'Without a stronger involvement of French Jewry, Le Marais as we know it will disappear and become the falafel capital of the Right Bank'

Is the Parisian Jewish quarter losing its soul?

Once the heart of the community, Le Marais is the current battleground between gentrification and French Jewish life, past and present

Alécio de Andrade, 'Rue Pavee,' 1975 (photo credit: Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme)
Alécio de Andrade, 'Rue Pavee,' 1975 (photo credit: Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme)

PARIS — Located on the Right Bank of the River Seine, Le Marais was for centuries the heart of Parisian Jewry — and also one of the capital’s poorest areas.

Originally built on a swamp (Marais is French for “bog”), this picturesque, Medieval neighborhood is now home to the city’s largest gay community and has been made over entirely to cater to tourists and leisure-seeking Parisians.

However, despite the inescapable decline of Jewish life in the Rue des Rosiers area, a handful of residents are trying to revive its cultural and historical heritage.

“In the 1970s, Le Marais had such a warm, village atmosphere, brimming with kosher restaurants, Jewish bookshops, butchers, barbers, and even people selling kapparot on the streets for Yom Kippur,” recalls Jean-Claude Marek, a 68-year-old pensioner who has been living on the Rue des Rosiers for the past 40 years.

“Back then, Jewish community life was real and vibrant, but it was a poor area, with insanitary, dilapidated buildings, where Shoah survivors lived next door to North African Sefaradis,” he continues. “Now, look at it: it’s turned into a folkloric, open-air museum, filled with luxury clothes boutiques, gourmet cafés and celebrities’ pied-à-terres.”

For the past three years, Marek has been working as a volunteer at the Café des Psaumes, one of the area’s most emblematic Jewish establishments.

Alécio de Andrade, 'les Bouchers,' 1975 (photo credit: courtesy Musée d'Art et d'HIstoire du Judaisme)
Alécio de Andrade, ‘les Bouchers,’ 1975 (photo credit: courtesy Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme)

Closed for years, the coffee shop has been reopened in 2010 by the Jewish humanitarian organization Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Save the Children‎), and turned into a social club for the elderly.

“Thank God we still have a handful of establishments like this one to preserve the Jewish identity of Le Marais, but I have the feeling that it’s become a lost cause,” says Marek.

He explains that in the past thirty years, soaring property prices have forced Jews out of the area — now starting from 10,000 euros per square meter.

“When I moved here in the 70s, I paid the equivalent of 2000 euros per square meter. If I were to look for an apartment in Le Marais today, I would never be able to afford it.“

But to Shmuel Lemarteleur, founder of the Cercle d’Etudes Historiques du Marais (Marais’s Society of Historical Studies, abbreviated as CEH), Parisian Jewry is to blame for “not battling hard enough to bring the Pletzl back to life. ”

“Jewish leaders are too old, and even though many young people come to Le Marais during the weekend, they don’t get much involved in community life,” Lemarteleur says. “There’s also a chronic lack of unity within the Jewish community to get things moving.”

Founded three years ago, CEH aims at passing the district’s Jewish culture on to the younger generations. It also raises money for Shoah survivors experiencing poverty and social exclusion — some of them, Lemarteleur says, still live in the Rue des Rosiers area.

Alécio de Andrade, 'Synagogue Rue des Ecouffes,' 1974 (photo credit: Musée d'Art et d'HIstoire du Judaisme)
Alécio de Andrade, ‘Synagogue Rue des Ecouffes,’ 1974 (photo credit: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme)

“Without a stronger involvement of French Jewry, Le Marais as we know it will disappear and become the falafel capital of the Right Bank, where people take pictures of religious Jews as if they were some kind of touristic attraction,” he notes.

However, Le Marais’s five synagogues are still a moderately powerful draw to Parisian Jews living in the surrounding arrondissements.

Daniel Altman, head of the Agoudas Akehilos synagogue on the Rue Pavée, says that about 200 people come every Shabbat.

Founded in June 1914 by Orthodox Jews of Russian descent and designed by renowned French architect Hervé Guimard — famous for his designs in the Parisian metro — this Art Nouveau synagogue is a testament to the massive wave of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe that began in the early 1880s.

“Let’s not get too dramatic: Le Marais is not losing its Jewish soul, but it is no longer the heart of Parisian Jewry,” says Altman. “This was inevitable, because Jews no longer live exclusively in this area. Yet, many of them come back on weekends to soak up this unique atmosphere, which feels like a slice of Jerusalem in modern Paris.”

Most Popular
read more: