A Jew Experiences Anti-semitism in Paris

    October-November 2009            
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A Stranger in Paris

By Yechezkel Gold

It is uncanny how a change of setting can change your perspective. I began writing this on my El Al return flight from six days in Paris. Forgive my sarcastic pun: not "gaie Paris" but gray Paris. The contrast with Ramot, the religious Jerusalem neighbor hood where I reside, quite shocked me.

I arrived for a simcha, my grandson's brit (circumcision). Knowing their traditional anti-Semitism, I did not expect my better than passable French would greatly ease dealings with non-Jews there. My appearance is distinctly Jewish and Chassidic. Nevertheless, I was taken aback by the hostility I encountered from perfect strangers who have no reason to hate me a priori. It greatly disturbed my sense of what is right. It has been years since life and a bit of insight disillusioned my young, innocent belief that not far beneath the surface, people are basically good. But the unabashed, mindless antipathy I encountered reminded me of those illiterate, brainwashed mobs who rampaged through the Jewish quarter during our people's history. The veneer has changed, perhaps, but I fear it might not be much else. True, thank God the pogrom instinct is largely under police control now, with certain notable exceptions, but who can say for how long? Sometimes smaller, more ordinary occurrences reveal what is not far beneath the surface.

Arriving at my in-laws' address, an eight story building, I did not remember on which of the higher floors my daughter-in-law's parents live. I thought it might be the top floor, so I took the elevator to there and knocked at the door where I remembered their apartment was situated. When the occupant opened, I excused myself for disturbing him and politely asked in French if he knows on which floor the X family lives. This obviously French man thought for a moment, answered "no", paused, then added: "Not on the seventh floor." So lugging my baggage, I took the elevator to the sixth floor, then the fifth, until I realized I really should try the seventh floor. And there they were, my son and two grandsons, waiting for me.

I immediately flashed back to a similar experience almost thirty three years ago (before the intifada) in Israel. As a new and innocent arrival with liberal views, I was still not disillusioned about most people's basically good intentions. That included all people of all nations: why should it not? But I once lost my way in Jerusalem's Old City market, and when I followed a local, Arab shopkeeper's directions, I found myself further from my destination than before. I thought nothing of it and attributed this to my own presumed mistake. A couple of weeks later, I was running to catch one of the infrequent buses back from Netivot to Jerusalem. Arriving at the highway, I was uncertain on which side the bus headed to Jerusalem stops, so I asked someone. He directed me, and something about his slight smirk told me he was an Arab. So after taking a few steps, I did the opposite of what he said. And I was right; he was purposely misleading me.

What else happened in Paris? On two occasions when I needed to ask directions, I chose to ask someone from the Far East, reasoning that they would be least likely to be anti-Semitic. Why should someone from China hate Jews? On both occasions I encountered an ugly glare and outright refusal to slow down enough even to say one word. Are Chinese leery of just anyone on the street?

Entering a supermarket's vegetable section, I saw no potatoes. The worker there looked Arabic but I asked him politely and he opened a drawer. I thanked him, and he answered, somewhat menacingly: "I am an Arab. Where are you from?" To avoid a confrontation, I replied: "From the United States." "Oh? I am originally from Algeria. My friend here is from Tunis." Rapidly seizing something to mollify him, I answered: "Indeed, my daughter-in-law's father is originally from Algeria too." I thanked God that he did not pursue the conversation further.

All the French Jews with whom I discussed anti-Semitism agreed the problem is becoming worse. Bigotry is a form of stupidity. Why are people unkind to perfect strangers? What makes them assume we are bad when they do not know us? Do they not know that there are two sides of every conflict? More basically, what makes them cast aside fundamental decency and favorable respect for another human being?

To be fair, this is not a statistically significant sample of Parisians. Indeed, two or three people from whom I asked directions were nice. Not all those I passed on the streets glared at me or gave off "bad vibes". I expected to encounter at least the same benign indifference toward passing strangers one would encounter in any large city, though. My impressions in Paris were different.

In this context, my encounter with French Jewry impressed me doubly. First, though, I must relate the circumstances of my grandson's birth. My son and his wife live in Israel, but my daughter-in-law wished to be with her parents in Paris for the occasion. French hospitals require two check-ups during the pregnancy, so she needed to fly there twice. A couple of months before she was due, she flew there for the second examination. The doctors informed her that if she flew back, she most likely would give birth on the airplane. She had to remain in Paris even when the entire family departed for her brother's wedding in Israel. Anyway, she was unconcerned because she was not due for a few weeks, and the doctors had given her medication to prevent contractions. Mr. and Mrs. C, friends, undertook to take her in during her parents' absence. Despite the medication she gave birth early, at the beginning of the ninth month, in fact on the day of her brother's wedding. By then my son, her husband, had arrived, and the C family took care of them all, watching their other small child when my son needed to go out to visit or for errands. My son does not speak French, so after the birth the C's organized and shopped and helped with preparations for the brit. They also helped with transportation, all with no fuss.

On the first Sabbath eve after a baby boy's birth, there is the traditional custom of making a shalom zachar (a small party on Friday night). Friends come to celebrate, to speak Torah thoughts, to chat, eat and drink, and recite the shema. My son asked someone to announce the shalom zachar in the synagogue, where there were only the minimum prayer quorum of ten men. We knew only one person there, Mr. C.

Paris is quite to the north and near the western extreme of the time zone. In summer, night descends very late there. Arriving home around 10:50 PM after a fifteen minute walk, we hurriedly made Kiddush, washed our hand for the bread and recited the blessing over the challah (usually a braided bread). We ate quickly, discussed some ideas about that week's Torah reading, and blessed God with grace after meals. It had been arranged that my son would descend the seven flights of stairs at 11:40 PM to open the door from the inside for anyone who arrived, as opening the electronic doors from the outside would entail desecrating the Sabbath. However, we did not expect anyone to come except, perhaps, Mr. C. After all, it would mean rushing even more than we did to eat the Sabbath meal and then walk to our building from some distance, at that late hour!

Incredibly, there were three Jews waiting downstairs, two of them perfect strangers! What we barely managed to do in fifty minutes, they hurried through in perhaps half an hour, and then sat with us until 12:30 after midnight, relaxed and jovial as if it were 8 p.m. They did all of this for a perfect stranger, so he can celebrate his son's birth in the traditional manner!

The effort required to maintain an orthodox way of life in Paris is strikingly different than in Jerusalem. In Paris, food with a reliable Rabbinic certification costs much more than regular food. The distance to synagogue means spending considerable time to arrive, and long walks on Sabbath. From a Jerusalemite's perspective, their maintaining a high standard of Judaism means ongoing, if modest, heroism.

In Israel many have the luxury of years of Torah education and we witness the beauty of living with Torah. In France, most lack thorough grounding in Torah education. Many have turned to authentic religious life relatively late in life, as adults when economic realities prevent gaining a deep and expansive knowledge. Most of the more serious Jewish texts are written in Hebrew or Aramaic, a barrier for most. However, France's somewhat difficult realities highlight, perhaps to a greater extent, the beauty of the Jewish soul. Their mutual support and solidarity, simple faith in God and in Torah backed by real, practical commitment to each other and to community, to making Judaism work, are beautiful.

Paris, especially Jewish Paris, is empty in August, vacation time. My daughter in law's parents returned from a week of wedding celebrations in Israel in the afternoon on the day of the circumcision. The brit could be celebrated only toward evening. We expected a very light turnout, perhaps not even a quorum of ten men. Hoping to alleviate this, the family announced the brit on the French Jewish internet site. To our surprise, about fifty people turned up, some from quite far, many with only a casual relation to the family so their coming was unexpected. They wanted to ensure there would be a quorum, and to participate in making the celebration lively and genuine.

God's ways are mysterious. Perhaps one of the reasons for these events was to reveal some of God's glory sequestered in the souls of the Jews of Paris.


from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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