Jewish life in the City of Lights
Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies—wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras—but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.
Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.
However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.
In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”
He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?
The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.
Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.
“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.
Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker—telling an Israeli story—had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.
Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.
So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.
In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?
Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.