The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

A Lunch on the Place de l’Odeon

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 6, 2014

[“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.

La Mediterranee on the Place de l'Odeon

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?”

Israeli paratroopers pray at the Western Wall, 7 June 1967. Photo by Micha Bar-Am.

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.”

It took the legions another 50 years or so to defeat the last rebels and finally drive all Jews out of the province they called Syria Palaestina. “From that day until May 14, 1948,” says Yosi, “the Jewish people have lived as exiles and strangers in the lands of others.” Exile means weakness. It means vulnerability. At the exile’s door are laid the evils of the society in which he dwells as a supplicant. This is true of all exiles in all lands in all centuries.

“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.”

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

7 Responses to “A Lunch on the Place de l’Odeon”

  1. June 6, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Steve,
    I’ve never heard of a this day. Holiday does not feel like the right word to use for a day of lamentation.

    As I read this, I was immediately struck by the wisdom in this practice. There is so much grief and sadness in life. I think the natural tendency is to short-cut the process of fully expressing grief.

    Where does the remainder go? Does it stay inside? Does it transmute into other feelings? I think much of the PTS that we are seeing is un-expressed grief over a life time, distilled and transmuted into another expression other than the heart-felt sobs of unrequited grief.
    bsn

    • June 7, 2014 at 4:05 am

      Wonderful insight Brian.

  2. June 6, 2014 at 11:04 am

    “I believe that hatred of the Other is innate and intrinsic, not just to human nature but to animal nature.”

    “…the primal mass will attempt to reject any sub-entity that it identifies as ‘other'”

    This is a very wise–a lesson that took me many years to understand. Growing up in a heavy-handed Christian environment I was taught that we all must love all. I took this deeply to heart and was very hurt when it wasn’t reciprocated. I didn’t understand why so many people were “mean.” It took me probably 20 years to understand that this is evolutionary biology. After that, I gave myself permission to be fine with it. However, old habits still persist (I still like most people I meet).

    It is not politically correct to admit that you are driven to, and in fact SHOULD protect your tribe from outside destroyers. We want to make everyone friends. Alas, sometimes we can’t.

    Interesting post. It’s really great how this story is unfolding on the micro level (interviews) but has macro implications (the human experience). You do a great job at weaving it all together.

    • John
      June 11, 2014 at 6:06 am

      Wouldn’t it be better if we expended our energy on not identifying ourselves as part of a tribe, but instead as part of humankind only?

  3. June 7, 2014 at 4:11 am

    So true Erika…all sorts of thought are going through my head: the word hot-wired popped in…then I think of how BUSY people are…how many distractions surround us, leaving us without the time to take a breath, or think and to process, much life and stuff.

  4. RH
    June 7, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Don McLean’s version triggers memories of high school chorus:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTnspbSjKVc

  5. June 8, 2014 at 12:15 am

    I am really enjoying reading this series of yours Steven. Yes, the 9th of Av is a sad day for the Jews. It is a date that stretches sadly throughout Jewish history. It is also the date that the Jews were expelled from England and Spain and when the sin of the spies caused the Hebrews who left Engypt to be denied entry to Israel.

    Can’t we as humans learn already that fear of the ‘others’ is often counter-productive?