Monthly Archives: January 2015

Vying for title of worst American mom and worst French dad

After the tragic events of the past two weeks in Paris, it feels good to lighten up which is what I did this morning when reading an article about a “world’s worst mom”

The mom in question is Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom of two, who earned the title after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her youngest son, then age nine, to take the subway alone. The poor lady was so raked across the coals – she was even threatened with an arrest for child endangerment – it’s lucky she’s alive to tell her tale of being a “worst mom” and counsel parents who won’t let their kids be kids.

I immediately identified with Lenore. When our oldest son, B, was ten years old, his father had the bright idea of having him cross all of Paris on the metro – alone – to visit him in his office at the Tour Montparnasse (metro, elevators!) before going on to an activity vaguely in that neighborhood. The total trip involved several complicated changes and I admit that, while I’m laughing now, I was anxious at the time.

“He could get attacked! Kidnapped! Or worse! ” I remember yelling when I got wind of the idea. “Mais non!” my husband smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. In the end, Mr. Ten-Year-Old did indeed cross town all by his little self, my husband was very proud to introduce him to his co-workers (good thing there was someone to introduce, I muttered), and no harm done other than in my wild imagination.

Little did I know, but that was just the beginning. When Mr. B was a teen-ager, he would come home at ungodly hours and you know what? His Dad would FALL FAST ASLEEP while my eyes were stuck open until I heard the door click and his footsteps. Then I slept (a GOOD MOM would have at least bawled him out when he got home – I was simply relieved).

D, his little brother, if anything, was even worse. This was in the ancient days before cell phones and when I brazenly suggested that we might ASK HIM FOR THE PHONE NUMBER of the place or places he was supposed to be, his dad and older brother looked at me like I was certifiable.

I was worried for sure (as in biting my nails to the quick worried), but my husband wasn’t and I figured this was a guy thing. Eureka – a guy thing. OK, I thought, so let them work it out. I swallowed real hard and decided to let these boys be boys. Definitely world’s worst mom material.

We parents always feel guilty. To this day I regret that I was on radar in the morning and never fixed a proper breakfast for our two offspring. I (we) never woke them up for school either. If they couldn’t haul their bods out of bed, well, they’d be late and have to suffer the consequences. I (we) didn’t help them with their homework either. They were, fortunately, autonomous and if they got a bad grade, well, it was their bad grade. (same for good).

Helicopter parents we were not.

In my case, this was because I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone so if you wanted to get away, you just took your bike and rode as far as you wanted. Total freedom! Little risk of getting kidnapped since everyone was watching and would report exactly where you were to your parents (same for being sassy or not smiling at a grown-up – you’d hear about that when you got home, believe me).

In my husband’s case, once again, and I don’t care if this sounds macho, he was a guy. Guys were supposed to get into scrapes, stay out late, scare the devil out of their parents. They weren’t supposed to be protected and coddled. Fall off your bike? So get up and try again, already! My husband’s father was very strict (as in children could not speak at the table unless spoken to – isn’t that WONDERFUL?!!) but he had incredible indulgence when it came to normal kid screw-ups. My favorite story is when Philippe was about eight and went to a field of pumpkins and carved his name on every single one of them. When the pumpkins grew and grew so did his name (duh). When the irate pumpkin owner came to see le père Rochefort, he apologized and paid for the damaged crop, but had a hard time keeping a straight face. Kids will be kids!

When I read about helicopter parents, all I can do is shake my head with pity for their poor children. It’s important to dream, to do nothing, to NOT have play dates, to not worry if you’ll go to Harvard. When I was a kid growing up in my midwestern town of 5000, my main activities were l) getting on my bike and 2) taking daily trips to the public library to find books, curl up in a chair, and transport myself far far away to lands I could see only in my imagination, 3) spending time with my friends having a good time – period. We had activities but believe me, we didn’t know the meaning of the word “over scheduled”. (Oh, yes, there was ONE girl in town who was an obsessively perfect student whose parents never let her waste a minute; she would memorize Latin words while brushing her teeth and we thought she was really weird).

Oh, by the way, our sons, who gave me more grey hairs than I can count, were excellent students and what I am most proud of is that what they did they did on their own. They grew up to be fine young men and now have children of their own who, I am sure, will give them the kind of nightmares they gave us. Somehow, I have the feeling that they’ll be watchful and responsible but not “helicopter”. How could they be with the parents they had?

So anyway, do Philippe and I get nominated for world’s worst mom and dad?

Gee, I hope so.

France’s forgotten youth


It’s been a tough 13 days for France.

On Wednesday, January 7, my husband stood transfixed in front of the television, saying something about « some shooting somewhere in Paris ». That soon became more specific : the shooting took place at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement not far from where we live.

« They say Cabu and Wolinksi were shot » he told me, referring to two of the oldest and best known cartoonists.

« No, » I said, « not possible ».

But it was, and it only got worse. We learned that with a few lucky exceptions the entire staff present that day for the weekly story conference, the first of the year, was dead, gunned down by two black-clad, heavily armed terrorists getting revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s reproduction of drawings of the Prophet Muhammed. Their former headquarters had been firebombed and Charb, as the director, Stephane Charbonnel was called, had been threatened and had round the clock police protection. Yet he and his staff never considered ceasing criticism of Islamic fundamentalists, one of the paper’s favorite targets. Besides, the journalists were having fun doing their jobs which consisted of mocking sacred cows, whether those sacred cows were policemen or politicians, the military, Catholic priests or corporations, or jerks in general.   That made a lot of people.

When the killers ran out into the street, they brandished their kalachnikovs and yelled triumphantly   « We killed Charlie ! »

But they didn’t, of course. A groundswell of indignation, emotion and solidarity arose in France, culminating in a march of millions all over the country on the Saturday and Sunday following the attacks.

Young people and old people bore signs proclaiming « Je Suis Charlie » and marched for freedom of the press. They marched in honor of the journalists and the police killed by the two terrorists and in honor of the four Jewish dead in a kosher grocery store, the victims of a third terrorist in a separate but related attack.   The three terrorists were killed by French police.

All through the days that followed, stories of unlikely heroes such as the young African Muslim employee at the kosher store who saved the lives of the Jewish hostages, surfaced. There was good among the bad and a desire of all the communities to come together. There was a solemn state funeral in the courtyard of the Prefecture de Police for the 3 police men and one police woman, burial services in Israel for the four Jewish victims, poignant individual funeral services for the staff members of Charlie Hebdo at various cemeteries in Paris and outside. The last of those services was held today.

These past days have been a time of tears, a time of reckoning and reflection, and a time of questioning.

What comes next ?

Many things : more police protection, more surveillance of potential terrorists, one might say, « the usual ».

And something else related to a chilling fact : After the initial show of solidarity, it turned out that not everyone was « for » Charlie. In approximately 200 incidents in French schools students flatly refused to observe the minute of silence for the victims of the attacks. I heard that on the news, but also firsthand from a young professor who teaches in one of these schools.

Shocking ? Not when you hear where those schools are located,  in dreary suburbs far from the Eiffel Tower and the chic Parisian shops tourists so love. When you grow up in a sad looking place where there’s not much to do and no jobs (the unemployment rate in these areas is twice as high as elsewhere) you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and no inherent « respect for the Republic » or even school. Hope may be somewhere for these kids, but it isn’t where they live.

Years ago when writing about education in France, I was talking to a young friend who taught in one of these towns (Grigny). He told me that he thought a reality check might be in order, as I had based what I wrote on my experience in a posh western suburb. I took him up on his offer to visit his class and drove through the dilapidated suburbs to my destination, a rundown school with a majority population of immigrants. My young friend obviously had figured out how to deal with these students who, unlike their peers in Neuilly or chic Paris, went home at night either to parents who were there but who didn’t speak French and couldn’t help them, or to parents who weren’t there at all because they were working. His main job was in getting their respect and he did, spending the first 45 minutes of the class simply keeping the kids in line. The last 15 minutes were spent in discussing the content of the lesson. Most were barely interested and dismally behind.

That experience came back to me as the names of Grigny and other dreary suburbs were rolled out by newscasters announcing police raids of possible accomplices of the terrorists.

I concluded that an entire group of people had been missing at the solidarity march. Where were those kids from the outlying areas ? Did they not feel French ? Obviously not.

And whose fault is it ?

That one’s easy. Just look back to the 2005 riots in which the same young people who refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims of this latest attack took to the streets of Paris to wreak havoc and burn cars. The reason – at that time, at least – was boredom and unemployment, not religion. Everyone was shocked and the politicians all made concerned clucking noises about change. But nothing changed, and it’s in these same forgotten territories that the young people no one cares about are leaving to fight in Syria.

What’s needed now is a Marshall Plan for education, a plan that will bring these young people back to the Republic – if it’s not too late already.


A slightly different version of this story appeared in Bonjour Paris




France without Jews is not France

Of all the intonations, expressions and statements flowing from the mouths of politicians and ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of seventeen people in France last week, the most forthright and sincere one, in my opinion, came from France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls who proclaimed:  “France without Jews is not France.”

What did he mean by this?  Was it only in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistent invitation to French Jews to flee France and come to Israel where they would be greeted with open arms, safe from anti-Semitism in France?

It was partly that, yes, but it was also a sincere conviction, that France’s Jews are an integral part of the community, that they are both Jewish and French,  that they should not be the victims of despicable acts because they are Jewish and that their lives warrant greater protection.

Even before last week’s terrorist attacks which left four Jews dead in a kosher grocery store, France’s Jews have been targeted heinously and viciously and more Jews than ever are packing their bags to leave for Israel. I say “more Jews than ever” because many letters we get from the States, in particular, presume that ALL of France’s Jews or a huge percentage are fleeing France.  So let’s get the real figures:  there are approximately 600,000 Jews in France; of these last year approximately 7000 left for Israel.  This is roughly 1 per cent – 1 per cent too many, certainly, but nothing like the much bigger figures that are being bandied around.

I am not Jewish but have many Jewish friends and am interested to see the different opinions they have on the question of making aliyah (emigrating to Israel).  Two friends, both American Jewish women who has lived in France for decades, downplay the reports of massive flights, stating that those who leave more often do so because they are going to retire or because they have family in Israel or because they’ve been thinking of it for a long time or because they are very religious and think they would have a better religious life in Israel. So, of the 1 per cent of those leaving, we may be down to 0.5 per cent of people leaving because of anti-Semitism in France and fear for their lives.

I do not write this to downplay those fears nor to downplay anti-Semitisim which is real and which exists but I do think it necessary to take a cold look at the facts first.  As for anti-Semitic acts, who perpetrates them?  “The French”?  Which French? If you look at the deplorable anti-Semitic acts that have taken place over the past years, you will see a pattern which is that the perpetrators are almost always young French men of Arab origin. They live unhappy lives many times in broken homes, are mostly unemployed, are or have been delinquents who in too many cases have been converted to radical Islam during their prison stays.  Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old criminal of Algerian descent, was one of those. In March 2012, he first gunned down two uniformed soldiers, then killed four, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. And what was his motivation?  “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”  (Yet one of the soldiers he killed was, like him, a Muslim).  One cannot underestimate the weight of the Israeli-Palestine conflict when it comes to current anti-Semitic acts.  The conflict in the Middle East is played out every day in France – with the tragic results that we have seen.

I think the French Prime Minister was right to say that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. But acts follow words and the government has a huge job cut out for it to protect its Jewish population. The government should also protect its Muslim citizens, the majority of which is peaceful and law-abiding.  The desecration of Mosques and anti-Muslim acts such as the throwing of a pig’s ear into the garage of a Muslim should not go unpunished.

No one asked me for my opinion but I’d start by educating young people about Israel and Palestine, putting it at the center of the school curricula. Ironically, French teachers for several years have taken high school classes to visit the deportation camps and talk about the Shoah but for the young Muslims of African or North African descent this is giving special attention to people who don’t need it – and they aren’t listening.  It is indicative that during the minute of silence for all the victims of the terrorist killings last week – journalists, policemen, and Jews – students in some 70 schools around the country refused to comply.  I have this for a fact from a young woman who teaches in a tough district. So, first of all: education. Education would put an end, one can hope, to the dangerous stereotypes such as “the Jews are rich” which result in odious crimes (I think of the truly awful Ilan Halimi affair in 2007 ). The people committing these crimes are barbarians of the same order as the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo supposedly in the name of Islam; the barbarian African and North African kidnappers of Ilan Halimi were motivated by nothing other than the sheer crass stupid stereotypes that invade the areas in which they live (“Jews are rich”).  To think that a young salesman of portable phones is “rich” because he is Jewish defies the imagination. Yet, it happened and he died  a martyr’s death.

I’d also do what wasn’t done after the Muslim riots in 2005 where the motivation wasn’t religion, but frustration at being shut off in poor areas with nothing to do  and no hope. This was an opportunity of the first order to focus on youth training and jobs but the efforts were feeble and nothing ever came of it.

Secondly, and this is being discussed, isolation for the Islamist delinquents in prison so they cannot use their jail time to foment plots.

Thirdly, some kind of herculean effort to stop the drain of young French men and women of Arab descent from joining their “brothers in arms” in Syria  – and a law forbidding them from ever re-entering France if they do choose to leave.

The French police have managed to prevent several plots from taking place. They dropped the ball on the Kaouchi brothers (they say it’s impossible to put surveillance on everyone). The government should hire more policemen, put one behind every suspect, in short, put its money where its mouth is.

The march on Sunday, January 11, was beautiful. My husband and I were there. The spirit of it was: let’s all be together to show our unity.  People of every race and color and creed – Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, people who are religious, people who are not,  were all there to show by their presence their love of liberty. The curtain fell on a magic moment of national unity.

It would be nice if it signalled “The End” and all was well.    Unfortunately, we’re just at the beginning, with so much left to do.

And now I’m going to write something I had not intended to write before I began this article: if I were a Jew in France, would I be afraid? Yes, I would. Would I pack my bags and leave for Israel?  Perhaps not immediately but in the back of my mind I would be ever watchful.  And when the day came that being constantly vigilant weighed upon me and my family, then, yes, perhaps, like the Jews who are scared, I would leave. I would keep in mind, though, that one of every five who leave returns to France.  And I would know that going to Israel is not necessarily the solution as long as Israel and Palestine are in a stand-off.  In fact, as long as that is the state of things, none of us, whether Jews, Catholics,  Muslims or atheists will be safe, anywhere.





Je suis Charlie

Today in Paris, the weather – grey skies producing a steady patter of rain – is perfectly attuned to the grim feeling of horror and sadness and outrage that permeates the country after yesterday’s terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.  Well-known for its iconoclastic, far-out, sometimes totally tasteless and sometimes excruciatingly funny cartoons, the weekly poked fun at anything the its talented journalists deemed stupid – and the list was long.

Religious extremism, no matter what the religion, was one of Charlie’s favorite targets and its free-spirited journalists didn’t miss an opportunity to mock and make fun of Islam’s radical fundamentalists and the prophet Muhammed.    Nothing stopped them, even when they were threatened, even after their offices were burned, even when some hinted they might be going too far.    Freedom of the press was what mattered. As Charlie Hebdo’s director, Charb, told Le Monde: “What I’m going to say may be a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing up than live down on my knees.”

Yesterday Charb and eleven others were gunned down by two terrorists acting in the name of the Islam the newspaper had systematically mocked.

The attackers, dressed in black, masked, and armed with automatic weapons, were well-informed. They knew that Wednesday was the day of the story conference at which all the foremost journalists would be gathered. They are said to have called out the names of the journalists as they took aim.   When they left the building, the two gunmen shot a police man in cold blood, then unhurriedly made their way to their getaway vehicle yelling “”Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

They were wrong.  The French reaction, and the reaction of free people everywhere, was massive and basically this:   We will be unified, we will not let ourselves be torn apart, we will defend the values that are central to our civilization, foremost among them, freedom of expression, the liberty to write and say what we want without fear of giving offense.

Yes, the attackers murdered Charlie Hebdo’s brightest, bravest and blasphemous journalists. But they did not kill their spirit or their values or their message and they did not kill Charlie Hebdo. On the contrary, yesterday millions around the world declared in every language: “Je suis Charlie”.