PARIS – Heavily armed police officers mingled with parents pushing strollers and curious onlookers Sunday night as the Parisian Jewish community held its 27th annual Hanukkah menorah lighting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Following the November 13 terrorist attacks that paralyzed Paris, French authorities declared an “état d’urgence,” which on paper includes a ban on public gatherings. Call it a Hanukkah miracle, but despite the ongoing state of emergency, the Festival of Lights arrived in the City of Light.
“We are very happy that the police took into consideration the possibility of doing it and gave us the right permission,” said Rabbi Mendel Azimov, president of Chabad of Paris.
According to Azimov, officials asked the community to postpone their public menorah lightings until after the conclusion this week of COP21, the United Nations climate negotiations currently taking place just outside Paris. On Tuesday, following a meeting with the Service de la Protection de la Communauté Juive (Jewish Community Protection Service), the local Jewish community received the green light to proceed. The total public lightings in Paris were reduced from 30 to 11, however.
Under cool, clear night skies, with the iconic Paris landmark sparkling in the background, the Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, the President of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France Joel Mergui and Azimov illuminated the first candle. The event was broadcast live in Jerusalem and New York.
There was heightened security, notably a cordoned off area closest to the menorah, whereas in years past the crowd has been able to mingle freely on the Champ-de-Mars, the park that leads up to the Eiffel Tower. Nevertheless, a crowd of 1,500 thronged the viewing area and the nearby parking lot was a sea of minivans with electric menorahs strapped to the roof.
Security concerns did not deter Paris resident Kathy Coen, who said she comes every year.
“I’m not afraid, this is proof that the Jewish people are alive,” she said. “This year Hanukkah is more significant, we have to give more light.”
‘We have lived through a dark year. But the light of the Jewish people from generation to generation must be shown to the world’
Acknowledging both the November 13 attacks and the January assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket, French-Israeli MP Meyer Habib told the crowd, “We have lived through a dark year. But the light of the Jewish people from generation to generation must be shown to the world.”
For Haim Tibi, another annual attendee, the event showed unity.
“Jews are in solidarity with France, to continue our traditions,” Tibi said.
The menorah was flanked on both sides by the French flag — someone in the crowd also energetically waved the French Tricolore stamped with the word mashia’h (messiah) – as a Chasidic band sang nigunim to the tune of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.
The crowd was even treated to a surprise appearance from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former governor of California, who is in town for the COP21 UN climate talks. He gamely danced to the simcha music with a flock of Lubavitch rabbis at the foot of the stage.
Sunday’s Eiffel Tower event was just the opening act for Let There Be Light: A Concert of Unity, which will take place Wednesday at the Grand Synagogue of Paris. Curated by Nachum Segal, host of the popular US radio program “JM in the AM,” families of the victims from the Paris Hyper Cacher attacks will recite the mourners’ Kadish before the lighting of the menorah.
“Jewish communities in France and other areas of the globe need to know that their brothers and sisters around the world care about them deeply and are standing right by their side,” Segal told The Times of Israel. “When Jews are in challenging situations anywhere the collective Jewish heart aches.”
Paris’ Jewish heart, meanwhile, beats in the Marais neighborhood, especially along its busy shopping strip, Rue des Rosiers. The neighborhood is gentrifying, however, and the charming cobblestone street is increasingly also home to fashionable boutiques and establishments catering to the growing gay community that now calls the Marais home. Despite a changing neighborhood, for those seeking Judaica, Jewish books, and especially Jewish food – this is still the first stop in Paris.
At Florence Kahn’s bakery, a menorah lit up the window and ponchkes (donuts) lit up the display case otherwise packed with challah, pastries, cookies, and other Ashkenazi delights that she has been serving for the last 28 years. Since the January attacks, there has been an increased police presence on Rue des Rosiers.
“The Jewish community has always been exposed to attacks, but now it’s not just us,” she said. Kahn, like many French Jews, disavows the theory that Le Bataclan theatre, the site of the worst of the November attacks, was chosen as a target because it sometimes hosts Jewish events. “If someone wanted to attack the Jewish community, they wouldn’t have picked a heavy metal concert,” she said.
Further down Rue des Rosiers, Hanukkah decorations beckoned from the window of Chez Hannah, a Sephardic joint serving savory plates of falafel, schwarma, and eggplant. Guy Abergel, of Moroccan background, and his Israeli wife have presided over the restaurant for 25 years. He’s not concerned about risks to the Jewish community.
“Paris is decorating for Christmas, it’s normal for us to put up Hanukkah decoratiions,” he said, offering a classic Gallic shrug. “You have to live. We’re not nervous, we just pay more attention.”
Back at the Eiffel Tower, Rabbi Azimov was confident that this Hanukkah would be an exceptionally symbolic one for Parisian Jews.
“People will feel something different and encouraging,” he said. “The whole message of Hanukkah is that you transform darkness into light.”