A Stroll Through Jewish Paris

Synagogues and Falafel Exist Alongside Harrowing History

Hints of Williamsburg: A street scene in the Marais, the historic Jewish neighborhood in Paris.
Getty Images
Hints of Williamsburg: A street scene in the Marais, the historic Jewish neighborhood in Paris.

By Gerald Eskenazi

Published January 17, 2014, issue of January 10, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I had a great idea: Take the whole family to Paris for our 50th anniversary. Even better: Make it a Jewish experience, as well. It is always a bit tricky planning grand events for a family when there are youngsters involved. In this case, a pair of teenagers — 17-year-old Corey and 13-year-old Jane, two of my four grandchildren. (The Florida contingent could not make it, for the most Jewish of reasons: Alexa, one of my other grandchildren, had to study for the PSATs.)

So eight of us met in Paris. I had used Context Travel, which is known for its walking tours, with the family for an animated and illuminating trip to Normandy. We chose it again. We were not disappointed. Oh, we had been to the Jewish area, the Marais, before, navigating its crowded, narrow streets on a Sunday, when it is most vibrant, since much of Paris is closed that day. But we didn’t know the history.

Luckily, our guide, a transplanted Philadelphian named Frank, had studied 19th-century religion in France, and although not Jewish, he conveyed his fascination and erudition of things Jewish. Suddenly, seeing those buildings (some from the 18th century!), accompanied by his expert talk, brought the old place to life.

He asked permission to enter L’oratoire Roger Fleischman, a synagogue that is part of the Roger Fleischman Foundation and also a school for religious instruction for Yiddish-speaking children. It was founded in 1931. Originally geared to the Ashkenazi wing of Judaism, it now accommodates both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

The shamus, or caretaker, said, yes, we could come in. “Ask him any questions you like,” Frank said. “He’ll be glad to answer them.” There was a sheer curtain blocking a section of seats in the back — where the women sit. But since there were no services when we visited, the women in our party were allowed to walk to the bimah along with the men.

Because of the narrow streets and the old buildings, it is easy to imagine what Jewish life was like in Paris in medieval times. As far back as the 12th century, there were many Jews there. Even today, France has the world’s third-highest number of Jews outside of Israel, after the United States and Canada. A Jewish chronicler of ancient times gave Paris a Hebrew name: Ha-ir Hagedolah, meaning “Great City.” Great it might have been, but Jews eventually were kicked out of the country, as they were evicted from many European countries. We weren’t welcomed back until the French Revolution.


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!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • 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.