I have been on hiatus from my blog since last fall, in order to complete a manuscript. During that time, both the Jewish and the Gregorian New Year happened. So here is a New Year’s story, with a few important facts you should bear in mind as you read:
- “Shanah tovah” means "Happy New Year" in Hebrew.
- “Ça va” in the interrogative means “How are you?” in French; in the declarative it means, “I’m fine.” A series of them – Alors, ça va? Ça va, ça va; ça va, et toi? Oui, ça va, ça va – is a typical casual conversation in French.
- The Ardèche has no major highways, train stations, airports, or Jews.
The French, for the most part, are extremely discreet about religion. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and so I find this cultural specificity rather restful, but every so often it can lead to what (as you may recall from French Vocabulary Number 3) the French call a quid pro quo.
One morning last fall, I walked past the Alba grocery store and saw Marco, the owner, standing outside with an older lady and her cellular telephone. He motioned me over.
“Miranda, maybe you’ll know,” he said. “What’s the country code for Israel?”
“Off the top of my head, it’s either 972 or 942," I told them. "Why? Who are you trying to call?”
“Madame here is trying to call her cousin,” Marco said. “And she can’t get through.” Marco did not require any rhetorical flourishes beyond his own eyebrows to convey that Madame did not possess the technological know-how necessary to operate the mobile device she was holding in her hands.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” said Madame. “She’s a long lost cousin – she found us doing research on our family, and she’s supposed to come visit, and I can’t figure out how to get through to her.”
“No trouble at all,” I told her, my thoughts whirling. A cousin in Israel? Could it be true? Were there actually two Jews in the Ardèche? “Are you…” I trailed off. I was in a quandary – what Americans call Jewish Geography the French call indiscretion. Not wanting to seem rude, I decided to stick to innuendo and eyebrow wiggles: “So you’re…” I trailed off, and nodded my head in what I hoped was a politely Semitic fashion.
“Oh, yes,” she said, smiling beatifically.
I smiled. “Wow, me, too! How did you end up here?”
“My husband,” she told me. “Funny, isn't it?”
“I’ll say!” I said. “Look, I have to go,” I went on, “but Marco has my number. If you give me a call this afternoon I’ll find you the dialing code for Israel.”
I didn’t hear from the lady for a week, so I figured she must have gotten through to her cousin. Then, the day before Rosh Hashanah, the phone rang. It was Madame. I was tickled pink – after all these years in the Ardèche, someone from our neighborhood was finally calling to wish me a happy new year. “Shanah tovah!” I exclaimed.
“Ça va, ça va,” she said. “Et toi?”
Before I could try again she rushed on. “I was wondering if you could help me with that country code,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “I checked; it’s 972.” Still not wanting to violate any rules of subtlety, I said, “But you might want to wait to call until after the holidays.”
“You know, it’s Rosh Hashanah tomorrow.”
“The New Year. It’s the Jewish New Year tomorrow.”
“Oh goodness, dear,” she said. “I wouldn’t know about any of that. I’m Catholic.”