Paris — the City of (Jewish) Lights
Paris, the City of Lights, also brims with the bright light of Jewry. With the exception of the period of expulsion in 1395 (no Jews were in Paris in the 15th and 16th centuries), Jewish residence in Paris and in France — the first European nation to grant Jews citizenship — has been continuous.
And in the 20th century, three Jews became prime ministers of the country, a feat never achieved in any other country: Leon Blum, Rene Mayer, and Pierre Mendes-France. In Paris, too, Theodore Herzl composed the great Zionist manifesto The Jewish State, a document central to modern Jewish history.
Today 700,000 Jews live in France, the fourth-largest community of Jews in the world, with about 350,000 in Paris. Of course all of them, and the Christian community in France and all over the world, were shocked by the tragic events in January 2015, with the massacres, committed by two Muslims of Algerian descent, at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher supermarket. Armed guards now protect all synagogues and Jewish schools, and we witnessed Jews leaving synagogues shaking hands with the soldiers and expressing their gratitude for this extra protection.
But several months after this incident, life seems back to normal and Jewish neighborhoods thrive with local shoppers and tourists.
Of the 50 synagogues in Paris, three magnificent buildings stand out. One is the so-called Rothschild synagogue (Ashkenazi), on Rue Victoire, built in 1874; the second, a few minutes’ walk away, is the slightly smaller but equally dazzling Synagogue Buffault (Sephardi) on the street of the same name, built in 1877. (In France, shuls are generally known by the name of the street on which they are located.) Both synagogues were filled on the two Sabbaths we were there in celebration of a bar mitzva.
The third beautiful synagogue, called Nazareth, at 15 Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, was built in 1852 and is the oldest shul in the city. Whereas the Sephardi rite of prayer is followed for most of the year, it switches to Ashkenazi during the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur period. In all these synagogues, newcomers are warmly welcomed and invited to the beautiful kiddush after services.
The preponderant coloration of the city’s population is no longer either the old native French Jews, some of whom trace their family lineage back many centuries (an ancestor of our relative, whose 18th-century portrait hangs on his living room wall, fought for French independence in the 1780s), nor is it that of the East European Jews, many of whom found refuge in Paris from persecution in Poland and Russian between the two world wars. The mass immigration of Jews from North Africa in the 1960s counterbalanced the powerful forces of acculturation and intermarriage that have decimated Ashkenazi Jewry.
For our hotel we chose the Intercontinental Le Grand, one of Paris’s fabled hostelries, for its convenient location in the heart of the city (not to mention its breakfast buffet, a gustatory delight; luxurious rooms; attentive, friendly staff; and knowledgeable concierges). The famed Cafe de la Paix is on the ground floor.
The oldest and most famous Jewish quarter is in and around Rue des Rosiers, in the historic Marais district. Some 700 years ago this street was called the Street of the Jews. Affectionately called “The Pletzl” (Little Place), the district is filled with colorful shops, many displaying Yiddish or Hebrew signs, and its streets brim with life (reminiscent of New York’s Lower East Side during its heyday).
Be sure to visit the Rue Pavee synagogue, which was designed by Hector Guimard, the same architect who made the famous Art Nouveau decorations for the Paris Metro.
Nearby are the Picasso Museum and the Museum of Jewish Art and History, at 71 Rue du Temple. Located in an elegant private mansion, the museum, with a cafe and bookshop, accents the history of French and other Jewish communities and displays manuscripts, clothing, artifacts, ritual objects, and paintings.
Another not-to-be-missed site of Jewish Paris is the Memorial to the Deported. A short walk from Notre Dame, this monument is dedicated to French Jews who were victims of the Germans and the French Vichy police. And the museum and documentation center, Memorial de la Shoah, in tribute to the Six Million, is on 17 Rue Geoffroy-l’Ansier, in the Marais.
To mitigate the rather hefty museum admission fees, buy a three-day or week-long museum pass, which saves you the long, long lines to buy tickets. And get a pass to the Metro for unlimited rides on the easily negotiated Paris subway system and on all the bus lines. For help in planning your Paris trip, go to parisinfo.com/English.