My love affair with French culture started young. The seeds were planted in 1950s New York by my first French teacher, Madame Allouette. A wren of a woman, she showed up for work each day dressed in a tailored gray suit, white blouse, sensible shoes, and toting a black briefcase brimming with meaningless dialogs and crafty pop quizzes. She expected the best from each rowdy kid in her airtight room, and though she was frugal with rewards—a slight smile here, a bon there—I fell in love. Fifty years and many visits to France later, I am still pursuing fluency. Why give up now?
But no matter how long I study, one question remains—and it does not concern the subjunctive. How can I be so enamored of a country with such a long history of anti-Semitism? Just as America’s legacy of slavery will always be present, the fact that France deported 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II cannot be ignored.
A former French teacher once tried to explain the non-existence of anti-Semitism to me by saying that I failed to understand laicité. A legal principle as important to French identity as liberté, fraternité and égalité, laicité formally separates church and state, making all French citizens equal under the law. To reinforce that principle, in 2004 the French parliament passed a law forbidding students to wear kippahs, Muslim veils and large crosses from schools.
However, my dilemma is not about laicité but about the refusal to see what’s hiding in plain sight: To be a Jew in France today is to live the Jewish part of your life quietly, in secret.
During my last trip to Paris, in April, I had the good luck to meet celebrated French-American chef Daniel Rose, owner of the tiny La Bourse et La Vie in central Paris and chef at the Michelin-starred Le Coucou in New York. A non-practicing Jew and Francophile like myself, the Chicago native moved to Paris about 20 years ago without a word of French, but with the chutzpah to open a French bistro. We met because Rose had opened a Ukrainian pop-up called Le Borscht et La Vie, where a team of refugees cooked and served Ukrainian specialties like veal borscht and honey cake to his chic Parisian clientele during April and May.
“I’ve been a refugee my whole life,” explained the ex-pat, who married a French woman and is raising his two young children in Paris as mixed Jews. “The Ukrainians are cooking as if their lives depend on it.”
When the discussion turned to Jewish life in France, Rose said that until he lived in New York, “I didn’t realize what it meant to live in a Jewish city. Paris is not so culturally Jewish.”
As an example, when his landlord, Pierre Richelieu, wished him a happy new year on Rosh Hashanah this year, Rose was shocked. After 15 years, he had had no idea Richelieu was Jewish, because as Pierre explained, “We don’t speak about it here.” Nor, Rose points out, does the word “Jewish” appear in most of the signage at Musée Nissim de Camando, the treasure-filled mansion left to the nation by the Sephardic banking family that was deported during World War II. To truly understand what happened, visitors need to stop at the very last room, and watch a video that explains the Camandos’ disappearance.
Today France is home to about a half-million Jews, the third largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States. But the best time to be a Jew in France was the 100 years between the French revolution and the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century. During that golden period, Napoleon emancipated the Jews, allowing them to pursue prestigious professions, but at the same time forbidding Jews to act as a group in the public sphere. Nevertheless, French Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. Times were so good that the expression “happy as a Jew in France” became popular, as a stream of Eastern European Jews fled less happy places.
Today, the life of a practicing Jew in Paris remains complicated. My current French teacher, whose Orthodox family emigrated from Tunisia to France and then to Israel, explains that her mother no longer wears a Star of David when visiting so as not to invite trouble. “It’s too hard to be a Jew in France,” her mother explained after moving to Israel. My teacher points out that France is second only to Russia in the number of Jews making aliyah to Israel.
Meanwhile, Flora Goldenberg, whose family has lived in the Marais section of Paris since the end of the 19th century and whose grandfather owned a famous delicatessen that closed after a terrorist attack, chooses to stay. She still lives in the Pletzl, the historic Jewish center of the Marais, where she leads Jewish Walking Tours of the neighborhood.
On her tour we visited a synagogue hidden behind an unmarked door and up several flights of stairs, an elementary school where 165 Jewish children were rounded up for deportation during the war (“N’oubliez jamais,” reminds the plaque) and a Holocaust Memorial including a wall of names, discreetly tucked behind a garden. It was surprising how much I hadn’t seen on my earlier visits to the bustling, trendy neighborhood.
Goldenberg prefers not to talk about the current state of Jews in Paris.
“Anti-Semitism is no worse today,” she explained. “Social media just reports more.” As if to correct a misconception, she reminded me that 75% of French Jews survived World War II. Clearly she didn’t want to discuss a complex subject with an American Jew who couldn’t possibly understand the finer shades of French Jewish identity. “Laicité has its limits,” she said abruptly, waving goodbye.
As does Francophilia, I realized with chagrin.
Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.