Jewish Impressions of France


Jewish Impressions of France


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Snapshots from France

By Barbara Russek

Bonjour! Right now I am relaxing on the deck of the River Baroness. It's the last day of my cruise on the river Seine through Paris and the province of Normandy. If you have a few minutes, I'd like to share some mental snapshots of the cruise from my memory bank. Like the French author Marcel Proust's' petite madeleine, (one bite and so many memories came flooding back to him) each picture brings back precious Jewish moments. Some are fun and lighthearted, others have a poignant quality to them. Hopefully all these pictures will remain fresh in my mind to help me recall those moments--the kind that change how we look at life.

In the first picture, dated July 4, 2007, I am sitting on a plane going from Tucson to Atlanta, the first leg of my trip to Paris. My seat mate, Zeb, a likeable young man of 32, is a rock guitarist from Nashville. We got into conversation and shared personal thoughts as people often do who are on a ship, or plane for that matter, passing through the night. I happened to mention that I was Jewish and asked him what he knew about Jewish people.

He didn't have to think long. "They are sharp and direct," he said, "especially if they come from the east coast." He then added with a touch of envy that at the same time they are God's chosen ones. I felt a need to respond. But what could I say that might make a difference in his thinking? I asked Zeb how many Jews he knew. The answer was none, with the exception of an acquaintance who plays in another rock band and a few celebrities. Rather than get into a philosophical discussion about the dangers of stereotypes, I told him that we are chosen to be an example of morality for others—a heavy responsibility, I was quick to add, one we don't always measure up to.

I then decided to change the subject and move on to some light conversation, which also included a few laughs. As the plane landed, we hugged and wished each other well. My hope is that Zeb will want to replace the words "strong" and "direct" with one word that describes all l5,000,000 of us Jews: individuals

In the next picture, I am at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, after a night of good food and little sleep. Well, my grandmother had a saying, "If you don't sleep, you have to eat." Following these sage, simple words got me through disembarking, customs, and baggage claim, straight to David, age 36, a man I had never met before who was waiting to pick me up. The plan was that David would drive me to the hotel and also give me a taste of Jewish Paris, all for a reasonable fee. He greeted me with the traditional bizou or kiss on each cheek. How did all this come about, you might ask.

I had planned on spending a few days in the capital before the cruise started, to get over jet lag and see some places of Jewish interest A man I called in Paris before the trip told me about Le Consistoire, a Jewish umbrella organization. Isaac, my contact at Le Consistoire, learned of my desire to find a guide for a few days. "Pas de probleme," no problem, he answered and immediately put me in touch his cousin David. Voila, fait accompli. It was Jewish Geography in its finest hour.

After spending a little time talking to David in the car, I felt that I had found a new family member and referred to him from then on as "mon cousin adoptif." or adopted cousin. David and I had many interesting conversations, from his thoughts on raising his three children in a traditional Jewish home to his desire to emigrate with his wife and family to Israel some day. "You could come with us," he said. And I could tell he meant it.

The next day David took me on a mini tour of Jewish places, including the magnificent Synagogue de la Victoire, a nearby Yeshiva buzzing with activity and Le Memorial de la Shoah. We stood together in silence at Le Memorial in front the Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, containing ashes gathered from Holocaust victims. On the wall of the Memorial are the names of 76,000 Jews, men, women and children, who once had been part of a vibrant French-Jewish community. All were deported during the Shoah. Only about 2500 survived. It was good to have David with me during that heart wrenching visit.

Later that morning we visited other places of Jewish interest, including le Consistoire, where I got to meet his cousin Isaac, and another synagogue, small but with that old world elegance I had noted at La Grande Synagogue. Soon it was time to revive ourselves with a little nourishment. Isaac joined us for lunch at a kosher restaurant, Vivamie, on Rue des Rosiers. The falafel, humus and other cooked fresh veggies were so good that I resorted to the American way, a major faux pas in the eyes of the French, of asking for a doggie bag. Doggie bag in France? Quelle scandale. A piece of aluminum foil was the best they could come up with

There are other snapshots in my mind, little vignettes of a Jewish nature that made the trip meaningful for me. One is from an excursion off the ship-- a visit to Omaha Beach, the site of a D day landing in l944 that took the lives of almost l0,000 young service men and woman. Included among them were l44 Jews. Each of us was given the name and basic information about one of the soldiers and given fresh flowers to put on the grave. Through an exchange with another passenger, I got the name of Abraham Hirsch, a young PFC from New York. After a few minutes search, I found his grave and placed the flowers there. I mourned for Abraham, killed so young in l944, who never got to forge a career or start a family. During these few minutes I felt like part of his mishpoucha or extended family and kissed the marble star of his tombstone, in memory of his making the ultimate sacrifice to serve our country.

Later, as I walked around the area, I found La Chapelle, a small chapel which honors the memory of all who died here. On one side is a Jewish star, with the following quote underneath it. "Think not only upon the passing. Remember the glory of the spirit."

A much more fun snapshot comes to mind of me taking a walk with my fellow passengers in Honfleur, a small town filled with art galleries not far from le Havre. I actually found a gallery of Jewish art in Honfleur, containing works by both French and Israeli artists. As I continued with my favorite activity, shpotzeering (leisurely meandering with some window shopping,) suddenly from out of nowhere came bounding down the street groups of four to five young Yeshiva bouchers, on holiday from Israel, all with tzitzit blowing in the wind and all but one wearing a kippah. There was a bit of a communication barrier between us, but between a few phrases (actually very few) of Hebrew I know, their limited English and sign language, we were able to spend a few fun moments together. When I asked the one bareheaded boy where his kippah was, he said he left it in the car. I playfully made the gesture of giving him my own hat, which caused us all to have a laugh, as he good naturedly protested.

When I asked if they weren't afraid to appear so openly Jewish in France, which has a long history of anti-Semitism, one of the boys jumped up joyfully, and kissed his tzitzit several times. The picture in my mind of this young student, so confident wearing a symbol of G-d's protecting hand will stay with me for a long time.

And, how could I forget what occurred on July l3. The only way I can explain it is serendipity. We had to make an unexpected stop in Maintes-la-Jolie, a medium sized French town of about 45,000 while waiting to return to our boat. As practically all the members of our tour were visiting a church, there I am, walking up the street to see what I could discover. Just a few doors away was a museum, l'Hotel-Dieu, which the friendly lady at the reception desk told me contained many interesting artifacts, such as a bust of Moses dating from the l2th century, a sculpture of Samuel and steles or ornate headstones from a Jewish cemetery of the middle ages. In order to decipher the ancient Hebrew text written on them, scholars had to be called in. Amazing but true, in the town of Maintes-la-Jolie, which most tourists have never heard of, is evidence of a Jewish community from hundreds of years ago. I felt almost as if I were walking on hallowed ground

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the crew and my fellow passengers. In one of my last pictures David, my adopted cousin is coming to pick me up at the dock. It was good to see him again after being in a sea of strange faces all week.

We decided to check out le Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Jadaisme on Rue du Temple, where we found many treasures, such as a perfectly preserved plate decorated for Purim from the l8th century, and a wedding ring from the l6th century, as well as framed commentary on the walls written by famous living French Jews. Later, as David and I drove up the Champs Elysees en route back to the hotel, we sang Hebrew songs together, loudly and joyously, including, "he nay ma tov oo ma nai im sheved achim gom yahad" (Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together). 76,000 may have been taken, but over 500,000 are alive today and able to carry on the traditions of our people, hopefully in peace.

As we pulled up the hotel, we saw that just across the street in front of a synagogue, a crowd was gathering. David told me that a Jewish wedding was about to begin. I got into conversation with the brother of the bride, who said I was welcome to attend the ceremony,

This Jewish wedding was one of the highlights of my trip. It was a beautiful affair, complete with a choir singing unseen from a small room at the top of the synagogue with violin accompaniment (one had the feeling that angels were singing from the heavens above), flowers everywhere and the bride and groom, so young and so much in love.

As this last day of the cruise came to an end, there is the snapshot of me, after the wedding, walking across the street to Yapany Sushi, a Chinese-Japanese kosher restaurant to have a snack. The owners, two guys age 23 want to create a chain of restaurants where people of all races, religions and ethnicities will feel welcome. To that end they have hired, Japanese, Muslim, Black and French (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who all work together to make this happen. Perhaps that's the most important message to take with me as I get on the plane. "he nay ma tov oo ma nai im sheved achim gom yahad." In spite of all the differences, there are still many more commonalities among us human beings. That is surely one of the joys of travel—to celebrate them all.


from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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