Quand j’ete petit, a 16 ans, j’habitee a Lyon, presque d’Paris. J’habitee avec une familee juif, Orthodox. When I was 15 or 16, I spent a summer living with an Orthodox family in Lyon, about 40 minutes from Paris. My name is Renee, which is mostly male in France, and so the family was shocked when a young woman showed up. They called the travel group and asked for a young man. I listened to my French Papa and foresaw that my time in Lyon would be a disaster. He quickly calmed down, changed the sleeping arrangement in the three-bedroom apartment and embraced me as his petite Americanne. I quickly learned that they knew no English and I knew no words of Arabic or Yiddish. My French and English from the television show “Dallas” would be our only mode of communication aside from charades. Street signs in Lyon were covered with swastikas. At first, I noticed them daily with fear and soon they faded into life in Lyon. I became comfortable with my family speaking French- Arabic in the streets and the soldiers and guards located by the synagogue doors. The family was well known in Lyon, for starting the Orthodox synagogue generations ago, and for their fabrics which were used by French design houses and draped the most famous of bodies.
I became comfortable with having a bodyguard and using a password to enter the shul. I became comfortable weekly revelations on what was occurring on Dallas in America. I became so complacent, that I forgot that I had an etoile juif around my neck, twinkling from my new chiffon blouses. The star was small but covered with diamonds and shimmered in the sun. I had worn it continuously for three years and wearing it was as natural to me as breathing.
On Bastille Day, the Jewish star nearly became a catalyst for a serious event. Susie and I left early in the morning, sneaking out before our guards arose. We had backpacks full of food and wine and cash for shopping. We met friends at the zoo, taking selfies with our small cameras. At the age of 16, we were confident, ready to flirt and be free; and so we did. Right before nightfall, Susie and I decided to head home, ready for the consequences of leaving without our guard, mace and Susie’s small knife. We danced through the park, full of the joy of the day and soon were surrounded by 7-12 Arabic men, our age and older. Susie began to flirt with them in Arabic and they responded. She explained how I was an American, her best friend, living with her for the summer. They turned their attention from Susie to me. I was concerned. I had never met an Arab but had been taught a mistruth, that they were all anti-Israel, and anti-Jewish. One of them grabbed the star from my neck, leaving a large scratch. It was as if time stood still. Susie’s face drained of blood. I wanted to run but they made their circle tighter. Susie explained that I had bought the necklace the other day, and through it was just a star. She laughed off the fact that I was a stupid American but they knew better and started to chant Juif. They took the cigarettes from their mouths to put out on our arms. Several took their lighters and flicked them near our faces to make us afraid. A flame caught the bottom of my jeans, scaring us all. Our assailants spit at my leg and rubbed the flame with their hands until it extinguished. They ran fast and far.
Susie and I sat holding each other, breathing hard, tears running down our cheeks. Then, we too, arose and ran as fast as we could home. Papa and Maman were waiting with anger in their eyes. When they saw our condition, their anger became concern and love. Maman tended to the burns, Papa called the police and we remained silent. The policemen urged us to tell our story. They placed the photos of several of the young men on the table and asked us to point to our attackers. We learned that these young men were part of a gang who targeted and robbed elderly people, and sprayed anti-Jewish sentiments on the walls and swastikas on town signs. Our attack was one of many. If we pointed to their faces and told our story, they could be arrested and taken off the streets. If we remained silent they could escalate their activity. As if we had made a pact, we remained silent. Susie had to live in town. If they knew that she spoke, her family may be in danger. I realized that the attack was due to the fact that I did not take off my Jewish star. I had become complacent. The police left empty handed. Susie and I held each other that night and cried. We put that night away, never speaking of it again.
It has been over twenty years since we spoke. Does she remember that night? Does the smell of cigarette smoke bring back a twinge of pain? Did the family suffer any consequences? Most of all, were we wrong in keeping silent?
As a teenager, I was complacent. As an adult, I refuse to live in fear and will speak out against injustice. Yet my words do not seem enough? After 9/11, I worked in a shul across the river from the Twin Towers. We tasted ash for several months and did our work at the Shul with special operatives on the roof and taught classes in the presence of what the FBI thought was a small terrorist cell near the Synagogue in NJ.
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of God appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all-aflame yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered “Henani- “here I am”.
Moses was aware and he responded to God, Henaini- here I am, ready to do your will. The most recent unexpected, horrific forms of terrorism have not hit our shores; but they may. When that day comes, may we respond Henaini through word and work and living life. In the words of Reb Nachman of Bratslav, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.”
Je suis Charlie Helbo.