contrast between his bookish eyeglasses and the knit cap with a hole in the back that nearly covered his dark brown hair? Except for the knit cap, he strongly resembled — in one-third rear profile — my first serious boyfriend as he had been in 1948 and 1949. But he looked taller. And the hands were larger — more like my first husband’s, only with less pronounced knuckles. They were deftly manipulating photos on a smartphone over which he leaned — with what? Interest? Longing?

The leaning posture showed me the shape of his muscular shoulders, tapered back and narrow waist beneath a short jacket of some thinsulate material that clung. Safe from his view, I further examined with growing interest the lean strong thighs pressing against his narrow jeans. I even noted his footwear: tan laced-up ankle boots collared in dark brown leather. He was what? Twenty-eight? Thirty at most?

You could say I gobbled him up with my eyes. Then I was stripping him naked in my mind and sliding my hands against his skin. Yes, I was aware of who I was and what I looked like (had anyone been looking, but no one was): an eighty-two year old grandma in a black down full length coat, with a wavy grey wool scarf around her neck and glasses hanging on a chain over them, with a book by Louis Begley and a water bottle sticking out of her dark red leather handbag. But I was nevertheless flooded with what had rapidly transformed itself into unabashed and ravenous lust — for a man easily young enough to be my grandson (had I begun reproducing somewhat earlier than I did) and with whom I almost certainly had absolutely nothing in common. And yet, in some other fantasy world where he was blind (and therefore willing) — I might have dropped to my knees between his legs and reached for the zipper, right there on the New Jersey Transit between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. Not that I’ve ever actually done anything like that in my real life. But the older you get, the freer the thoughts.

Just then he leaped to his feet, snatched up his khaki backpack and moved fast to the stairs leading up to the station-level part of the car. This section had a few fold-up seats lining the sides, where passengers are supposed to park their heavy baggage, strollers, carriages and bikes. Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I too stood and followed him down the aisle and up the stairs, where I sat down again on one side. Against the other, he was re-assembling a large green racing bicycle, his back to me. When he was done, he turned to hold the bike steady just as the train pulled in to Princeton Junction, and then rolled it out towards the door. Full face, he looked somewhat different than I would have thought, but not unattractive. The eyes were dark, the nose was strong, the mouth….(Believe it or not, I’ve run out of affirmative adjectives.) As he passed me, the only other passenger in that part of the car, our eyes met. Just for a moment he saw me. But he didn’t see me. What he saw was of no interest to him, and I hadn’t thought it would be, nor would I have wanted it to be. (Whatever I am, I’m no fool.) I had no time to be embarrassed. He looked away, was out of the car, on his bike and into the cold drizzle, pedaling towards his real life, whatever it was, before I stepped onto the platform.

Young people don’t know this stuff about old people. They feel it all belongs to them, because their bodies are gorgeous (even if they think they aren’t), and their skin is taut, and they move so easily, so quickly, so gracefully. But it doesn’t belong just to them, and they’ll find out, if they live long enough. Some older women may claim I’m wrong, and good riddance, but that’s sour grapes, I think. (What do you suppose hormone replacement therapy is for?) And I bet there isn’t an older man alive who believes desire is only for the young.

I could have just written about the cello concert and kept all the rest of it to myself, but the cello concert was only one part of my Sunday. And if I had to choose between the two parts, I ‘m not sure which I’d pick. It doesn’t matter that the object of my desire will never know, or want to reciprocate. It may be sad that I’m old, but it’s great that I feel.

I’m still alive! And who wouldn’t choose that?

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, AT NATALIE’S REQUEST

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Originally posted on The Getting Old Blog:

This post was one of the three favorites — both with me and the teeny part of the blogosphere aware that I existed — from the blog with which I timorously entered the world of blogging.  (“Learning to Blog” it was called.)  Lucky you!  Another chance to look at it again (or not), thanks to a lovely lady named Natalie. She asked for a photo of my cat Sasha, about whom I’ve written.  I suggested she might want to go back to this post, which features photos of all the cats Bill and I have ever owned together.  “Oh please re-blog it!” she typed.

Normally, I might not, just because someone asked.  I often feel I re-blog too much as it is.  But in about three weeks, Natalie is going to have her knee replaced, and I bet she’s feeling a little scared. Think of a piece of you being removed for good, and maybe you can imagine what I’m talking…

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MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER: A REBLOG

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[Bill keeps saying he’d like a dog.  A small dog, that could relieve itself on a wee-wee pad and didn’t need much exercise.  One that’s no trouble at all for me. (Notice the “me.”  No mention at all of “him.”)  Maybe an elderly Havanese.  Bill’s never before had a dog — or a desire for a dog. Or any desire to walk a dog. This is something that’s come upon him recently when neither cat responds to his calls to cuddle. Duh. Unlike me, he knew about cats; he had them in both prior marriages.  I was the one who’d led a hitherto mostly cat-deprived life. 

A couple of weeks ago he even got into friendly telephone conversation with a not-too-far-away Havanese breeder who had a six-year-old nearing the end of its reproductive life and needing a good home.  I have assured Bill — and hopefully by extension the breeder — that ours is not that home. We already have litter boxes for the two cats in both bathrooms (one upstairs, one down), and there’s no more room in either for “wee-wee pads.”  Besides, who do you think would be the one running out to the store for these pads, finding a place to stash them until needed, and then disposing of them?  Also the vet predicts our otherwise peaceable cats would not be happy at the introduction of a canine interloper and might express their displeasure with, ah, toilet malfunctions.

It’s not that under other circumstances (such as no cats), I might not like a little dog. But not so very little as a Havanese, cute though it might be. The stationer in town has a darling black cocker spaniel named Sasha (like our cat) who’s sort of what I might have in mind if there were to be an “if.” But it’s not going to happen in this lifetime; I’m 83, Bill’s going to be 87 next week, and there’s a limit to how much menagerie our surviving children may be able to tolerate.

In lieu of a dog, I have therefore suggested to Bill that he revisit the TGOB post from November 2013 in which I reviewed my life as a dog lover.  It will pretty much give him the ups and downs of it. As we grow old, we must make do with literature and lesser forms of reading matter, such as blogs.]

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MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, now a nearly six year-old British Blue shorthair cat. She’s been with us since she was five months old. Although her breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold. So Sasha was a happy accident. As many happy things are.

She was even more of an accident because I’ve always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless. I was eleven. Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly. And he didn’t cost a cent!  My parents let me keep him.

Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies. But no one denied he was “my” dog. Wasn’t I the one who’d found him? Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come. My best friend took him. I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life. There were no more dogs in mine.

Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.) How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth. Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!

Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.

We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing. First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). No magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free. Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.

Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one. He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse. Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast; when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.

It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for. So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices. The trip was productive: we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.

“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home. The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them. With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”

Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher. “How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively. “Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”

And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.

I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us. Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father. I still feel guilty about her. We both wanted out. But she wanted only to be with our family. And then there was no more family to be with….

IN PRAISE OF “WHY”

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When I was small, my mother often called me “Miss Why.”   Mine were not the sort of repeated “Why?”s to which an exasperated mother could snap back, “Because I said so!”  I really wanted to understand why things were the way they were.

Why was it all right to go to the bathroom with other little girls, but not with little boys?  Why did I have to stop being a leftie in kindergarten and start using my right hand? (Even if it made me stammer.) Why didn’t I have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandpas and grandmas like everyone else? Why didn’t Daddy like it when the unmarried lady upstairs brought a Christmas tree down to our living-room and decorated it with a Star of Bethlehem at the top — just for me?

My poor mother had wanted a sweet little girl with Shirley Temple curls, not a pint-sized inquisitor.  As soon as I could read, my parents bought me the Book of Knowledge — a sixteen-volume encyclopedia for children popular in the 1930’s, with enough pictures and stories on every page to keep me quiet for a long while.

I did eventually learn to be quiet when necessary. (See next paragraph.) But I still need to understand why things are the way they are — with the people I know or have known, or loved and married, or raised and sent out into the world, or cannot forgive.  And then there’s the world itself — the smaller one I live in now, the larger one I used to work in, and the much larger one we all inhabit.  Why are things the way they are there?

I just don’t often ask aloud anymore. After you grow up, you soon learn it may often/usually/always be wiser — or even mandatory — not to probe in front of other people. Besides, I’m a big girl now and probably can figure out most of whatever it is for myself, as much as anyone can.  I can spot superficial explanations, smell shitty ones, turn away from the politic ones, the expedient ones, the ones designed to deflect further “Why?”s.  I don’t let myself get away with much anymore, either.  (Why did I do/say that?  Why was I so needy, boastful, negligent, unkind?)

Of course, I also now know there’s no full and comprehensive answer to any “Why.”  But without the question, the world is not only mysterious but oppressive. Especially where there’s so much suffering and pain — how can one not ask “Why?”

Other people seem less bothered at not knowing the “Why” of things.  Some trust in God, believing there are divine reasons which will be made manifest hereafter. Others are more interested in the answers to easier questions — “What?” and “When?” and “Where?” and “How?” — and with being first to pass them on. (The reportorial approach.)

And then there are the therapists, in their professional capacities less concerned with the ontology of it all than with “How does that make you feel?”  (Alone with themselves in the night, though, don’t they too cry out “Why?”)

In the end, all we may have are provisional answers to small questions. A disciple asked Socrates, condemned to drink poison in thirty minutes, why he was still practicing his flute.  “So that I may learn this song,” he replied.

But we wouldn’t have known that if someone hadn’t asked “Why?”

LETTER FROM PARIS

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While I identify as culturally Jewish, I have never had religious or social affiliation with any Jewish organization or social media. However, the friend/follower who  occasionally supplies me with cartoons and the pictures of multiple kittens you’ve seen here, received this morning, from a Boston friend of her own with some such connections, a email letter which she’s kindly passed on to me.  I say “kindly” because I would otherwise never have seen it.  Nor, I daresay, would you. It comes from Tom Cohen (originally out of Oregon), now the American rabbi of the French-American synagogue in Paris (Kehilat Gesher), and presents a view of what life was like on the streets of Paris for French Jews on the day of Charlie Hebdo, as well as his (admittedly partisan but not necessarily incorrect) analysis of the current forces in French politics and society that permitted such a situation to have developed.

As he concedes, his letter is long.  I’ve cut away about a third of it, the cuts indicated by ellipses (….) — including his plea for funds from American friends to maintain protection for the synagogue in the days to come. Setting the fund-raising aspect of it aside (which I have), I nonetheless thought it deserved a wider readership than those limited number of the Jewish faith to whom it was first addressed.  [It’s broken into sections to make scrolling through it easier, if you’re in a hurry.]

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Dear Friends,

…. A week ago, all of Paris –myself included– was going about their normal business. In my case, I was taking one of my children to a medical visit and considering whether I needed to take advantage of the official “sales period” that had just begin that morning. (For my American friends, France has a much more regulated commercial economy that dictates when and for how long stores may have sales – and what constitutes a sale). Turning on the radio in the autolib (an electric Zip car of sorts), came the first waves of information: an “attack” had taken place at the redaction office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In reality a massacre had just taken place, but details were still sketchy.

My first reaction is probably a familiar automatic response known by all of our Israeli friends: I sent off a quick SMS to my family to find out if everyone was alright! Everyone was fine. Then details started to come out: the staff was gunned down in cold blood by Islamist terrorists at an address that was vaguely familiar. Suddenly I realized that the Charlie Hebdo office was no longer at an address in the North of Paris. (After having been firebombed by radicals in 2011 for its drawings of the prophet Mohammed, they probably had decided to move for security to another site). Instead, they were literally right around the corner from my wife’s synagogue, Centre Maayan-CJL.

As in any dramatic moment that centers on issues of life and death, we often consider the “what ifs.” Among those I had thought about was the realization that the directors of the Talmud Torah religious schools of the Liberal synagogues of Paris and some rabbis were supposed to be meeting at her synagogue center at about the same time that the premeditated slaughter was perpetrated. The meeting’s location had only been changed at the last minute to another synagogue to accommodate one of the directors. Otherwise, they would have been walking out of the metro stop and into the killing spree.

By the time I got back home –I live in the historic old Jewish neighborhood of the Marais– police and riot control forces (CRS) were already present. Turning on the news, and switching back and forth between TF1, I-Télé, BFM news, CNN and I24, we learned more of the story of the grim outcome for the editorial staff and security personnel. How … a wounded local policeman (a Muslim, himself moreover) coming to their aid was literally murdered — his death recorded on a video, played over and over again around the world.

My own phone started ringing non-stop as shock, horror, anger and trepidation started to settle in amongst Parisians. Everyone realized that armed terrorists were literally running loose on our streets. I called my Talmud Torah director to consult together, since we had a class scheduled at the synagogue for that same early afternoon. We needed to figure out whether or not to maintain the class – and whether we would be able to contact all the students, parents and teacher in time, if the decision was to cancel the class. Because the class would be held very shortly and kids often come on their own directly to the synagogue, class in the end was held. I asked our teacher to use the backroom (farthest room from the street and next to an emergency exit) and keep me updated.

…. By the next day, when two sets of terrorists were holed up in two locations, one being a Jewish supermarket not too far from my daughter’s High School, sheer panic had hit us all. France’s national security alert system (Le plan Vigipirate) was at its highest levels. Calls were coming forth to cancel that evening’s Shabbat services. In consultation with my congregation’s President and Talmud Torah director, we decided that given the situation… we would cancel Sunday school classes as a precaution for the children. (However we did send homework home to the families by email, explaining to them that learning was also a way to resist.) Nonetheless, I felt that it was very important for us to maintain our Shabbat services – even if other congregations might decide otherwise. We hired private guards; heavily armed police in bullet proof vests were also making the rounds between Kehilat Gesher and a neighboring Orthodox shule on the next street.

…. My little shteibl was packed. The atmosphere at Kehilat Gesher was at once spiritual and electric. Fear and pride intermingled in our prayers. In our collective minds, we were not only thinking about the current attacks, but also thinking about the killing of Ilan Halimi z”l in 2006, the murders of the French soldiers and Jewish children and teachers in Toulouse in 2012, and the massacre at the Brussels Jewish Museum last year in which one of our very own members of Kehilat Gesher, Dominique Sabrier z”l was murdered… and for whom I with a heavy-heart presided over the funeral. Everyone there felt to the depths of their … souls that the simple act of praying together was an act of defiance. It was an act of resistance and resilience.

At the next morning services, one congregant even commented that “it was almost a normal Shabbat at Kehilat Gesher” in these atypical times. Yet walking out into the streets (and asking members to disperse quickly and avoid leaving in groups) reminded us just how much our reality had changed in only a couple of days. A healthy dose of fear reigns as everyone wonders when and where the next attack might occur. On my way home, I noticed that shops were nearly empty and that there was a deafening loud quietness all around the city – highly unusual for a Parisian Saturday afternoon. That evening I cancelled our ciné-club activity set for Sunday, in order to permit everyone to participate in the rally of unity, and I passed the rest of Saturday evening glued to the TV, internet or radio, like most of the population around me.

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 Sunday morning, I participated in an inter-religious ceremony that preceded a Protestant religious service. I, an Imam, a Priest and the Temple’s Pastor spoke of tolerance and unity. It was a ceremony, for which I am very happy that it had taken place, but I was also troubled by it. I know well my clerical colleagues and am confident of their hopes, desires and good intentions. That being said, I was profoundly disturbed that the original idea for the ceremony was to start by lighting 21 candles – 17 for the victims, 3 for the terrorists killed and one large general candle for victims of terrorism everywhere. I let it be known that while I realize this might be a part of their theological imperative, I couldn’t countenance a ceremony that put the executioner on the same moral level as the victim. As a result, 3 candles were placed apart from the others.

Further, I was also bothered by the words of the Imam –a wonderful person. Nonetheless, he simply could not see that his (and my preferred) interpretation of Islam is in reality not the only interpretation acceptable among Moslems. He basically stated that the terrorists could not be Moslem because, I assume, they did not fit his more open and tolerant understanding. I would accept that Radical Islam may be an extreme version of the Muslim religion, but it certainly is not a stranger to it. And that is a problem not only liberal Muslims –but also all of us in the West– must have the courage to look in the face one day, if we really want to vanquish the demon.

Finally, I was made anxious by the ceremony because… well, here was a crowd of people simply coming to their house of worship — Protestants in the occurrence — with the front doors wide open and with no police or security standing on the outside! What might be standard for the non-Jewish Christian population in France becomes frightening from a Jewish viewpoint. I realized no one there was as sensitive to these standard concerns as almost any Jew in France today. And knowing that I have been formatted by circumstance (read ‘warped’) into thinking it “right and normal” to have to worry about safety measures before gathering people together in a Jewish context is one of the surer signs of the illness of our times.

Yet in spite of these complexities, I am still pleased that the ceremony occurred. And even if it was not all what I could hope for, a truism of life is: if one wants to make change, we must start from where others are, in order to get them to where we think they ought to be!

Sunday afternoon, the coming together of millions of people in the streets of Paris was an incredible experience. Yes, a good number of the signs held high said “Je suis Charlie” (I’m Charlie). But numerous, as well, were the signs that said “Je suis Juif” (I’m Jewish), even in the hands of people of obvious North African descent.…. Seeing everyone clapping for and cheering on the police (unusual in France), spontaneous singing of the national anthem, la Marseillaise (even more unusual in France), and strangers talking to each other with warmth and tenderness in a friendly atmosphere (what can I say, highly unusual) was some solace of hope in these somber times.

******

…. Here we are now a week later. What can I tell you? That kosher restaurants near my synagogue were filled as they normally are at lunch hour. And eating a hamburger and fries (sorry my vegetarian friends and family) has taken on a new color – an act of civil protest and rebellion, in addition to simply being an expression of my Jewish values. Students are still showing up for classes, and parents are still having me perform life cycle events. (We welcomed a baby girl into the community yesterday!)

True, aliya (immigration) is up. Yet it is difficult to know how much is really an Aliya based upon fear of anti-Semitism previous to these attacks, and how much is an Aliya based upon economic interests and what the French call defiscalisation: “tax refugees”. Many commentators pointed out how Netanyahu was so warmly welcomed at the Rothschild synagogue, especially when compared to the “polite” applause accorded to President Hollande (who until recently has had the “honor” of being the least liked President in the history of the 5th republic). Those journalists were saying that this was a sign that the Jews of France are preparing to leave.

For me, a telling moment was Netanyahu’s appeal to French Jewry that they “should” come home… with the diplomatic response of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying that “France without its Jews will no longer be France.” Yet at the end of that evening ceremony where Netanyahu was so warmly welcomed, those same attendees spontaneously started singing la Marseillaise. (Next thing you know, the French will be waving flags as patriotically and as often as Americans.)

So how did we get here?

Too many years have gone by in which politicians (of both major parties) willfully overlooked creeping extremism in certain neighborhoods in France for expediency purposes, economic benefits and simply votes. They abandoned prisons to Islamists, creating a festering breeding ground for Jihadists. They became wobbly and cowed when confronted by violence and racism in the schools. Journalists have also played a role over the years, substituting direct terms for weaker images: a massacre or a slaughter becomes an “attack”. Extremists and their followers become the “youth from the suburbs”. Intellects tried to pin the blame on others in the face of creeping radical Islamization: in their eyes racism can only come from the traditional source, the far right. Another game is to blame the victim. They are somehow responsible because they support Israel, or they are rich or they are poor, or they are exclusive… just fill in the box.

The social atmosphere had degraded over the years, and the inability to name the problems has made things worse. It is not my intention to go through a geopolitical analysis of how things have slowly spun out of control. But the internationalization of these groups through the Internet has taken an isolated ideology and exported the philosophy to these fanatics and their supporters with whom we must deal with today. These horrific murders are a wakeup call that has aroused many to finally start realizing that Islamist fascist groups’ intimidation is real and its reach is widespread. These murders also underlined once again the reality that some people are being killed for the right to express themselves freely, like the journalists at Charlie Hebdo; others, the Jews, simply for being who they are.

Hopefully the reaction to the violence will lead people to recognize that Islamist jihadist terrorists pose a serious threat to values our democracies cherish and hold dear: liberty, equality and fraternity. So even if Aliya rates double in the coming year, a cold-eye analysis is that the vast majority of Jews in France are still staying for a whole host of reasons that are legitimate. They want to see changes, and they’re hoping that the politicians follow up their words with facts on the grounds.

As of today I can say that in every speech pronounced by and legislation proposed by the Prime Minister, I feel a real determinism on his part to do the right thing.   Mongers of hate on the Internet and through Tweeter have in the past couple of days been arrested and sentenced to jail time; even Dieudonné was taken into custody. Also thousands of soldiers and police have been mobilized to protect sensitive sites (e.g. synagogues and schools). France is sending its aircraft carrier into range to strike the Islamic state and Al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East.

It doesn’t completely lessen the nagging fear, but it is a start. And there is much more to do! So to answer a question a few people asked: no, I’m not packing my bags yet. I still have way too much work to do here.

I know this letter has been (too) long. But I have had numerous demands asking what people can do to help from overseas. Just beyond the amazing spiritual and psychological support, concern and prayers which we have received,  ….come and visit. The hizzuk (strength) we get from your presence is important. We had a couple from New York this last Shabbat who came to Friday night services. Their presence on a night when the rest of us were still in shock was priceless! …. And realize that what has happened in Paris can happen anywhere in the civilized world. The only real way to fight it is by sticking together. Giving up is not going to solve the problem, only perhaps compound it. May we all soon find healing and the possibility to live freely and safely everywhere where we might live.

Tom

Rabbin Tom Cohen ‫הרב טוביה בן יוסף הכהן ודבורה

‫ק”ק קהילת גשר דפאריש          ‫ Kehilat Gesher

La synagogue franco-américaine de Paris

7 rue Léon Cogniet‫  75017 Paris  (M° Courcelles)

www.kehilatgesher.org

WHO OWNS THE FOX?

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Before I consign all those legal casebooks and hornbooks in my basement to the recycling bin, permit me to beguile you with another short visit to law school. In my last such post, “– And Wife,” we considered the concept of assault, an intentional tort.  Although that case — the earliest one recorded in Anglo-American law — made the intentional infliction of fear of bodily harm in another person an actionable offense, you may recall that despite the wife being the person who was put in fear of bodily harm, no one back there in 1205 questioned an underlying assumption in the case: that she was her husband’s property, which is why he had to bring the suit in his own name as the injured party.

Lest anyone harbor any lingering doubt that capitalist societies  have always rested on ownership — whether it be of land, livestock, means of production or intellectual property, although today perhaps no longer of wives — let me introduce the case of Pierson v. Post, otherwise affectionately known by its students as “Who Owns the Fox?”  [3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805), if you really need a citation so you can go look it up afterwards to prove to yourself I’m not fooling.]

Pierson is one of the first cases the first-year law student encounters in the Property Law casebook. Why that should be, I cannot tell you, except maybe because who owns what seems to remain of paramount importance to an awful lot of people — even if most of us don’t chase and shoot animals anymore.

These are the “facts” (otherwise known as the story):  Post was in pursuit of a fox while hunting with his hounds. (Here we learn at the outset that Post was a gentleman of property.) Pierson killed and captured the fox even though he knew Post had been pursuing it.  Neither party owned the land on which they had been hunting. Post brought suit in trespass, contending he had acquired title to the fox when he began to hunt it. Pierson asserted that Post did not yet have control over the fox and therefore had not acquired any property interest in it. The trial court entered judgment for Post (the guy with the hounds), and Pierson appealed.

The appeals court reversed the lower court. It stated the mere fact a person is pursuing a wild animal does not grant that person a right to the animal.  “First to kill and capture” is the superior rule of law.  Had Post mortally wounded the animal, that would have been sufficient to show possession, since it would have deprived the animal of its natural liberty.  But he was only able to show pursuit and therefore acquired no property interest in the animal. There was a dissent, seeking to reward the pursuer (Post) for his effort, but we don’t have to go there, as dissents don’t become law.

Notice the bit I italicized?  About neither party owning the land through which the poor fox ran?  If Post had been the owner, that would have changed the outcome for him. Conversely, if Pierson were the owner, there would have been no case. Alternatively, what if the person who really was the landowner had intervened as an interested party?  Suppose his counselor-at-law had whispered in his ear that he should get himself over to court and claim property damages from both those guys for running amok and killing an animal on his land?

[I seem to be getting carried away with the lucrative possibilities here. No wonder lawyers have prospered over the years.]

Okay, back to the point, if there is one. [Or if there isn’t, maybe that’s the point.]  Does Pierson v. Post  tell us anything we still need to know? Does it give a guy at a bar the right to slide over to a hottie two stools down as soon as another guy who’s been chatting her up needs a bathroom break?  Is “first to kill and capture” the superior rule of law here?  Suppose there’s a brawl over hanging-out rights (“I saw her first!”), the hottie bursts out laughing at both of them, “You guys kill me!” and walks off with someone else, thus entirely eluding capture, at least by either of the two fighting over her.

You think I’m putting you on about property law?  You’re lucky we’re not moving right along  to The Rule Against Perpetuities.  (Otherwise known as Let’s Hope It’s Not On the Exam.) Roughly (very roughly) speaking, that one prevents you from leaving property to any descendant who will not yet be alive — is “not yet in being” —  when you die and who doesn’t get born until more than twenty-one years after that. At least, I think that’s the usual construction of its meaning, and there may even be an arcane reason behind why twenty-one years, but most people leave such legal refinements to the Wills and Trusts lawyers, one of whom I never was, so we probably should too.

And now I will recklessly click “Publish.”   I have to roll the recycling barrels out to the curb before it gets dark.  They’re collecting tomorrow.