Conversation with a new friend from France

Anthony Selvitella
Anthony Selvitella, LCSW

“Let us now relate the awesomeness of this day’s holiness,” the Unetanneh Tokef commences. This year, the day’s “holiness” for me was displayed by the meeting of a new friend. After schul, I started up a conversation with a lady I had been admiring for her kind, yet distinguished, presence during the service. Quickly we seemed to bond, and she related to me her story of being a hidden child in Normandy during the War. Renée Roth-Hano told a miraculous and terrible story, softened by the captivating lilt of her French accent. We instantly became friends, and I felt that I had known her for years. (Not to mention her insistence that I practice my rusty French with her!)

Renee Roth-Hano and her friend,  Françoise Bourdin
Renee Roth-Hano and her friend, Françoise Bourdin

At Mincha the following day she brought me a copy of her book, Touch Wood (Touche du Bois), through which she relates her incredible story of escaping the Nazi terror that swept across France and the sheltering protection the Little Sisters of the Poor offered her in their provincial convent. As we spoke following services she explained her complicated theological outlook on life – her deep sense of Jewish-ness, yet, at the same time, her devotion to the Virgin Mary, whom she came to appreciate while being sheltered in that convent on the coast of France. She said, “She was a Jewish woman I could relate to….” Yet, somewhat paradoxically, she also offered, “But I’m not sure I believe in God; sometimes I don’t…I hope I’m wrong.”

Although this complex theological view is something I cannot understand, or share, with Renée, I do respect it. It cuts against the deep faith and piety with which I was raised and inherit proudly from my grandmother. It contradicts the unwavering deep confidence in Divine Providence I have which is cemented by memories of my grandmother rising to pray in the morning from her mother’s Polish prayer book, and the admiration I felt for her at those moments. Yet, as mentioned, I respect Renée’s feelings; I haven’t experienced what she has.

However, what I’d like to point out to Renée, and anyone who would care to see, is the “awesomeness of this day.” With little effort, a connection was made; two links in the great Jewish chain of the generations bonded, and one (me) was certainly enriched by the experience. A new friendship was made with great ease, no doubt facilitated by this awesome day. (Perhaps it is an example of the “thin, still sound” that the Unetanneh Tokef speaks of?)

These connections and cross-generational communications are an essential part our aging process, no matter where one is in life- 30, 40, or 100. We all benefit from these bonds and connections, new and old alike. They remind us of our shared humanness, regardless of our individual positions on the spectrum of age and life. We should encourage ourselves to make more of these friendships and to not generationally ghettoize ourselves, ever. I see this as part of fully enjoying the gift of life, in all of its entirety, and in all of its stages. To deny ourselves and others this experience would be criminal.

I, for one, am looking forward to my next lunch with Renée, to our friendship, and to learning from one another. So, now in French for her: á bientôt et aussi j’espère que vous aurez tort!

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