About twice a year I get an email from a concerned, distant relative. The subject line will read, “Is it really that bad?” or “Come home, we’re worried about you!” But the contents never vary. It is a hateful, inaccurate diatribe about anti-Semitism in France, and about being Jewish in Paris, that has been circulating for nearly a decade. I repeat, inaccurate.
France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States. It is a healthy, thriving community that benefits from centuries of rich history here in the diaspora. Because of the country’s colonial past, France enjoys a particularly rich blend of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures.
There are barriers and a police presence at many of the local synagogues, but the same protection is provided at all of the city’s public schools, so it is hardly unusual. High holidays can be something of a surprise if one is asked to pass through a metal detector and is then patted down before entering services. But considering that you may very well be sitting next to a Sarkozy or a Rothschild, this is almost reassuring. The French take their security very seriously.
And to be honest, I have heard comments about “the Jews.” I’ve heard similar kinds of comments about the Chinese (even when referring to a Korean), the Catholics (even though the commentator is usually Catholic himself) and the bourge (regardless of how bourgeois that person is himself). My point being that the French are not politically correct.
If you’d like to explore Jewish life in Paris, a visit to the rue des Rosiers is required, with a stop for lunch at L’As du Fallafel. I especially love this neighborhood at Sukkoth, when the streets are lined with men choosing the most perfect palm fronds and citrus fruits for the fall festival. Heading toward the Seine, at 10, rue Pavée, you pass in front of the synagogue built by Hector Guimard, the Art Nouveau architectural genius who designed the stunning entrances to the Paris metro in the early 20th century.
If you’d like a more intimate experience, check out a service at Kehilat Gesher, where the rabbi, from Portland, leads a diverse crowd in an unconventional trilingual service. Shalom.
Editor’s note: Going to Paris? Booking an apartment if you are staying at least five days is the way to go to find more space for less money, and to pretend you are a vrai Parisian for the week.