Yet another book from the life-saving parcels from my mum. She is now happily stocking my shelves with non-fiction from Polish publishers, so I had this one in Polish edition.
Margot tells us a story based on her experiences. From 1987 to 1993 he was a tutor in a family of orthodox Jews in Antwerp. She herself was a firmly leftist student, dating a man from Iran, so the cultural clash could not be more pronounced. But she decided to keep an open mind and she needed the money. She visited the Schneider family home six times a week to help mostly Elzira and Jakov, the middle of the four children in the family.
What is so fascinating about this book is this clash of personal experience and political and social convictions. On one hand, she sees the parallels between Schneider’s experience and one of her boyfriend, Nima, who has a status of political refugee. Neither of the cultures fully accepted in the country of their choice. On the other hand both of them also with a tendency to be insular and aloof when speaking to outsiders. Margot makes a million mistakes in her interaction but she also genuinely cares about the children and is willing to learn and adapt.
Inevitably there come some points which help her draw the line. The situation between Israel and Palestine is one causing multiple discussions with the Schneider family. But so is the palpable turn to the right of the Belgian politics in the early 1990’s, equally worrying for all involved. There are also plenty of funny and amusing stories from her experience.
But what the book is mostly about is differences between people and the ability to bridge them. That said Margot never pretends it is easy, actually after a few years she is so exhausted of navigating the complex situation that she leaves Schneider’s house for a few months. One day Mr. Schneider comes with a surprise visit when she’s not there and is welcomed by Nima. One of those nearly improbable encounters of cultures, that goes well. Because when we think of it, as much as we are different we also have things in common. In some aspects, Nima, being from Iran, and Mr. Schneider had more in common than Nima and Margot. For example, she never directly experienced discrimination based on her origins, while both of them did.
She grows closer to the family but never becomes one of them. A line that is eerily drawn when the Schneiders invite her and Nima to join them for Szabat dinner. They are welcome, but they are not one of them. They can join and have fun, but it’s not their holiday. Because tolerance is not becoming the same, it is conscious accepting of the differences.
A fascinating read, extremely well written. Posing some challenging questions, especially now, in the current toxic political climate. Where everyone who is not ‘us’ is ‘them’. Margot is very honest about how even though she thought herself very open, she also struggled with some of the things. Because it is never easy to accept other cultures. Because instinctively we want them to be like us. But also because some of the things accepted in any culture are repulsive and unacceptable in another. Only we’ve been so self-involved that we think the ‘western’ culture can only be right and has no annoying features. Margot takes that arrogant smirk off our faces, with her sensitive narration. She struggles and allows us to struggle, the only thing we cannot do is to stop. We need to make this active effort to understand and accept. Even if sometimes we have to agree to disagree.