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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Personal Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

A few years, when we visited family in Paris, we stayed for three weeks less than a block from the Charlie Hebdo offices, where the horrible shooting took place this past week. It was my first time to see my husband's extended family, many lovely people he had not seen since his family emigrated to the states. We got to stay for a month, mostly because we first slept in an aunt and uncle's guest room and then were able to borrow a friend of the family's apartment while they went on their vacation, a lovely apartment on Rue Pelee. 

I was very nervous about meeting all these elegant Parisian cousins, so I did a ton of research about the differences between French and American culture. I found these differences intriguing, because they indicated a subtly different outlook on life. For instance, the French considered most Americans to be false, or hypocritical, because we smile all the time, for no reason except that it's cultural to smile. (Think Mitt Romney, if you want an example--not that I'm saying he's a hypocrite, something I don't know, but that his default expression is a smile.) 

Also, the French consider certain ordinary everyday American actions to be quite rude. For instance, a French person would never walk into a store and say what they, "Give me one of those," or even, "Please give me one of those." A little courteous conversation is required first--"Good day, Madam, and how are you today? Oh, I'm glad to hear it. Yes, I'm fine. I'm so sorry to bother you, but could you please give me one of those?" A French person would never pick up the fruit at the fruit market to test for firmness, or fondle the fabric in a dress unless they were seriously interested in purchasing it. One day, we went into a little corner market, a tabac, as they call them, right by our borrowed apartment. When an elderly woman walked slowly into the store, the man behind the counter called out to her--"Pardon me, Madame. I don't mean to disturb you, but I have taken the liberty of setting aside those magazines I noticed you regularly take, and I have them here for you behind the counter." We were stunned. Clearly old women were not invisible in France. There were things in this culture that we very much liked. 

I was rebellious, for some reason, about sightseeing. I know that sounds silly, but what I wanted most was just to live there. To go to a hardware store. To grocery shop. To get my hair cut. To get to know the people who ran the little tabac. To spend time in the courtyard seeing how the people live, and to get to know the miserable (pronounced mizerabluh, just like in the musical). He was Polish, if I recall correctly. He lived in that courtyard inside a large cardboard box and was never without a thick novel in his hand. Neighbors gave him clothing and food, and money (and books.) He was *their* miserable. 

The apartment we stayed in had a balcony covered with plants. (Our rent was to make sure they were all watered.) This balcony overlooked a little street, or allee, which I believe was Rue Nicolas Appert, where the two murderers shoot a downed French policeman in cold blood.  We walked regularly walked through that allee, past the Volvo dealership, past the art store on Boulevard Richard Lenoir. Our oldest learned to walk four blocks away, where he was also taught to shriek very loudly by a great-aunt and uncle, who adored him. 

These eldest members of our family and their siblings and spouses survived the Holocaust in Paris, or came back from Auschwitz, or emigrated after the labor camps in Siberia and the salt mines of Kazakhstan, or were hidden as children in the forests of Poland.  Their parents starved to death in the Warsaw ghetto, or were beaten to death by Polish workers, or watched other children--siblings of our family--die of starvation or untreated illness--in the ghetto, in the forest, in the labor camps, under Hitler, or Stalin. Their brothers and sisters died in Auschwitz. Eight of the immediate family's children died in these ways. 

So--when we heard about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, we thought of the streets where we walked, baby on back. We thought of "our" miserable, and hoped he was all right. We thought of the kind people who allowed us to stay in their apartment for a rent of taking care of their plants. We thought of the Rue de Rosiers, where we walked past Judaica shops and Kosher restaurants, and the cousin we never met because he has become ultra-Orthodox and cut himself off from the less-observant family, and of the funny, warm, kind cousin who was four when he lost mother, sister and brother at the V'el D'hiver, and is now, seventy-one years later, leaving France because of the increasing anti-semitism. 

We especially thought of our now very elderly surviving great-aunt and uncle who went through impossibly horrible experiences with humor and unbelievable resilience, who still carried the gift of loving, laughter, joy, who make music and play ping pong and sing in choirs and raised fabulous children, and who are now facing a complex situation, where a fringe element of Muslims is creating a nightmare for Jews, Christians and other Muslims--remember, that police officer murdered in cold blood was a Muslim, too. 

I have dear friends who are Muslim. We have a large population of Muslims where we live. My children go to school with them. We are on committees together and talk as we pick up our children at the end of the day. Violence is no more inherent to their faith than all Christians are Crusaders, going off to free Jerusalem and burning up the Jews along the way--no more violent than Judaism, which in our time has spawned own violent fundamentalists after centuries of Jews being renowned for peaceful living. Crazy people, people who have no sense of the value of life, can come from any upbringing and use any religion as an excuse to kill. I pray that Europe and the United States are able to find a way to stand up to those who hate--a way to keep ourselves safe from them, and to make certain we don't become them. 

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