LONDON — In a kosher butcher’s, an old lady has an animated discussion with one of the staff. They are speaking French — but they are in London, a city which is, almost by stealth, becoming home to thousands of French Jews.
French Jews have been immigrating to London for the last two decades, but the speed and the numbers have increased hugely in the last couple of years. As Michelle Huberman, a British Jew who spent five years living in Paris in the 1980s, says firmly, “No one is coming to London because of anti-Semitism. But they won’t go back, because of anti-Semitism.”
But the story of French Jews in London is much more than that of a community fleeing anti-Semitism, although everyone acknowledges it in their response. It is a story of a huge influx of young professionals, mainly working in the banking, law and finance sector, who are transforming large swathes of inner London.
Synagogues, notes Huberman with amusement, are positively fighting to attract the French, who differ from their British contemporaries “because they are likely to be more observant. They come from Orthodox Moroccan and Tunisian families. So French Jews are actually rescuing some of these otherwise moribund communities.”
The rabbis and those working with them agree. Rabbi Dovid Katz of West Hampstead Chabad reckons to have upwards of 100 French families who attend his outreach programming; Rabbi Jonathan Tawil of Hampstead Garden Suburb notes an upsurge in attendance at his Sephardi services in an otherwise Ashkenazi synagogue.
Rabbi Mordecai Fhima, himself French-born, runs Anshei Shalom, an adjunct synagogue to the cathedral-like inner London St John’s Wood. Most of Anshei Shalom’s current congregants are expatriate French.
And the story is the same at central London synagogues. Whereas a decade ago some were facing closure and amalgamation, they are now enjoying a new lease of life as the French Jews, many of whom live in central London for their careers, flock to their services.
Ironically the boost to the inner London communities is one of both economics and the way the newcomers are used to living in France.
Juliette, a lawyer from Paris, is typical: she and her husband and two kids live in Marylebone, near to her husband’s work. She loves living in central London and slightly mocks the way in which London Jews live in “ghettos” such as Golders Green — known by French Jews as “Le Quartier Noir” because of the black hats of the Haredim — or other north-west suburbs of the capital.
“In Paris you are never more than five minutes from a kosher supermarket,” she says, “but we need to go out of Marylebone to get kosher food or eat in a kosher restaurant.”
Her UK contemporaries can rarely afford to live in the areas French Jews have made their own. Besides, notes Huberman, there is “the psychology of the banlieue, or suburb. For a French Jew, the suburb is something that you escape from, not go and live in.”
But once they have children, those French Jews who decide to stay in London — and some see it as a stopping-off point before an eventual aliyah — take a deep breath and move out to the Anglo-Jewish suburbs. Already the intake at North-West London Jewish Primary School is said to be between 40 percent and 60% French-speaking children, and this pattern is likely to be repeated as the children grow older and join high schools.
‘For a French Jew, the suburb is something that you escape from, not go and live in’
Michael Koskas, who works in a bank, also lives in central London. He arrived as a bachelor and married just over a year ago, bringing his wife Sovanna to the UK. He is enthusiastic about London, praising the UK’s “respect for authority” in contrast to his experience in Paris.
“France gave me and my family — from Tunisia — a chance,” says Koskas, “but I don’t feel safe there any more.”
For the most part — and while they are finding their feet — the French Jews are mixing with each other and turning out in numbers for events specially run for them. Judith Mergui, a French stand-up comedienne now living in Israel, had a sell-out show at JW3, London’s Jewish Community Centre, last December, and the same organization offered “Dimanche a la plage” — Sunday at the beach — in July for French families.
Two of the “daddies” of French Jews in London are Simon Tobelem and Marc Meyer. Tobelem, who has lived in the UK for eight years, works in mergers and acquisitions and has set up a venture capital firm in London which specializes in investments in Israel. Initially, he commuted between London and Paris, courtesy of the hugely popular Eurostar train service, which still allows some young French Jews to leave London on Friday afternoon and then make it home to Paris for Shabbat dinner.
Tobelem, like Meyer, has become involved in the Jewish community in the UK. He is a trustee of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, is involved with the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) and has also just joined the board of Bicom, the pro-Israel advocacy organization. But he’s also started a well-received French Jewish Business Club and would like to do more to get other French Jews involved.
He stopped commuting, says Tobelem, largely because he no longer felt comfortable in Paris.
“If French Jews have to move again, it will be to Israel, but not back to France. You cannot be blind to what goes on in France. You will hardly find anyone who will tell you that everything is fine there,” says Tobelem.
“Those who stay [there] do so because they cannot get jobs anywhere else. Just look at the reaction – only seven months after the HyperCacher [Paris supermarket] attack – to the idea of Tel Aviv on the Seine [the artificial beach party early in August]. It went ahead, but in a very difficult atmosphere,” says Tobelem.
Marc Meyer agrees. He is chairman of one of the biggest Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues in London, Hendon United, and is due to represent the Conference of European Rabbis in the UK. Under the auspices of the London Jewish Forum, Meyer is setting up French Jews In London, a “cultural, religious, economic and advisory” group. He says he is creating it “just in case – it’s better to do it when it’s not needed.”
‘If French Jews have to move again, it will be to Israel, but not back to France’
That is a hint, if it were needed, that Meyer anticipates even more French Jews coming to London.
Nobody really knows how many there are and estimates range from a conservative 10,000 to Meyer’s educated guess of 35,000.
“I don’t think that is a stupid number. Look at who is coming – bankers, hedge fund people, entrepreneurs,” says Meyer.
Michelle Huberman, who is the creative director of Harif, a charity concerned with the history, culture and heritage of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, has put together a survey aimed at French Jews, designed to sort the anecdotes from the statistics. The questionnaires go out this month and asks how long the respondents have lived in London, where they are from, whether they attend synagogue, etc.
Meanwhile the Jews who have been in London for years — the old hands — jokingly call themselves “the Frenchies” while the relative newcomers are described as “les Feujs” – a kind of French backslang.
Kosher shops in “le Quartier Noir” have begun to stock Tunisian and Moroccan Jewish delicacies, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll overhear at least one French conversation in nearly every kosher restaurant in north-west London.
If the advent of the French improves Anglo-Jewish style and food, it can only be a good thing.
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