Written and photographed by Ben Barber
Despite a recent increase of anti-semitic violence in France, the Jews of Paris' Marais neighborhood carry out their traditional preparations for Yom Kippur.
rossing a stone bridge over the Seine River, the last thing I expected to see was the police. But before entering the ancient Marais neighborhood I had to pass a unit of tough paramilitary cops casting suspicious eyes over the traffic leading into the Rue des Rosiers--the heart of Paris' Jewish community.
The interior of Paris' main synagogue.
It was the day before Yom Kippur. Jewish men and women packed the narrow, twisting streets, making last-minute preparations for their day of fasting and atonement and the sumptuous break-of-the-fast that follows. But a surprising sense of anxiety was also present.
All the exchanges of traditional greetings and bustle of holiday shopping were carried on under a cloud. The police presence extended deeper into the neighborhood, with officers taking up visible positions in front of every synagogue and school.
"We're being attacked," explained a middle-aged Jewish man who was standing outside the largest yeshiva (religious school) in the quarter. Initially suspicious of a visiting journalist, he gradually revealed the root cause of the tension. A slew of violent attacks on synagogues, cemeteries, yeshivas, and shops has taken place across France since the Palestinian intifada against Israel broke out three years ago. The possible threat of such outrages against the Parisian Jews during Yom Kippur had brought heavily armed police into the streets of their community.
The Marais, or Marsh, has been considered a home by Jews for over eight hundred years. The district is located just a few hundred yards from Notre Dame Cathedral. The French expelled all Jews from Paris in 1394, but they returned to this area in the center of Paris in the 1800s, having been granted citizenship and equal rights following the French Revolution and under the rule of Napoleon. Most came from Alsace and other outlying parts of France and from Romania, Poland, and Russia. Today France hosts the largest Jewish community in Europe, around 600,000 people, and has the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel and the United States.
Most, though not all, of the recent attacks have been traced or attributed to North African Arab immigrants from former French colonies such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. These Arabs now form an immigrant community of about six million and constitute about 10 percent of the total French population. They are a sizable group, especially compared to the number of Jews in the country.
At first French authorities downplayed the attacks as the work of a few vandals. But as the wave of assaults gained strength, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and French President Jacques Chirac both spoke out against the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Chirac called for tolerance and required police to provide increased security for Jewish institutions.
Tragedies cross time
he struggle of French Jews to live in peace and freely practice their faith was clearly in evidence that day in the Marais. Black-hatted Orthodox Jewish men hurried along the sidewalk as they headed to their yeshivas to prepare their special textbooks, called machsorim, and prayer shawls for the twenty-four hours of fasting and prayers to begin at sunset. The white fringes, or tzitzit, of prayer shawls dangled from under their outer clothing. Each fringe of eight threads and four complex knots somehow computes to symbolize the 613 commandments they believe the Torah orders them to observe in life.
No matter how hurried they appeared to be, each person stopped constantly to greet men and women passing by with a hearty "Shanah Tovah" (good year), a handshake, or an embrace. Ten days earlier, on the Jewish New Year or Rosh Hashanah, they greeted
each other with a traditional Hebrew saying meaning "For a good year may you be written down." It is believed that on that day, God writes in the book of life who will live, who will die, and all that will come to pass in the year to come.
Shoppers on Rue des Rosiers examine an etrog, a citrus fruit used during the Sukkoth prayers. Despite security concerns, preparations for the Yom Kippur holiday continue as usual.
But that inscription is not final. For ten days, every Jew is required to meditate, atone for sins, and pledge to be a better person, thus persuading God to erase the original decree and write a better fate. On Yom Kippur, the Jews of Paris and elsewhere in the world offer as greeting "For a good year may you be sealed."
As the streets of the Marais thronged with Jews from the suburbs and outlying arrondissements (districts) of Paris, I stepped into Jo Goldenberg's, the famous kosher restaurant on Rue des Rosiers. But I could not enjoy a simple meal of barley soup, black bread, and roasted kasha without feeling the terrible grip of history. Tragedies reach across time and into today's events. Back in 1982, terrorists had entered Goldenberg's and shot up the restaurant. Six people were killed and twenty-two wounded. I realized that everyone dining there was aware that this street and establishment were perhaps the biggest targets for those same terrorists today. (Shortly after my visit to the Marais, bombs would destroy two synagogues in Istanbul, verifying those fears.) However, few people would allow such anxieties to interfere with their planned activities and religious obligations. Indeed, considering the Nazi deportations of World War II, today's vandalism and threats of terrorism seem to be burdens that Parisian Jews can handle.
After France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, the collaborationist Vichy government did little to protect French Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. Quite the opposite. The Vichy willingly rounded up some 75,000 Jews, who were then deported to their deaths at Auschwitz and other death camps. An inscription outside a school on the Rue du Veille du Temple tells the awful story in microcosm: "165 Jewish children from this school deported to Germany during the Second World War were exterminated in the Nazi camps. Do Not Forget."
As I read the plaque, dozens of bright, chattering elementary school children emerged from the building. Classes had ended for them.
Another memorial to all French deportees killed by the Nazis--Jews, Catholics, and others--is hidden away below street level a few hundred meters from the Marais in back of Notre Dame Cathedral. When you find the entrance, a narrow staircase leads down to the edge of the Seine River, simulating the descent of victims into the gas chambers. The secluded memorial perhaps symbolizes French refusal for many decades to recognize that they had collaborated with the destruction of the Jews (indeed, some still refuse to admit it). While the Danes, Bulgarians, Italians, and Spanish, all of whom were either conquered by or allied with the Nazis, refused to give up their Jewish citizens to be slaughtered, France did so willingly. Conservative Frenchmen, including many in the Catholic Church, later shielded Vichy officials responsible for the roundups from prosecution.
Rebuilding the Marais
rench Jews have aspired to full equality in society since the French Revolution. There have, of course, been many setbacks, such as the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the nineteenth century. A Jewish army officer was imprisoned for spying until an accusation of anti-Semitism in the case was made by author Emile Zola, leading to the officer's exoneration. Such incidents were minor compared to Vichy complicity in the Holocaust. This was a terrible betrayal of Jewish hopes. Nevertheless, even though one-quarter of France's Jews had been turned over to the Nazis and slaughtered, surviving Jews chose to rebuild their community in the Marais after the war.
The district remained run-down until the 1960s, when the government decided to declare it a protected, historic area. As it became chic for well-off young people to live there, renovation began in earnest. The 400-year-old buildings in streets running parallel to Rue des Rosiers now house expensive shops with leather clothing, jewelry, and other upscale merchandise. A large gay community has taken root in the area, becoming part of the eclectic mix.
The Jewish community itself underwent an enormous change after the 1960s, when tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews moved to
Paris after France abandoned its colonies in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The subsequent Arab governments proved less than friendly to Jews--especially after the humiliating defeat of Arab armies by Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967.
A restaurant selling falafel, an Arabic dish, displays a Star of David, one example of how cultures have merged in the Marais.
The Paris Jewish community thus came to represent both Ashkenazis and Sephardim, the two main branches of the Jewish people. The Ashkenazis are people who trace their descent from those who lived mainly in eastern Europe from Romania to Lithuania until the Holocaust. The Sephardim are descended from the Jews expelled from Spain by the Inquisition in the 1400s. They subsequently settled around the Mediterranean from Morocco to Turkey.
Apart from differences in their Hebrew accents and a few of the prayers, the groups follow the same basic faith. In Paris as in Israel--where the two communities live side by side--Sephardic and Ashkenazi intermarriage is common. In Paris, the increase in the Sephardic population has been so sharp that some synagogues, even though bearing eastern European Ashkenazi names such as Fleischman, sing prayers with North African tunes.
The mix of cultures was also evident on the street, where kosher falafel and other foods from the Arab world were sold next to shops offering strudel. Several shops displayed banners in French opposing the destruction of the "village quality" of the neighborhood, as upscale developers were seeking to buy out the shops, bookstores, and apartments of the Jews. Two-bedroom apartments in old buildings with exposed beams can go for $1 million in the Marais.
hile the Jewish community of Paris loaded up on breads, cakes, meats, and other kosher foods to break the fast after Yom Kippur, many Orthodox Jewish families also bought the traditional palm branch and citrus fruit known as lulav and etrog. During Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, which follows five days after Yom Kippur, Jews around the world build a hut (or sukkah) outside their homes to remember the forty years Jews wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. The lulav and etrog are part of that holiday's ceremonies.
On tables set up at intersections along the Rue des Rosiers, merchants offered their palm fronds in cardboard boxes. Customers also sniffed and examined the lemon-like etrog to see that it was a perfect fruit. Speaking about the preparations for the holiday, several people said they kept the traditions they had learned from their parents. "As French Jews, we keep the tradition
of what our parents came from," said one woman as she was leaving a kosher bakery. "We are Ashkenazi Jews and eat eastern European food," she explained, adding that her family came from Alsace-Lorraine, a region of France bordering Germany. To break the fast, she said, the family would eat bouillon and a stew called pot-au-feu.
Men take a break outside a small synagogue in the Marais.
Rabbi Tom Cohen, 40, a transplanted American and head of a Liberal congregation, said he felt Jews are "accepted" in France. He was buying twisted challah egg bread, poppy seed cakes, and strudel with nuts. But the joy of greeting old friends and shopping for the same fruits and foods one's parents and grandparents did could not entirely dispel the sense of concern.
Today, due to the rise of anti-Semitic attacks, many Jewish parents tell their sons to hide their yarmulkes or skullcaps under secular hats. Girls wear their Jewish stars under their sweaters now. Worst off are the less-wealthy Jews who moved from North Africa and can only afford to live in poor areas adjacent to Arab suburbs. There, many French Arabs, inundated with anti-Israeli reports from the Arab media such as al Jazeera satellite television or from the largely pro-Palestinian French and European media, have lashed out against all Jews. A recent public opinion poll in Europe found that most people considered Israel to be the biggest threat to peace in the world, followed by Iran, North Korea, and the United States.
Even the French left wing, which had supported Israel in the 1950s, gradually turned against Israel after it seized Arab land during the 1967 war. Now it seems uniformly pro-Arab, and its demonstrations and publications have sometimes been seen to drift from anti-Israel to anti-Jewish, especially when joined by French Arabs.
Interior Minister Sarkozy has become highly popular among the French Jews because he has taken a strong stance against anti-Semitic attacks and promised to protect the Jewish community. However, many Parisian Jews called for caution in facing the spate of anti-Semitic incidents. Eric de Rothschild, 61, president of the Rothschild Foundation, reportedly said that "statistically, non-Jews are targeted as often as Jews.
"The Jewish community in France has reacted as forcefully as it should, without resorting to hysteria and threats," he added.
The day passes
n Yom Kippur, the Marais was transformed. The shops were all closed, and few cars entered the deserted streets. From the synagogues came the chants of the Day of Atonement. Out of one building came the melodies of eastern Europe. Arabic-sounding songs reflected the North African origins of another congregation.
Police watched over the whole area, glancing carefully at anyone passing. Outside a synagogue a few men stood quietly, getting some fresh air and taking a break from the daylong prayers and fasting. Inside, men were chanting, cloaked in white prayer shawls with black stripes and dangling fringes. Women occupied their own section and followed the service with Hebrew prayer books.
As dusk fell, the final prayers rang out. When the doors opened shortly after sunset, hundreds of people streamed from the synagogues into the streets. Unlike other holidays, when people use the occasion to chat with friends about everything from family matters to politics, on Yom Kippur evening everyone bids friends a hasty good-bye and heads home to break the fast.
This time, it went peacefully. Even the police seemed grateful. But in the ancient streets of the Marais, the Jews of Paris seem only cautiously optimistic. History has invariably held surprises that have not always been pleasant. From the signs advertising a new play about the Holocaust to the school whose Jewish students were sent to be killed to the tense police on the streets, Paris Jews are surrounded by reminders of the tragedies they have survived.
Ben Barber is a journalist and former foreign correspondent, who has written for The World & I since 1990.