PARIS — The historic neighborhood Le Marais has long been a Jewish focal point in Paris. In some ways, it still is. But it is also a thriving mecca for French fashion and gay bars.
“Somehow, the mix of gay and Jewish made it trendy,” says Delphine Horveilleur, one of France’s three women rabbis. She resides in the Marais with her husband, Ariel Weil, a city councilman whose family has a long history in the area, and their three children.
The Marais’ fashionable boutiques and popular kosher restaurants contrast greatly with some of the area’s run-down Jewish institutions. Built on a former swamp, with faded synagogue entrances and sometimes crumbling facades, their weakened appearance doesn’t stray far from the neighborhood’s moniker — the French word for bog. This decline stands in stark opposition to the manicured, tree-lined beauty at the heart of the district, Rue de Rosiers.
Le Marais, like every Jewish section of Paris, is experiencing its own particular version of “climate change.”
Threats of terror, heightened public security measures and the marked attrition of emigrating Jews has contributed to a changing face of Parisian neighborhoods. But it is a multi-faceted picture, with legions of French Jews departing and others arriving and remaining. Affluent areas, such as Neuilly sur Seine and Saint Mandé, the 16th and 17th Arrondisements, retain their allure and are actually experiencing growth.
“I think you’ve got to stay away from a black and white picture — ‘All the Jews have left, or all the homosexuals are coming back,’” says Weil. “There is a nice balance right now. I don’t know how long it will last between the remnants of Jewish history and a few other emerging trends. It’s also a very gay district and a very fashionable district. It’s a nice mixture.”
Today, some of Le Marais’ high-end businesses on the right bank of the Seine occupy buildings that were once Jewish icons, such as Jo Goldenberg’s restaurant, whose owner died in 2014.
Rodchenko, not outwardly marked as kosher, is a thriving new restaurant regularly drawing crowds. The chic eatery is located on a side street mere minutes from a historic magnet school for low-income and disadvantaged students. The Jewish ORT vocational school, Ecole de Travail, no longer attracts the same cohort as in years past making the neighborhood, like many in Paris, both distinctly Jewish and no longer an attraction “just for Jews.”
The Jews are the minority at this Jewish school
Like the Marais, the Ecole de Travail maintains distinct remnants of its Jewish roots while undergoing significant change. Jewish enrollment at these schools, which date in France to 1921, is down dramatically in recent years. Students, who range in age from 16 to 26, gain a trade while training as paid apprentices; they also study French and English. The number of Jewish students has declined due to shifting demographics.
The school’s director, Philippe (Aaron) Alfandari, estimates last year’s class was split between Arabs and Jews. This year, Jews represent about 35-40% of the student body.
“The number of Jewish students decreases little by little each year,” he says. “I know that based only on their names and kippa, because it is forbidden according to French law to ask students’ religion.”
‘The number of Jewish students decreases little by little each year’
Jewish emigration means ORT’s local schools, founded on the mitzvah of empowering others to earn a living, now extend that goodwill to Arab populations.
“The students are from all types of families but most are from families without economic advantages,” Alfandari says. “That’s why they are here.”
At the beginning of each school year, Alfandari informs the students about the school’s origin, losses suffered during Nazi deportations and how the school was forced to close until after the war.
“There is no one here who doesn’t know the underlying Jewish values of the school, to teach others a vocation. Everyone knows it’s Jewish,” Alfandari says. “Our goal is to find kids who want to learn how to make a living and we succeed at that.”
Like their students, the staff is also about 30-40% Jewish.
“We have faculty from Algeria and Morocco that are Jewish and we have faculty from Algeria and Morocco that are not Jewish,” says Alfandari, whose own Jewish ancestry hails from Andalusia.
Regardless of the numbers, the school operates a kosher cafeteria, doesn’t operate on Shabbat and holidays, and remains grounded in Jewish traditions.
“The Arab students don’t mind,” Alfandari says. “The majority are not Jewish but on Friday afternoon, they all say, ‘Shabbat Shalom.’”
Such interactions between Muslims and Jews benefit all of France, posits one observer.
“If they did not come to our school, these Muslim students are the ones who have the potential to become terrorists,” said a Parisian close to the institution, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You know, terrorists are messed up in the head and that’s exactly the kind of students we have. If they don’t come to this school, they have no where to go.”
Although many Jewish public institutions such as the historic Victoire synagogue and the community headquarters at the Consistoire are under constant armed guard, no soldier patrols Ecole de Travail. The school remains without incident.
“If there is no problem, it’s good that there is a place Jews and Arabs can work together,” says this observer. “There are good Arabs just as there are good Jews and bad Jews.”
Jewish bakeries on Rue de Rosier
The evolving dynamics of Le Marais have meanwhile impacted Jewish merchants, such as baker Orit Goldstein, who has watched the region change “again and again.”
Goldstein operates the long-standing kosher “Yiddish patisserie” Murciano, at 16 Rue de Rosier, down the street from the school. She offers both Latin and Jewish specialties, delicious flan and strudel pomme pavot, layered with apple and poppy seed filling.
The area’s ongoing gentrification, Goldstein argues, doesn’t encourage locals to patronize the Marais.
“If you look up Rue de Rosier before the war you will see something else,” Goldstein says. “They increased the rent. And now you cannot park and people don’t come. Only tourists come on foot. People can’t easily get here. They’ve killed the neighborhood.”
One hundred years ago, her location was also a kosher bakery. If she has her way, it will remain one. Although most of her customers are tourists rather than residents, that doesn’t sway her.
“We’ve been here 40 years,” says Goldstein, a modestly dressed observant woman whose decor includes a portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Come back in another year or two,” she says. “We’ll always be here.”
Changing Jewish face of Parisian suburbs
Like Le Marais, the outskirts of the city toward the northeastern end of Paris have traditionally housed both industrial facilities and their poor workers, says Ruben Uzan, a former political advisor.
Uzan, 36, grew up in Créteil in the southeast suburbs, where a 73-year-old neighbor, Alain Gohzland, was recently murdered in a potential hate crime. Uzan now resides in Republique, a vibrant, ethnically diverse neighborhood surrounding the symbol of tolerance and freedom, the massive square Place de la Republique, long a magnet for immigrants.
Uzan once worked in a very poor — and often violent — Parisian neighborhood where conditions were too hostile to continue. A Schusterman Foundation ROI community alumnus, Uzan is a marketing consultant with his own firm, Coefficient Directeur.
“I am extending my business and activity to an international level so as to be ready to relocate in case it turns ugly,” he says. “So that’s an exit strategy but a careful one, not created in a panic.”
‘I’ve got an exit strategy, but a careful one, not created in panic’
Former resident Aviva Ben Simone, who long resided in a northeastern suburb, has already left. Ben Simone is a Mizrachi Jew who worked in Paris for a Jewish institution for several decades; she asked to be identified by a pseudonym to preserve her privacy. She moved to Israel after her only daughter made aliyah and began her university studies.
“I love Paris but there is nothing like Israel,” said Ben Simone, who recently returned to France for a wedding. When she visits, she stays with an elderly cousin who remains in a suburb although she would prefer to leave. “My cousin cannot make aliyah because of the economic advantages she receives from government benefits,” Ben Simone says.
In local parlance, her area near Métro Hoche-Pantin, close to Près St Gervais, is now considered “hot.”
“Don’t wear your tallit or kippa there,” says Michael Amsellem, 34, another alumnus of the Schusterman Foundation ROI community working in international trade in Paris and living in the 8th Arrondisement, the upscale Champs-Élysées area. “Even if there are Jews there with a kippa, they know there are risks. I admit it is complex. And of course, there are also places that no longer have Jews.”
Pantin now draws African and Arab arrivals, a contrast to the post-World War II Jewish refugees and the many North African Jews who moved there after the establishment of Israel. One Jewish immigrant haunt was the Apartment Hoche, a five-floor walk-up, where this reporter’s father resided while waiting for a visa to the United States. The building remains a low-income immigrant hotel but there are no longer any outward signs of Jews or kosher establishments in what has become a largely Arab neighborhood.
‘Even if there are Jews there with a kippa, they know there are risks’
Another indication of the area’s Jewish past is a second ORT campus in nearby Montreuil.
Indeed, Pantin is one of many neighborhoods that no longer feel friendly to Jews, says attorney Charles Baccouche who represents French Jewry in court cases involving hate speech and violent assault.
While Chabad hasidim, kippa-wearing children, religious women with strollers and Jewish tourists are visible in the Marais, in other areas the threat is so great that outward Jewish symbols are discouraged.
“Especially in all the areas north of Paris, it is dangerous to wear a kippa,” Baccouche says. “It certainly influences the prices in Toulouse when Jews sell apartments and move to the US, Canada and places that are more secure.”
As a result, there are two kinds of aliyah, Baccouche says. In addition to the well publicized departures to Israel, there is also movement within the country. Parts of Paris remain appealing, such as Neuilly sur Seine. It has experienced an “internal aliyah,” mostly of wealthier Jews who can afford the higher priced real estate. The 17th Arrondisement, home to a future Jewish community center, is experiencing a rise in the number of Jewish residents and, subsequently, kosher restaurants, Amsellem says.
Still, a number of areas that were once considered havens for Jews have since become “trenches of hatred,” Baccouche says. Besides Pantin, these include suburbs north of Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis, Stains and Sarcelles (where anti-Semitic riots occurred in July 2014), as well as Lyon and areas near Marseilles.
“A lot of Jews live there, very concentrated. There are a lot of conflicts,” says Baccouche, who resides in the 16th Arrondisement near the Eiffel Tower.
Terror contributes to the most visible changes in Parisian neighborhoods after the 2015 massacres at Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher. For visitors, armed sentries at synagogues and other public institutions are a sad landmark of Jewish presence.
“The atmosphere socially and culturally is not good in general in all of France because there is a diminishing in the culture,” Baccouche says.
The Great Synagogue of Paris, La Victoire, is relatively quiet, but it, too, is experiencing a slow attrition. The family of synagogue president Jacques Canet once owned a majority stake in Izod Lacoste and Yves Saint Laurent.
Involved in the synagogue’s leadership in various capacities for more than 20 years, his adult children live abroad; his son in New York and his daughter in Switzerland. His son is a former president of the Union of French Jewish students who decided to move overseas when he witnessed the deterioration of ties between French Jewish university students and their Muslim counterparts.
As their annual interaction fell apart, so did the younger Canet’s hopes to continue living as a Jew in Paris. The senior Canet, too, is prepared for the worst, with additional homes in both Switzerland and Israel.
“I don’t want to limit myself to Paris,” he says.
As French Jewry faces these challenges, a phrase publicly posted in the Marais invites discussion. Across the street from Ecole de Travail, the windows of an Adidas boutique display a telling French admonishment: “Le futur a son histoire.” In English, this translates to “The future has its history.”
What, indeed, will that history be?
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