Monday, December 17, 2007


The latest issue of TLS is always worth a look. In this one (7 December 2007), John Fletcher has a review that I especially liked. Short and pregnant. The book, Les Trois Exils; Juifs d'Algerie, is by Benjamin Stora, considered by some the leading historian of French Algeria and the Algerian War. His subject here the Jews of Algeria, who in a matter of decades suffered what Stora describes as "three exiles" from a land that for centuries had been their home.
The "Cremieux decree" was the first. In 1870 while granting Jews French citizenship, it paradoxically set them apart from their Muslim neighbors. Then during WWII the Vichy government's anti-Semitic laws excluded Jews from any role in Algerian public life. And when that war was over and Algerian independence declared, the Jews--though rooted in the culture of the Magreb--fled to exile in Europe with other French citizens. According to Stora, they feared being reduced to the ancient status of dhimmis (a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance with sharia law).
Stora recalls his family's poignant leave taking of their Algerian home in this matter-of-fact fashion: "Father locked the door and slipped the key in his pocket; we picked up our suitcases and left, just as if we were going on holiday. But we knew perfectly well that it was over, that we would not be coming back"

Reminding me of another much older Jewish exodus and an unusual encounter I had in 1962 on the overnight from Madrid to Algeciras. As our train began to pull out of the station, my wife and I were sitting in our 1st-class compartment congratulating each other on having it all to ourselves. Suddenly the outside door was thrown open and two suitcases and a backpack came flying in followed by a smiling good-looking young man in gleaming white slacks. He was waving a tennis racket. Dragging him in before he fell back on the platform, I slammed the door.
"Awfully sorry," he apologized. "Hope you don't mind."
His English sounded like Oxford. Actually, as we later learned, it was Cambridge. He had just graduated in civil engineering and was going home to Gibraltar. His name was Benjamin.
"Benjamin Azulay," he introduced himself.
He had the bluest eyes I'd ever seen.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"A guess. Just a guess."
Over a shared bottle of Rioja, manchego, olives, the three of us talked, joked, and watched the sun go down. His dream was to go to Israel and build roads. Why not? That sounded okay to us. I asked how come his family ended up on the Rock. He told us that the Azulays in the 15th century had a house they loved in Toledo but, refusing to convert, they were kicked out of Spain by los reyes catolicos.
Benjamin smiled--a golden boy's smile. "My father still has the keys to our old house. Large iron ones. And when he dies, I'll get them. The house itself, of course, no longer exists."
All that existed for him were the keys and the stories. The heavy baggage of deracinated people.Strange how in Europe the presentness of the past is everywhere. Since then I've often thought of Benjamin and hoped that he actually made it to Israel, that he did build his roads. From time to time I've also wondered, as I did when I learned of the death of Edward Said in New York not many years ago, if Palestinians still have their keys too.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Happened to revisit Take the Money and Run last night on TCM and it was a mixed bag. Loads of laughs, but I came away feeling "Is that all?" First the good stuff. The faces, of course. Allen has a great eye for casting. The actors he chooses to tell the tale of the incompetent Virgil Starkwell from youthful nerd to would-be Napoleon of crime look the part, starting with himself--the little nebbish with glasses that everybody wants to stomp on. And then there's the angelic innocence of Janet Margolin's Louise who shares some of the lovely glow of Chaplin's Goddard (though little of her feistiness). The faces and haircuts of the cops, the prison warden, the bank tellers, and the hoods, are perfect and seem to come straight out of the Eisenhower/Nixon years. Not to mention the stentorian voice of the narrator Jackson Beck (who sounds like an old March of Time Newsreel but was actually for many years from radioland's Superman) which provides the glue that, more or less, holds the glittery pieces and one-liners together. Unfortunately, there isn't much of a story.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I caught Prison Nation on TV this past Sunday. National Geo branching out into the human condition, which PrisNat tells us could be better. Providing two hours of riveting human misery not to mention some staggering figures (e.g. of the 700,000 prisoners released every year, more than 2/3s are back within three years)and thoughts for the 2007 Thanksgiving weekend. For example, if your mind happens to roam toward our guys in Iraq during the holiday season(regardless of how preemptively, alas!, they got there)all 200,000 strong, think about the 2.2 million prisoners risking their lives daily behind prison walls in the US with no chance of a medal and not even a decent butterball to nibble on. These penned in guys and gals may not be heroes, but despite their tattoos, their addictions, their ID numbers, they're still human beings.
But I digress. Let me say at the outset in keeping with full disclosure that one of the folks responsible for this powerful documentary happens to be someone I know quite well, in fact my co-writer on a couple of books. That the New York Times selected Prison Nation as a Sunday TV highlight only increased my interest. And, as it turned out, the Times was right. Besides, I was still able to catch the 4th quarter of the Pats/Eagles football game. A great double bill!
What I was most struck by in this dark portrait of incarceration in our country were the prison faces. The youngish ones newly arrived inside, twitchy and all-eyes while trying to be invisible. "Makes me a natural target," as one of them says. Already counting the days till he gets out, if he's lucky enough to survive. The old timers rock hard with their hooded eyes and prison shuffle down to a T. Like Albert, a Crips capo draped in tattoos, who stares into the camera and says, "I'm a big observer. I like to target them." When Albert eyeballs you and matter-of-factly mutters about some uncooperative newbie ("I choke him for ten or twelve seconds. He'll come around"), you think probably so. But all the while you're wondering how come this guy is giving such damning testimony against himself. The same thing I wondered when I first read Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue. How come this guy is telling me (not to mention his fellow pilgrims) what a crook-fraud-hypocrite he really is?
The most astonishing scene in Prison Nation? Actually, it's not the riots, the bloodstained fecal-smeared cells, the warden's wall full of homemade fetishly-gleaming shanks confiscated from inmates with a grudge. For me, it was Albert agreeing to meet with the family of their son's killer who wanted to forgive him. And when they do meet, Albert, who earlier had told us "I can't have no conscience in the streets. It'd get me killed," now says after seeing them: "I felt my knees were going to buckle. I felt like I was going to melt." Although I'd no more trust him than I would the Pardoner, for one brief moment there I did.
US prisons, dope-ridden, dangerously overcrowded and ready to explode, are clearly a dysfunctional system. The amazing fact is that all of the many heads of correctional departments interviewed for this provocative documentary agree that it is. But we get what we pay for according to Michael Jacobson, a former Commissioner of Corrections in New York, who warns that many inmates come out of prison much worse than they went in. Well honestly, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, can't we do better?