I don’t like the air in Paris, never did, never will. I grant this City of Lights its well-earned reputation for charm and grace, but my lungs, my skin, my heart crave a different brand of air.
No matter how deeply I breathed in Israel, no matter how much sun I absorbed and reflected in golden brown skin, the cutoff is absolute. I am home, home is Paris, but…
Our own Pajamas Media Tel Aviv editor Allison Kaplan Sommer says I’m the only visiting foreign journalist who ever accepted her invitation to visit her home in Ra’anana. Our colleagues prefer Gaza in a flak jacket, Beirut with Hizbully handlers, a checkpoint at high noon, then recounting adventures with fellow journalists at the American Colony bar in Jerusalem… Ra’anana, a darling little city 20 to 30 minutes by car from Tel Aviv, combines suburban comfort with urban sophistication. It’s nothing like an American exurb with empty streets connected by eight-lane highways to an outside world of strip malls. And it is a far cry from those Parisian suburbs, more provincial than the provinces, with orange formica Pizzerias from hunger, chintzy boulangeries peddling baking soda baguettes, and la banlieue breathing down the necks of pokey “pavillons.”
As we walk to the caf√© where we will meet Orit and Ruti, our two French immigrants, Allison points out the Absorption Center where new immigrants are housed, learn Hebrew, and are helped to adapt to Israeli society. “It seems like they’re mostly French-speaking these days.” New immigrants who prefer private housing live in nearby apartment buildings.
I had planned to translate for Allison but we immediately tumble into non-stop French conversation; she manages to get the gist. For Orit, an Israeli who lived in Paris for 14 years, reinsertion is just as problematical as immigration. Ruti was born in Israel but grew up in Paris. Her parents, who had made aliyah directly from Algeria, wanted to reunite with the rest of the family that had immigrated to France. Given my negative impression of dreary Parisian suburbs, I assume that Orit and Ruti were thrilled to move from Courbevoie to sunny Ra’anana but they open our conversation with a universal declaration of love for the country they left behind. “We chose to live in Israel but do not reject France.” Orit was in the world of fashion, she worked for Christian Dior, has Paris “under the skin.” It’s her French husband who pushed for aliyah. Ruti gave up a bright career as an actuary for motherhood, and became a school teacher so she could devote more time her children. They lived in Courbevoie, and life was good.
Did they have direct experience of anti-Semitism? No, but they know people who did. Orit says she finally realized they had to return to Israel when she saw men pull the kippa from their pocket and put it on their head as they came out of the m√©tro at St. Paul-le Marais (the old Jewish quarter). They did not feel safe wearing it in the train. Ruti’s small gold Magen David glows against her dark skin. She has black tightly curled hair, and the Carthaginian nose of a North African Jew. Orit is pale, with Ashkenaz features. They each have four children. Ruti says life was good in France but she was concerned for the future of her children. It became more complicated to lead a Jewish life, to keep the children in public school with classes, tests, and exams on Saturdays. They planned make aliyah in the summer of 2006 and, to the surprise of friends and neighbors, did not postpone the move when war broke out with Hizbullah. “And it was utterly peaceful here.”
Ruti misses her extended family. They had done their best to reproduce in France the closeness of life in Algeria, where they lived together in a compound. “We all lived close to each other…you know, French people don’t move around like Americans.” Orit is Israeli, she doesn’t have that problem. But she still feels dismayed and disoriented. The least little problem becomes so complicated. “You get a toothache, and you simply don’t know what to do.” People here are not straightforward, you can’t trust them, it’s √† la t√™te du client (different rules for different folks). It looks like a modern high-tech society…then suddenly you’re reminded that this is the Middle East. We are pedaling uphill! Our kids see us struggling to make it…they don’t understand why. Life was easy in France. We left an easier country to come to a more difficult one.
Me too. I left the United States and went to France…their France, where everything is supposedly straightforward. And did I pedal! I told them how frustrating it was for an American to deal with endless bottlenecks, obstacles, drudgeries. Nothing worked! Gas stoves you light with matches, refrigerators you defrost manually, apartments without closets, medieval banking practices, Gothic schools… A la t√™te du client indeed. People were always trying to cheat me, real estate agents and landlords double crossed me, friends were not really friendly. It’s not that Orit and Ruti don’t believe me…they just can’t be distracted from their own struggle to get their lives running smoothly. I understand.
And they don’t deny the obvious attractions of this new life. But they tore up roots because they saw no future for their children in France and now they have to deal with opposition from the children who are having a hard time adapting. Ruti’s oldest, who is eleven, doesn’t like his new school–the kids aren’t studious enough…and they’re all the same… all Jewish. Orit’s oldest is reconciled; having met someone who goes back & forth between France and Israel, she’s decided she’ll finish high school, do her military service, and go to the university in France.
Allison remarks that it’s even harder for Americans who move to Israel, they are so much further away from their families. But it doesn’t really register. It’s not that they are indifferent to her longer distance expatriate deprivation, it is that they are French or Frenchified, meaning irrationally attached to their country. It can happen to anyone. It might happen to me.
The son of the president of Chad was murdered last week…in Courbevoie…just a coincidence.
While the sun shines on Ra’anana and its 100 parks and gardens, France is going through a deep meteorological depression. The month of June was a disaster, the first half of July is worse. Daytime temperatures slide from 17¬∞C down to 15¬∞, and dip to desolate windswept lows at night. The birds of ill augur who spoiled our precocious April summer with “climate change” horror stories can’t console us today. Snails are gobbling up lettuce in soggy fields. Normandy campers are crying in their tents. Nobody wants ice cream. And it’s no credit to Al Gore. The truth is, the anticyclone of the Azores is stuck far from our shores, leaving the door wide open for nasty northwestern weather. Rotten summers are more the rule than the exception in Paris.
Take it from me, the absolute sun- lover, struggling to do justice to the trials and tribulations of new immigrants in Ra’anana while my own soul twists and turns under a thick bed of clouds.
The French immigration to Israel has evolved: at first it was the very religious Jews now it is people like Orit and Ruti who keep kosher, respect the Sabbath, but do not drape themselves in modesty. Ruti is wearing shorts and a tank top. Much of the reason that there are more and more French people in Ra’anana is that the community is known for harmonious cohabitation of secular and orthodox residents.
Orit and Ruti agree that the situation for Jews in France has deteriorated–heavy security around synagogues and Jewish schools, people are told to disperse immediately after services. And it made Orit nervous, for example, when her son Ariel went to public school and one of his classmates was named Osama. Still, they have no hard feelings about France. And do not exclude the possibility of returning some day. Unlike my French friends in the U.S.–Jewish or not– who swear they would never go back.
1:30 PM, time for mothers to pick up school children or be home to receive them. Allison fills me in on the history of Ra’anana as we walk back through animated sun-drenched streets. Healthy looking young people are everywhere. I compare it to the life of French schoolchildren who don’t see daylight in winter. They trudge off to school with stone heavy book bags before daylight, trudge home after nightfall, spend the whole evening doing homework. Admittedly, the short Israeli school day is a problem for working mothers. Too many latchkey children, says Allison.
Ra’anana was a sort of anti-kibbutz, settled in 1922 by American immigrants and conceived from the start as a capitalist-inspired business proposition. Initially they grew oranges. Today the activity is mainly high-tech. But the spirit is the same. Rigorous administration, an eye on profits.
Number one Sommer son comes home. We have lunch, Allison does some pj editing and I watch Fox News. Just in case there might be something important among the fluff…it’s morning in the U.S. Allison runs out to pick up Number Two Sommer daughter. She has lunch. Allison does some editing and posting. Then I go along with Allison to drive daughter to an after-school English-speaking class. It’s the last day, they’re having a picnic in the garden. Smell of popcorn. The English teacher, who is from South Africa, tells us about friends and family who have remained there. Their homes are fortified, the bedrooms are like bank coffers. But the criminals wait for them outside the gates.
We drive through the moshav that abuts the town; originally farming communities, the moshavim have become valuable real estate. Only the wealthy can afford homes with that much acreage. We visit a “nostalgia” grocery store that stocks down home US specialties like Fluff, graham crackers, fruit roll-ups, Pillsbury cake mix and countless other products that a culinary snob like me wouldn’t buy anywhere on this earth. Still, it’s at least as interesting–for a journalist-as a checkpoint. We pick up Number Three Sommer daughter at her gan (kindergarten), exchange a bit of conversation with the Turkish caregiver, bring the little daughter and her drawings home, leave her in the care of her big brother and head out for the last in the day’s milk runs-we pick up the middle Sommer and drop me off at the taxi stand. My little hostess announces my destination to the dispatcher (ani lo daberet ivrit= I don’t speak Hebrew), Mother and daughter drive off.
Leaving the “soccer mom” to her rounds, I resume my busy “liberated grandmother” schedule. Today, looking back from Paris on my mental Tel Aviv appointment book, I am fraught with melancholy. Autumn in July is like old age in your 20s-unacceptable.
For someone like me, who would no sooner turn on an air conditioner than shoot a pianist, this cold shoulder climate is a minor tragedy.