A Lunch on the Place de l’Odeon
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
After services, Danny and I catch a cab for the Israeli embassy. Yosi is coming in to meet us and take us to lunch.
The embassy is closed on the Sabbath, but security is still in place. Two young, athletic-looking officers in business suits stop us well outside the entry. Even with Yosi, who’s a two-star general and chief of the Israeli Defense Mission in Europe, standing there to vouch for us (not to mention the fact that these same officers have passed me into the building at least half a dozen times over the preceding days), we are held in the street and searched from head to toe. I make no complaint and neither does Yosi. An embassy of Israel is a target in any country.
Yosi takes us to lunch at a wonderful restaurant called La Mediterranee on the Place de l’Odeon. He has been living in Paris for more than five years. I ask him how he likes it.
“I love it. I love the people, the food, the language. I love the culture. I’m looking forward to getting home to Jerusalem in September when I retire. But I will miss Paris. I hope to come back many times.”
I ask him about French anti-Semitism, specifically the Vel d’Hiv roundup and deportation of 13,000 Jews in 1942, which is fresh in my mind, along with the Memorial to the Fallen at the Grande Synagogue de la Victoire.
“Steve,” Yosi says, “do you know what Tisha B’Av is?”
Oddly enough, I do. It’s probably the only date on the Jewish calendar I’m actually familiar with.
“Tisha means ‘nine,'” Yosi says. “Av is a Hebrew month. On the same date of the calendar year—the ninth of Av—655 years apart, our enemies destroyed the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar burned down Solomon’s temple in 587 BCE, then the Romans under Titus in 70 CE did the same to the temple rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah.
“Both times our enemies expelled every Jew from the Holy Land. If you don’t know Psalm 137, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rastafarian song:
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down
and we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
“Tisha B’Av is a day of lamentation. Nothing that brings pleasure may be done on this day.”
Both Yosi and Danny are religious. Danny is a rabbi’s son. He knew in his teens, growing up on Long Island, New York, that he would emigrate to Israel and make his life there. He joined the U.S. Air Force and became a flight navigator in F-4 Phantoms so that he would have a skill that would be of immediate value to the IAF. Danny served in the Israel Air Force for twenty years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was decorated for valor, an extremely rare occurrence in Israel, for a mission over Iraq that remains classified to this day.
“Remember when we went to the Kotel?” says Danny, meaning the most sacred site in Judaism, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. “I told you that the stones were not the wall of the temple. They were even humbler—the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, on which the temple stood.”
In other words, Danny says, the Wall is all that was left after the Romans burned the temple to the ground. “They would have destroyed it too, but it was beneath their notice.”
“You ask me, Steve, if I hate the French. I have thought about this long and hard. In the end I believe that hatred of the Other is innate and intrinsic, not just to human nature but to animal nature. We Jews are not unique in having been singled out for persecution and extermination. In the modern era alone, consider the Hutu and the Tutsi; Serbs, Croats and Muslims; Turks and Armenians.
“In any society, whether it’s Rwanda or Bosnia or Armenia, or a herd of springbok or even the internal organs of our own bodies, the primal mass will attempt to reject any sub-entity that it identifies as ‘other.'”
We emerge after lunch to the square fronting La Mediterranee.
One of the perks of being a two-star general in an embassy is you get your own car and driver. Yosi’s pulls up now. “Come on,” he says, motioning Danny and me to climb aboard, “I want to show you something.”