I am a 6 foot, 166 pounds, 73 year old going on 50. Five years ago, I used to be forty pounds heavier. I take all kinds of medications but all my ills are mild and manageable. I can say that most of the time I do feel quite good, and I do feel good about myself. I was born in Poland in 1946 right after World War II. I lived in Israel for ten years from 1957 to 1966; in France until 1973; and now I still live the U.S. of A. although I left Massachusetts for sunny Florida around 2009.
I was not born in Florida or Massachusetts, as you already read, and English is not the first language I spoke as a child. I mention this right from the start as an excuse for some turns of phrase that might seem a bit awkward to my American compatriots and other English speaking readers. The best writing course I took in the early eighties was the US Air Force “Pen & Quill” and I hope it did help a little.
As a teen, I studied at the Collège des Frères Saint Joseph, French LaSalle Brothers’ boarding school for boys in Jaffa, Israel. I received an excellent, broad French education that helped me through my life. I have to mention that at the Collège, I had many Israeli, French, Polish, Romanian, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Arab, Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, and other European, Middle-Eastern and American schoolmates. They were a rich mix of Catholics, Protestants, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Jews; and we were all getting along just fine. I cannot remember even one incident at school when someone was insulted for his religion or ethnicity. We certainly had our teen boys’ quarrels and fights, and different cliques, but I never remember somebody calling a schoolmate a dirty Arab, a greedy Jew, a dumb Pollack or a stupid Frenchman. Of course, prejudice and ethnic slurs were quite common outside of the school walls – we were in the Middle East after all. A strong sense of entente cordiale ruled inside the school. Others might disagree, but I will always remember it that way.
I love languages. I speak, read and write seven of them: American English, French, and Polish fluently. Spanish and Hebrew well enough to have a normal conversation, read books, and watch TV series. Russian and Italian enough to get by if I need to buy bread and wine in Rome and borscht and pelmeni in Moscow. I started learning Hebrew when I arrived in Israel at a tender age of eleven; French when I entered the Collège in 1958; and English from 1959. I was always an avid reader. In Israel, I continued reading books in Polish, mostly science fiction and “cowboys and Indians” westerns, borrowed from a small library close to my best friend’s Leon’s parents apartment, in Holon. A couple of years later, I fell in love with Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories and read the whole collection in English.
Many years later, in the summer of 1989, I was upset about a missed promotion to CEO at the company I worked for at the time (although quite understandable, in view of the better qualifications of the other candidate). I picked up a self-study book in French titled “Learn Spanish in 30 days”. I took thirty days of accumulated vacation time as a sabbatical. It was a beautiful summer and I spent a lot of time every day by my backyard pool studying Spanish. I took a break from time to time to swim with my kids and their friends – the pool was one of their favorite spots. I found that the Spanish language is very similar to French as far as grammar and a lot of the vocabulary, and much easier to read. I fell in love with the idioma and the Spanish culture.
I was working in the nuclear industry and Russian became a useful tool, when after Chernobyl in 1986, Russian plant executives and nuclear scientists came to visit us in Massachusetts, to learn from our years of solid experience in training reliable nuclear plant operators. The Cyrillic alphabet was painfully slow to acquire even though it is a collection of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew characters. The vocabulary and the grammar were very similar to Polish, Russian being a Slavic language and Russia – the big neighbor to the east, shares many cultural and historical aspects with Poland.
I picked up Italian on a trip to Rome with my then wife Nava. It is very close to Spanish. Funny thing, you cannot speak Italian without the “sing song” inherent in the delivery. A beautiful language.
At the Collège, in 1966, I got my French Baccalauréat with honors. I attended the Tel-Aviv University for a few months. The brothers from the Collège and the French Embassy in Tel Aviv helped me leave Israel to study in France. Being Catholic, I received a dispensation from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to avoid the 30 months of compulsory military service and leave the country legally. I have to mention that after the Six-Day War also known as the June War in 1967, only a year later, this practice was eliminated, and my brother, also brought up as Catholic, had to serve in the IDF in the late ’70s (and that is another story). From 1966, I lived in Paris for six years, and studied linguistics, economics, and law at the University of Paris Jussieu, Sorbonne, Assas, and Dauphine campuses.
I was there in 1968. I remember well the nationwide student and worker riots in May of that year. I can be called a “soixante-huitard” – the official name for those who actually were there during those events. While I attended the university, in January of 1968, I took an entry exam at one of the leading computer companies of the time – Bull General Electric (soon acquired by Honeywell). You have to remember that in 1968 there was no computer science degree. Typically, electrical engineers could learned about computer hardware and software as a side specialty but they were rare. IBM, Honeywell, Bull and their brethren hired people that showed certain qualifications that have proven necessary to program computers. These chosen candidates were then trained in-house for a year, in programing and basic hardware design and functions. Some of them were good math and English skills, excellent pattern recognition, attention to details, creativeness, and finally, ability to focus for long periods. After a year, the weaker candidates were culled out and the lucky ones continued to work and train as programmers and later as analysts.
That is how I entered the computer field in which I remained for the rest of my life. Invited by Honeywell’s Application Development division in Wellesley, Massachusetts, I left Paris for New England. I lived, studied, worked in Massachusetts for 40 years, and started a family, several companies, and several careers. I am very proud of every country I lived in and of the cultural heritage that it imprinted in my mind. I have to admit, that when I got older, I became quite patriotic and especially in love with Massachusetts and Florida.
Taking advantage of a paid tuition by Honeywell and the excellent colleges and universities in Massachusetts, I continued studying at Babson College in Wellesley and got my MBA in 1975.
That’s me – in my Civil Air Patrol polo shirt, around 2012.
I always called my father a Jewish Pole as opposed to a Polish Jew, because he always seemed to me to be Polish first and Jewish next. He was a well-integrated urban Jew. Being a Jew was his religion at birth, not what defined him. Not that I knew what it meant until much later in my life. He rarely practiced his religion after WWII. I had many discussions with friends, while in Israel as well as in France and the US, how being a Jew is a complex definition, not as simple as being Polish or French. We talked about the three aspects of Judaism: the religious, the ethnic, and the cultural. My Jewish friends belong to all three aspects and that saves them from questioning their identity. My father did belong to all three until the WWII ordeals, but when I knew him, he was a Jew in his ethnicity, a Pole in his culture, and an atheist in his religious beliefs. I consider myself half-Polish and half-Jewish ethnically, Roman Catholic by my religious upbringing, somewhat Jewish and Israeli because of my ten-year immersion in the local culture and religion in Israel, and an American from New England with a French flavor, culturally. Oy!
I was brought up as a Polish Catholic. That is hardly surprising in Poland, catholic for over 1,000 years. After decades of intense Communist effort to eradicate religious practice, the Polish people maintained the churches full and not only at Christmas and Easter and with old babushkas, but every Sunday, with celebrants of all ages. The love of their culture, their language, and their religion gave Poles hope and national identity that kept Poland resurrecting from the ashes after so many invasions by the more powerful neighbors (Russians, Germans, Prussians, Austrians, Swedes and let’s not forget the Mongols and the Turks!) Even after several disappearances from the map of Europe, Poland always reappeared.
As a young boy, I had no idea that other religions existed or what they were. I vaguely heard that my dad was Jewish and that many of his friends were too, but had no idea until I arrived in Israel that it was a “Religion”. In 1955 in Lodz, Poland (Łódź), I was standing in a queue, savinging a spot for my mother, in front of a “Meat and Cold Cuts People’s Cooperative” store. The rumor was that ham has arrived. A nice old woman and her friend asked me if I was “of the Moses’ creed?” I said that I do not know what that means but I do take catechism lessons at the Church of the Holy Cross. Once, while walking with my mother, she pointed to a large cathedral and said, “This is a church of the heretics” which of course meant Protestants. It did not mean anything to me then.
The Jews have very practical rules in as far as “are you or are you not a Jew”. If your mother is not Jewish, you are not Jewish. It seems that it is a lot easier to know who the mother is than wondering who the father was. In 1970, on a trip to visit my parents in Israel, I learned that in order to marry my mother in Catholic Poland, in 1946, my dad agreed to be baptized and married in a Catholic Church. He was by then very disappointed with God, after the war, after losing his first family, a young wife and seven year-old son Sender, as well the rest of his family, except his brother Shabtai. After all the misery during the war and seeing the concentration camps and one mass grave after another while retaking Poland from the Nazis – religions did not matter much to him. He loved my mother and her family, and they loved him. That was more important to him than anything else was.
St. Peter’s Church (Hebrew: כנסיית פטרוס הקדוש), Jaffa.
By Godot13 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25611603
In Israel, at my catholic French Brothers’ School for boys, the Christian boarders attended mass twice a week, once at the school chapel on Thursdays evening, and most Sundays at Saint Peter’s, overlooking the Jaffa harbor. Built in Old Jaffa several centuries ago, first time by the Crusaders, and finally rebuilt in 1888, this church is a prominent landmark if you look south from the Tel Aviv seaside boardwalk called “Ha-Tayelet” and its posh hotels, restaurants and cafes. When I used to return to visit my parents and my friends in Israel, I walked many times from the Tel Aviv Marina to Old Jaffa. “Old” in the Middle East means that the great King Solomon, Shlomo to the Jews, Sulayman to the Muslims, around 970 BCE, brought cedars from Lebanon for the magnificent First Temple in Jerusalem, through the port of Jaffa. A thousand years later, in the 1970’s Saint Peter’s became a center for a growing Polish catholic community: a big wave of immigrants who left Poland between 1956 and 1960. Like ourselves, many were from mixed marriages. I liked going to church there. I could meet the Polish girls who belonged to the Sisters’ Boarding School, next door to our school, otherwise off limits. The masses are still conducted at Saint Peter’s to this day in English, Spanish, Polish, and Hebrew.
Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Victims of Jaffa on 11 March 1799
By Antoine-Jean Gros – Musée du Louvre, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38943
I became a staunch non-believer and I stopped practicing any religion around year 2000. In 1990, I read “A brief history of time” by Stephen Hawking. I was already reading scientific magazines and realized the enormousness of the now known universe: some 2,000 billion galaxies, each containing about 200 billion stars, with our Milky Way measuring 100,000 light-years across or about 20 billion miles. To me, the Big Bang theory is a more believable story of the creation of the universe than is God creating it all in six days. Later, I was very inspired by Reza Aslan, Spinoza and Yuval Harari, and their magnificent books explaining humanity’s spiritual past and future, as well as God and the creation of our belief and social systems. All religions have been created by man because for tens of thousands of years it was for the homo-sapiens the only way to explain the natural world and find some hope during their harsh, short lives. Sometimes for reasons of national identity, other times as a tool to instill morality in a chaotic and cruel world, we invented gods in our own image, and religions to worship them. With religion and its deities, you could explain anything and everything, like natural phenomena and disasters. Of course the greatest invention was the afterlife, becoming the drive behind the pyramids and the cathedrals. Religion, still today, gives hope to billions of people who without it would have no reason to live and no hope for a better tomorrow.
I still am a staunch non-believer and I do not practicing any religion. I do admire the cultural aspects of religion. There is a beauty in a Grand Mass or a Yom Kippur service. I feel lucky that my secondary French education gave me a wide understanding of sciences, philosophy, and literature. What better place to learn about religions first-hand than living in the Holy Land, where all three monotheistic religions originated. I am quite wary of any fanatics, religious or other. Irrational zeal has been over the ages the reason for the death of more people than any disease or catastrophe.
Nota bene – Separating the person from the idea is a learned, important skill; discussing any subject, arriving at new conclusions or solutions, without ending up at each other’s throat, is very satisfying. The art of a civilized discourse is an art quickly disappearing. So if you want to discuss any of the ideas and statements in this book – let’s have a discussion, and not an argument. As I was reading an article in Scientific American about the Homo Sapiens outliving and outcompeting the other three human species in the last 300,000 years, I thought about the incidents of intolerance and partisanship in the last few years. One of the major factors for our species success is tolerance and acceptance of others. It is actually called self-domestication resulting in less testosterone, more serotonin and oxytocin, smaller eyebrows, smaller teeth, flatter faces. And especially less aggression against strangers and others.
Putting ourselves in other peoples’ places and trying to understand their point of view, and avoid strict dogmas, has been good for humanity. Are we losing this ability?