Henrietta Foster reviews Mazel Tov by J S Margot ahead of the first two live podcast recordings of the 15-part weekly Bridging The Divide series. In Ep. 1, J S Margot discusses navigating clashing cultures followed by a second podcast with her publisher at Pushkin Press, Adam Freudenheim.
Towards the end of this marvellous memoir the narrator writes “If I occasionally had the temerity even briefly to think I could penetrate the millefeuille of Jewish culture, I was soon disabused of this idea.” The book is full of various cultural millefeulles that require penetrating – ironic considering that patisserie is the one gastronomic art that the Belgians do not excel in.
Mazel Tov is the story of an extraordinary friendship – in fact several extraordinary friendships that marked the twenties of the author J.S.Margot. At first sight it is the story of a young Flemish woman at university in Antwerp who teaches the four children of an Orthodox Jewish family to earn a bit of extra money. It is also the story of her first great love for an Iranian political refugee. In both cases she is exposed to a culture and religion that is not her own. She also begins to realise that she is on the receiving end of a certain amount of paranoia and suspicion from both her employers and her boyfriend.
Belgium at a pivotal time
It is also in a profound way a fascinating and incredibly rich portrait of Belgium at a pivotal time. For those of us who know and love it Belgium is in many ways the most compelling and complex country in Europe. Founded in 1830 it has always been a delightful if exasperating enigma. Divided in so many different ways. There are three official languages : French, Flemish and German. The French speaking Belgians had economic and therefore cultural ascendancy over the Flemish Belgians until just after World War One when the Flemish fought back and are now the economic victors.
Mazel Tov is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s when everything seemed to be falling apart and the country was in danger of splitting into two or three separate countries. At the time experts on Belgium would always say that there were three things that held it together : the Royal family – the much beloved Baudouin, King of the Belgians died in 1993 and was replaced by a less than lovable monarch, compulsory military service was where all the Belgians mixed whatever their language but that was also abolished in 1993 and finally the Catholic church that 96% of Belgians belonged to. Church attendance started diminishing in the 1990s.
Belgium became Federal Belgium. It was a time of deep and troubling nationalism and regionalism. In 1991 the far right Vlaams Blok swept the board in the federal elections. The Vlaams Blok originated in Antwerp and admitted being inspired by the Nazi party. Mazel Tov reflects the confusion and breakdown of a traditional idea of Belgium from the perspective of an outsider. It was a time when ordinary Belgians would ask themselves what it meant to be Belgian.
Migration in the heart of Europe
The narrator was born in a “white village” in the poor mainly rural province of Limburg. She remembers the scandal of the first divorce in her small community and the fact that 80% of the pupils in her school were from migrant worker families and mainly Muslim. She goes to Antwerp to study languages and falls in love with Nima who is a political refugee from Iran. She speaks English with him and listens to his conversations with his family back home. Her parents are none too happy that she is living with a man in sin and a foreigner at that.
Her life with Nima is suffused with his depression about leaving his family and his justifiable paranoia about the Belgian state wanting him to spy on his fellow refuges. He is also worried about his sister Marjane who is lost in Brussels. When they finally find her she is painted like a doll in a basement bathroom in Schaerbeek surrounded by images of the white fashion models whom she wanted to look like. Nima says, “This isn’t my sister, this is a shadow of the Marjane I know.” It transpires that she had experienced multiple rapes and has become emaciated. They do their best to help her but she has lost all grasp on reality and returns to Iran, “something in her has died.”
The Flemish-Walloon Divide
The image of this lost young woman is one of the most haunting and troubling in a book full of difficult and uncomfortable encounters. All the religious factions in the book frown on homosexuality and the one gay character cannot be openly gay. This is a Belgium just before 9/11 and before Molenbeek or Anderlecht become breeding grounds for international terrorism. J.S. Margot shows us the very beginning of that unfortunate development.
Inevitably and somewhat amusingly after a trip to Cuba, Nima and the narrator split up because they have nothing left in common. Then horror of horrors she falls for a man from Amsterdam which as the woman at the agency, who tells her about the job with the Jewish family, says that when it comes money “the Jews are a bit like the Dutch.” The Flemish do not like the Dutch at all.
Antwerp is one of the biggest Jewish cities in the world as the book says it impossible to take a train to Antwerp without seeing religious Jewish fellow passengers saying their prayers in every compartment. The father is a diamond merchant with offices near the central station in the old Jewish area. The family live just south of the centre. Throughout the book people offer casual racist remarks about the Jewish community that remind me of my Flemish colleagues who said shocking things to me like “they are not like us” or “they are so rich”. The book gets this level of passive but nevertheless naked suspicion perfectly. The narrator is young, open minded and not from Antwerp. She is genuinely horrified at the comments coming from people she thought of as friends with similar beliefs.
The Jewish family she works for are the Schneiders. They are Orthodox Jews. The four children go to Jewish schools but speak French at home. This is a class thing; the Flemish haute-bourgeoisie still tend to speak French. It is also a historical matter as the parents’ generation were hidden in the war by families in the French speaking part of the country. French became their first language. The war comes into the story with Mrs Schneider’s mother who was a concentration camp survivor and will barely talk about it even to her family.
Her relationship with the family rings true to anyone who has been a jeune fille au-pair. In one way the host family are your second family. She is only four years older than the oldest son Simon and becomes a third daughter for the Schneiders who help her throughout her life as she in turn maintains an eye on the children and in particular the middle two – Jakov and Elzira.
Jakov is a fantastically mischievous teenager who is the one person that she can ask honest questions about being Jewish and Jewish traditions. Together they start a business selling essays in Flemish to his fellow students at school. There is something wonderfully conspiratorial about their friendship and how much they miss one another when he goes off to live in Israel. He pays her a compliment when he says she is just like them, “a dirty Jew.”
Her main pupil is Elzira who is the brightest of the children but also the most troubled. She has dyspraxia and lacks confidence. The memoir becomes truly touching as their teacher pupil relationship develops into a deep friendship. They are both so dependent on each other albeit in very different ways. They share their most private fears and desires. Slowly slowly she becomes part of the Schneider family – going to Shabbat supper, graduations, weddings. She even visits her former charges first in Israel and then in New York where two of them end up living.
I loved this book for so many reasons. It reminded me of the wonderful French Catholic family I lived with in Paris and whom I still see. It also reminded me of the late 1980s when I lived in Brussels and experienced all the turmoil that J.S. Margot writes about. I even had the same Jean Paul Gaultier skeleton print trousers as she did and loved as much. A time that was not innocent and easy like my time in Paris but a special time for that country.
It also takes the position of an outsider – a position I am very familiar with. The narrator is an outsider in her own country – a Limburger in Antwerp, in her own relationship – a Catholic European living with an Iranian Muslim and finally an outsider in her job with an Orthodox Jewish family. There are genuinely hilarious moments when she transgresses inadvertently various Jewish traditions but throughout it all it is her openness to other cultures and traditions that is both inspiring and makes this book a true joy and not just for confirmed Belgophiles like me.
Henrietta Foster is an established journalist, TV producer and film-maker. Her latest film Beyond the Grace Note (Sky Arts) looks at some of the most remarkable and resilient female conductors, and the joys and challenges of the profession in the male-dominated world of orchestral conducting. Her previous work includes Art & Islam with Hari Kunzru for the BBC (2004), and Millennium Minds with philosopher, Alain de Botton, for Channel 4 (1999).
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