It was only a few days since we had said au revoir to our lovely apartment with the distinctive blue door in the 11th arrondissement in Paris when the murder and terror began with the attack at Charlie Hebdo. With tales of our adventures and sightseeing still fresh on our lips, the news burst our holiday bubble.
Our vacation rental on Boulevard Voltaire was just a few blocks from the offices of the satirical magazine where two jihadi gunmen left 12 dead on Jan. 7. The kosher grocery store where hostages were taken and four ultimately killed, though on Porte de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement, could just as easily have been the one on our block.
Watching France’s tragedy unfold less than a week after our return home, we could no longer make sense of our vacation.
We’d had second thoughts about heading to Paris, given the grim reality facing the Jewish community there. Things had grown so bad that 7,000 Jews left France in 2014, double the number in 2013. But when we arrived, we were delighted to find on our block three kosher restaurants, two kosher patisseries, two kosher butchers, and a kosher grocery store, as well as a Judaica store, all bustling with business.
It was the middle of Hanukka, and that first night, as we lit our own menora, a Chabad-mobile with a gigantic hanukkia on top drove up and down our block blaring holiday music. The next evening, as we headed home from the Metro stop nearby, a couple of hasidic boys approached to ask if we’d lit our Hanukka lights. The patisseries featured jelly “beignets” in their windows, along with the traditional French buche de noel, a Christmas treat. Crowds of people, young and old, filled the kosher restaurants each evening, and the kosher grocery store was crowded each time I went in. Though I tucked away the observation that many of the men did not wear kipot, I thought little of it.
When Friday evening came, we lit candles and had Shabbat dinner at “home.” From our window, we could see others doing the same.
We were unaware that on the day we arrived in France, a bullet fired from an air gun had pierced a window of the David Ben Ichay synagogue in the 19th arrondissement. No one was injured.
Returning to our respective routines of work and school after a week of sightseeing, still sorting out our thoughts about our vacation, we awoke Wednesday, Jan. 7, with the rest of the world, to the horror unfolding in Paris.
I changed the background photo on my Facebook page to Je suis Charlie.
In solidarity, my son and I ate the canned duck leg confit we had purchased at the kosher grocery store on our block. It was delicious and seemed not entirely inappropriate, if odd. But the ground had already shifted underfoot. Someone asked how our vacation was, and I didn’t know how to respond.
On Friday, a day that began with a hostage crisis and ended with the killing of the three gunmen and the reported deaths of four hostages, I felt swallowed up whole, along with everyone else.
At the Shabbat table that night, I read the note I had received from Anne, who owns the apartment we rented in Paris and lives there most of the year with her husband and two young sons.
“This week, in Paris and in our district particularly, [the] atmosphere is not very good…. We were shocked by the shooting in Charlie Hebdo home. We know very well this area. It is next to our home. Our son goes every Wednesday to volleyball just close to Charlie Hebdo home. Today I was by car at Porte de Vincennes at 13h20 [1:20 p.m.], just after the new shooting in the kosher shop. The police were everywhere. The whole school was closed down with children inside. This afternoon, on Boulevard Voltaire, the whole kosher shops and kosher restaurants were closed. On Sunday, we will participate in the national march in Paris. It will go in particular along Boulevard Voltaire. All the best, Anne.”
It was hard to believe all those kosher places were closed. Worse, for the first time since the Shoa, the Grand Synagogue in Paris was closed on Shabbat.
On my way to work Monday morning, I heard an interview with Sabine Roitman, a public relations executive who had served for more than 13 years as deputy director for external relations at CRIF, the umbrella Jewish organization in France. She told the BBC that she no longer felt safe as a Jew in Paris and was considering leaving the country. She related that she had gone to the march, and overheard the group next to her discuss that they had come to show support for France and for her values. They asked Roitman why she had come. She echoed their sentiments, she said, and added, “But I am also Jewish.” And in response, they were silent.
“It was like I had said something wrong,” she said. “They were not sympathetic. I was somehow apart from France.”
I have just changed the background picture on my Facebook page again. It reads, “Je suis Juif.”