In the beginning of 1958, when I was eleven, I began a new chapter in my life, one that had a tremendous impact and influence on who I became as an adult. I was sent to the French Christian Brothers Schools establishment.
Collège des Frères des Écoles Chretiennes de Jaffa (Arabic: مدرسة الفرير في يافا) is a French international school on Yefet Street #23 in Jaffa, now a district of Tel Aviv. A part of the La Sallian educational institutions, it opened in 1882. Originally, it was in the Mutessarifat of Jerusalem of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, before becoming part of the British Mandate of Palestine; currently it is in Israel. Today, the Brothers (Les Frères) teach over one million young people, on 5 continents, and in 77 countries. I am very proud of the education they provided me. The location, in ancient Jaffa, remains for me the source of great and unusual memories.
I have to stop my personal narrative to put Jaffa in historical perspective. The King Solomon of the unified kingdom of Judea and Israel – yes, the son of King David from the Old Testament, used the port of Jaffa. Born in about 990 BCE ( before current era, that’s 3,011 years ago!), he reigned between 970 BCE to the time of his death in 931 BCE. He built the first temple in Jerusalem using his vast wealth and uncommon wisdom.
Solomon imported precious cedar timber from Lebanon, from the Phoenicians, to build the magnificent temple dedicated to Yahweh, Israel’s one God. The timber came by boat from Tyre to Jaffa. Tyre Port is an ancient port and is also believed to be one of the oldest ports in the world. Around 3000 BCE, this was the most important timber-shipping center in the eastern Mediterranean. It was used by the Phoenicians to ship their local wine, cedars of Lebanon and other wood to the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and the kingdom of Israel to be used in tomb and temple construction and shipbuilding. King Solomon struck a deal with the Phoenician (Lebanese) King Hiram of Tyre: The pact between Hiram and Solomon was honored and continued for twenty years. Hiram supplied the builders and the cedar and juniper wood, and Solomon, in exchange sent to his friend 20,000 Muids (~40,000 50-gal drums) of wheat and 20,000 virgin oil measures annually. Solomon also ceded twenty cities of Galilee to Hiram. Historians report that Hiram was not entirely satisfied, and then Solomon promised him a common expedition to Ophir, the mysterious country, in the quest of treasures in gold and precious stones.
The port and the old city of Jaffa are at about 1,300 feet from the school. During the nine years in school, until 1966, I spent a lot of time in the old city but that’s another story.
I stayed at the school as a boarder but came home most Fridays (unless I was in detention) in the afternoon, around 3:30 PM, for the long weekend. Long, because the school being run by catholic brothers was not open on Sunday, and Saturday was the official Sabbath or day of rest in the Jewish State. All other kids in my neighborhood had a shorter school day on Friday and had Saturday off, but went to school on Sunday.
The school was about 3.5 miles from my parents’ apartment although then it seemed a lot further. It took about 20 minutes by bus, but first there was a 10-minute walk to the center of Holon, a 5 to 10-minute wait for the bus, and a 10-minute walk from the bus stop in Jaffa to school – a rough total of 50 minutes. In the later years when I was not a boarder anymore and Jan was in the same school, we would walk all the way to school in about 60 minutes, and we would save the bus fare for falafel.
The year we arrived in Israel, there was a big influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe because the communist regimes decided to open the boarders for Jews to leave and immigrate to Israel. Among the new arrivals in this Aliya, which roughly means “new influx” in Hebrew, there were many Poles, Russians, Romanians, Yougoslavs and Hungarians. Among them, roughly 10% (I am guessing) were mixed marriages, like my parents. There were many Polish and other new immigrant kids in my neighborhood, as well as at school. The state of Israel was only 9 years old in 1957 but the area had over 10,000 years of archeological history and about 5,000 years of written records.
The school was a French school and therefore all general subjects like math, physics, chemistry or history were taught in French. The brothers created a “special” class for all of the kids who did not speak French. At first, I spent about six months learning French, almost exclusively, but also improving my Hebrew and maintaining my Polish. I was 11 in September 1958 when I started la Classe Speciale. Next year, I went to a regular class, mostly in French, which also included the study of English. I got my Certificat d’etudes primaires in 1959, showing that I successfully finished the French Educational System Elementary School. I started Middle School in 1959 and finished high school or lycée in 1966 at age 19, with the French Baccalauréat general, at the top of my class.
At the French school, I continued my tradition of being an excellent student but “a bad boy”, all the way through Middle School. That definition taken in the context of a mid-twentieth century border school is totally different from what a bad boy in a 21st century public middle or high school in the US or France means. We are not talking about drugs, alcohol, sex, fights, swearing, and the like. I was “disrupting” the class – talking when not supposed to, clowning and making my fellow students laugh, playing practical jokes (releasing beetles in the church from way above, in the choir).
Getting in trouble costed you getting your hand or tips of your fingers struck really hard with a ruler or a bamboo stick. Worse, you could be sent to the director’s (principal’s) office and he would beat your bare legs (we were wearing shorts) with a rubber hose. Another possibility was to be ordered to take your desk and position it in the middle of the wide hallway outside the classroom, and write some constructive sentence 1,000 times. You could also be sent to detention, Saturday morning, and spend the time doing 100 long divisions, or copying a couple of historical chapters. During my first years, the Brother Director was Bul-Bul (bool-bool) – that is what we called him, although I don’t remember why because the word “bulbul” designated a bird similar to a nightingale. The brother was fat, bespectacled very imposing figure, and a true disciplinarian. His successor, Brother Marcel, was small, skinny and was a lot more approachable. As a matter of fact, during my first years in Paris, in the late 60’s, he introduced me to his mother, a truly classy French lady, who invited me for dinner several times.
Our teachers were several brothers, who we called by their first name, like “Dear Brother John” or “Cher Frère Jean”. Frère Adrien was tall and hard-hitting. He did not use a ruler but a piece of wood, 2″ x 2″ x 18″. When applied to your hand, you did feel pain for a long while. Frère Jean liked to pinch and to slap you on both cheeks simultaneously with both hands. Frère Xavier, thin as a rail slapped you with the reverse of his bony hand. One Israeli teacher who taught Hebrew and Israel’s geography and whose name I do not recall, was fond of using karate chops, punches to the shoulder, and pinching nerves in your arm – a real fun guy.
My best teachers over the years were Frères Xavier and Michel for many subjects, and Mr. Bradou for math. They really knew how to get us interested in some of the most challenging and boring subjects like math, philosophy or geology. The worst teacher, was Mr. Trau, teaching physics and chemistry in high school – more about him later.
In Middle School, I had a real crush on Mrs. Pnina, our Hebrew language and bible teacher. Bible, the Old Testament was taught in Hebrew not as a religious document but as the history and culture of Israel. Starting with Saul and David, it was truly an embellished narrative of the people of Israel. Mrs. Pnina was quite pretty, with a beautiful figure, shapely legs and large bust. She often wore a white, short, thin skirt that was semi-transparent when she stood in front of the large windows and the sun shone at her behind from behind. One could see her thighs and underwear under flimsy dress – a beautiful sight for teenage boys. We loved her classes.
My voice at that time has not completely changed and one brother, Cher Frère Bruno, decided to teach me how to sing the Kyrie Eleison, “Lord have mercy”, a short, important prayer in Greek, during high mass, long singing event, for Easter. All the local Christian Arabs and our two schools, Girls and Boys, attended in Saint Anthony’s Church further down on Yefet Street.
I sang solo during high mass, with a very high falsetto voice. Everyone thought it was a girl. I did not care. The brothers were proud of me!
It is worth mentioning that in our school, the kids were of many creeds: Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Coptic Christians, Muslim and Christian Arabs, and of course Jews. In my recollection, we never had any religion or ethnicity quarrels. We had a few fights but they were normal growing boys issues not related to one’s religion or country of origin. Under the strict Brothers’ discipline and the heavy school workload, we had no time for political squabbles. As teenage boys, we were more interested in the girls next-door, in the Sisters Girls boarding school.
We visited the old part of Jaffa, near the harbor and Saint Peter’s church sometimes during lunch and sometimes on the weekend when going to mass on Sunday. This part of Jaffa, between Yefet Street, The Clock Tower square – a big square with a tall, early 20th century Ottoman monument, and the harbor was the old Arab part of town. As a matter of fact, in the center of the area between Yefet Street, Louis Pasteur Street, the harbor and the Clock Tower Square, there was a “vast terrain” (that’s what we called it in Hebrew Ha-Shetah Ha-Gadol), about 1,000 by 500 feet, undeveloped, with some crumbling ruins, an abandoned minaret, and weeds. Today, this whole area is a beautiful tourist attraction, with public gardens slopping down to the sea wall, nightclubs and restaurants, as well as archeological digs.
It was fun walking around and exploring this semi-open space. We climbed the stairs in the minaret, and walked around the outside ledge, about 2 feet wide, and about 30 feet above the rocky ground. What a thrill! We smoked, talked about girls and food, and if we were lucky, we could spy local prostitutes going about their business, making the johns happy.
In 1964, I was attending the class of “premiere” or one before the last class called “terminale”. The French educational system counts the classes from the last one to the first one – why not, right?! The professor of physics was Mr. Trau. An older Romanian fellow, with a grumpy attitude and a bit of an accent in French. As hard as we, the students, tried to get something from his lectures, we basically failed to. I am talking all 13 students, not only the laggards. We discussed the issue among us for about two weeks and decided to strike! We went to the principal and announced that it was better to have no teacher than have Mr. Trau. The principal, to our big surprise told us that he has no other teacher to offer us, as physics teachers in Israel, qualified to teach in French, were few; if that is our choice, we will have to get by without a teacher. Of course, he hoped that after a few days we will give up and ask for Mr. Trau to return. It is not what happened. Three of us, Meloul, Lagnado, and I, who felt able to do it, studied the next chapter in the physics book every week, on Mondays and Tuesdays, did all the exercises in the chapter, and prepared two classes, Wednesday and Thursday for the rest of the students. Because the students now had three instructors, available most of the time, all were making good progress. It was certainly challenging but fun – a new experience for all. After 4-6 weeks, the principal took pity of us and assigned Frere Michel to help us out. Most of us finished the year with good grades in physics, confirmed by the final exam results.
I would be missing a big part of our teenage years at the College des Freres, if I did not mention Shabbat’s sandwich and cigarette shop. The tiny establishment – about 6 x 15 feet, was located on Yefet street, to the left of the main entrance. Shabbat was the name of the owner, and old Sephardic Jew, rather fat with grey hair. Shabbat sold us cigarettes by the count, one at a time, cheap sandwiches, and soft drinks. Because I had little pocket money, I used to buy a slice of bread with harissa smeared on top for a few cents. Shabbat also served the boarders our 10 am and 4 pm snacks: typically, a slice of bread with jam, or margarine, or Nutella. Sometimes, happy days, half a falafel sandwich in a pita bread.