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.
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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.
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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.


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