Shaping Young Jewish Minds In Cézanne Country

Education 2010

Study Hall: Simona Assouline teaches students the Hebrew alphabet. In the inset below, an acrostic poem students were asked to create as part of a lesson on Israel.
Study Hall: Simona Assouline teaches students the Hebrew alphabet. In the inset below, an acrostic poem students were asked to create as part of a lesson on Israel.

By Claudia Z. Carlin

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Two flights above the only synagogue in Aix-en-Provence, the famed birthplace of Paul Cézanne, a bit of Jewish educational history is unfolding. Two years ago, l’Ecole Juive d’Aix en Provence, or EJAP, became the first trilingual elementary school in France to include classes in Hebrew and in English.

The school currently serves some 40 children, ages 2 to 11, teaching both limudey kodesh (Jewish religion and values) and khol (regular pedagogical subjects, including language classes).

[click for larger view]
[click for larger view]

Prior to the school’s founding, Jewish children of the Aix (pronounced “ex”) area were bused to Marseille’s Jewish-run elementary schools, roughly 20 traffic-clogged miles away. For some, the travel was too much. Parents bent on giving their children a formal Jewish education beyond kindergarten contemplated leaving the city.

“When three of my close friends, couples with three kids each, announced they were ready to move, I knew it was time to act, but I was too busy,” said Alain Benhamou, 44, EJAP’s school board president. “Then I broke my right arm, and for two-and-a-half months had to interrupt my work as a dentist.”

Benhamou took advantage of the lull to persuade local parents to make a commitment. They would enroll their children in a school offering a unique program adapted to a changing world. “Adding English and Hebrew to French made the whole concept click,” Benhamou recalled.

A new learning center seemed like a natural fit. “Aixois,” as the people of Aix are known, like to boast that their town of 145,000 residents is a hotbed of culture and diversity. Attracting some 70,000 students every year, it is home to a number of international schools and American study-abroad centers, in addition to more than half a dozen museums and a world-renown summer music festival.

Moreover, the region around Aix has been traditionally hospitable to Jews. In the Middle Ages, one of France’s oldest communities thrived here under the protection of French-Catholic popes who fled Rome and settled in nearby Avignon. They became known as les juifs du pape (the pope’s Jews). One of their descendants, the composer Darius Milhaud, once described himself as “a Frenchman from Provence, of Jewish faith.” A cultural center (see story on page 16) next to EJAP bears his name.

En Route: A teacher from EJAP’s all-female staff leads a conga line of kindergartners to lunch.
En Route: A teacher from EJAP’s all-female staff leads a conga line of kindergartners to lunch.

Creating an officially recognized French school required some heavy lifting. Benhamou first gathered a team of local fundraisers to raise seed money. Their success worked to convince national Jewish philanthropic institutions — the Shoah Foundation and the Alliance Israélite Universelle, among others — to ante up roughly the $400,000 needed to rebuild the premises and to hire a headmistress, teachers and a maintenance staff.

With funding in place, the search was on for a director who could design a curriculum that would ensure students a smooth transfer from elementary classes to the French secondary public school system. Such a program also had to work within a framework of Jewish cultural and religious values.

The search finally led to Lédicia Guigui, a former high official, or inspecteur d’académie, now retired from the French Education Ministry. Born in Algeria, Guigui moved to France in the 1960s, as did some 130,000 Jews from North Africa who were no longer welcome in the newly independent Muslim countries. This exodus led to a strong demand for new institutions. While Jewish schools barely had 400 students after World War II, there are now some 30,000 pupils in 275 such private teaching centers in France, the highest rate in Europe.

For the 25 families with children enrolled in EJAP, tuition runs about $320 monthly per child. Parents unable to pay can apply for scholarships.

At EJAP, from the weekly Hebrew-language class across the hall, children’s patter is interrupted by a loud “Yofi” — meaning, “Well done!” — drowning out Guigui, who juggles the ringing phones. Guigui’s energy is tempered by a collegial approach to the all-women teaching staff she selected personally.

“Earlier this year, I had to fire three English teachers because they were unable to engage the children in a creative way,” she said, as the new language-cum-music hire strummed her guitar and led the older children in a credible rendition of “God Save the Queen.”

Ten enseignantes, teachers, assist Guigui, who took the Jewish school concept to heart late in her education career. She defined her pedagogy this way: “By injecting fine arts and music into subjects too abstract for young minds to grasp, I sought to create ‘passerelles’ [connections] between various disciplines; this, I felt, would give children a strong foundation to grow up as open-minded French citizens, rooted in their Jewish identity.”

Art and music, intrinsic to life in Aix, make those connections real for the children. For example, pupils learn that the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” was inspired by the music of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s lyric poem “The Moldau.” Later, to grasp the meaning of Shavuot, the children visit a local museum to study a harvest painting by Nicolas Poussin. Cézanne’s apples serve to illustrate one of the ingredients in the traditional Passover charoset.

The older kids, ages 6 to 11, enjoy outings in the Provencal city and the surrounding countryside, a relief from a rigorous classroom schedule that runs most days from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lunch is served at the cultural center next door and is seasoned with more learning, as teachers encourage kids to practice their language skills. They point to each piece of food on their plates and say its name in Hebrew and English. Mistakes are corrected, then laughed away.

Starting next year, Guigui says she has obtained state funding for a portion of EJAP’s expenses, including all secular teachers’ salaries, thanks to a 1959 French law that allows private schools meeting specific criteria to petition for public funds.

Meanwhile, registrations for the upcoming school year keep growing. A new crop of little Aixois Israélites might then discover that English is also the language of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Claudia Z. Carlin is a feature writer currently traveling in Europe.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.