Walking Through Jewish Paris
Paris — When Pamela Grant said to meet her on Ile de la Cité for a walking tour of Jewish Paris, I wondered why there of all places.
I could imagine a synagogue in Le Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter in the 4th arrondissement.
But Ile de la Cité? It’s an island in the Seine known for the massive Gothic church immortalized by Victor Hugo in “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”
While my wife and I waited for Grant at the Brasserie des Deux Palais near the Ile de la Cité Metro station, we watched people pass through an Art-Nouveau ironwork portal designed by the famous architect, Hector Guimard.
Soon a woman came our way, walking across the square with a notebook in hand.
It was Grant, a Jewish Long Island native who came to Paris 15 years ago with an art degree from Vassar College and decided to take the difficult French tour guide exam.
Along the way, she has conducted interviews of French Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project and translated French films into English, including “La Vie en Rose,” the story of famed French singer, Edith Piaf.
The first stop on our tour was the site of a fifth-century synagogue, no longer standing, near the flower market on Allée Célestin Hennion, a stone’s throw from the Metro and the old Roman road.
As we made our way, Grant pointed to the large prefecture de police building, where the Vichy police required Jews to register in 1941 — a prelude to deportations to concentration camps.
It would be the first of many stark reminders of the fate of French Jews under the Germans and their Vichy collaborators.
Some of the Jews Grant interviewed for Spielberg’s Holocaust project told her that they obeyed the order to register out of a simple, if naive, desire “to be good citizens.” But then there were others “who just knew and they didn’t do it.”
At the flower market, Grant noted that by the time of the Crusades in 1096, Jewish life on the island had begun to decline “because you have this extremist Catholic thing going on, where people are going to the Holy Land to get rid of the infidels. But it makes no sense to leave the Jews in their midst. … So they go after the Jews in France, too”
But on this sunny day, a big merry-go-round in front of the French Renaissance-style city hall made everything seem, well, just so right.
The fifth-century synagogue was eventually replaced by a church, but by the mid-19th century, the church, too, was torn down, along with a good part of the city, by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the city planner who gave us modern Paris.
But thankfully for later generations, pockets of the old Paris, like the Notre-Dame Cathedral, remain.
In medieval times, Jews lived practically across the street from Notre-Dame, in its day a kind of “skyscraper,” Grant said, a 20-story building if you include the towers, which made it easier “to reach heaven.”
The statuary on the church exterior illustrates scenes from the Old and the New Testaments, originally painted bright blue, yellow, and red because, said Grant, “they wanted to make it educational, colorful, and you can imagine that the priest was out here with his pointer stick, telling stories of the Old and the New Testament, mostly the New Testament.”
But the visual message is quite clear: the Old Testament is in retreat, represented by a blindfolded woman, her staff broken, and the Ten Commandments at her feet. By contrast, the woman representing the New Testament stands proudly with a crown on her head.
As we approached the very edge of the island, I looked back at the church spires, which from a distant dominate the French memorial to the deportations just in front of us, its narrow stairway leading downstairs, as if into a prison.
The memorial recalls the deportation of 200,000 French citizens to concentration camps; 76,000 of them were Jews.
All of this darkness is juxtaposed with frivolity when you cross over to Ile St-Louis, another small island in the Seine, that is known for its tasty ice cream.
From Ile St-Louis, we continued on to Le Marais on the Right Bank of the Seine, where 17th-century nobles built hotels particuliers — imposing mansions with large courtyards and ornate gardens. Expropriated during the Revolution, these mansions eventually fell into disrepair, and by the 19th century, the poor had begun to move in, including many Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
This is the same area where the Memorial to the Shoah stands behind a high metal fence, through which one sees a large, symbolic bronze urn.
Inside the memorial building is a moving exhibit of photographs of Jewish children deported to the concentration camps collected by Serge Klarsfeld, the famous hunter of Nazi war criminals.
Outside the museum, you can stop at the “Wall of the Just” to read names of ordinary French citizens who saved Jews during the occupation.
When we finally arrived in the center of the pletzl, the city’s traditional Jewish neighborhood whose Yiddish name means “small place,” we found synagogues, religious bookstores, and kosher eateries. Great falafel places were next to chic clothing boutiques — a sign of the pletzl’s steady gentrification.
Hebrew and French signs competed with each other on claustrophobically narrow streets.
Pitzman Delicatessen, very crowded and very good, is where we stopped for lunch, but the most inventive food sign we saw was at Sacha Finkelsztajn, a kosher bakery advertising “Yiddish Sandwiches” — making me wonder if the sandwiches talk.
You can’t miss the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, a tall structure at 10 rue Pavee that is closed to the public.
Known as the Synagogue de la rue Pavee, it was built in 1913, dynamited by the Germans on Yom Kippur 1941, and later restored.
Its architect, whose name is etched into the front of the building, was Hector Guimard, the same designer of the Art Nouveau Metro entrances.
It’s worth the short walk from the pletzl to the Jewish Museum of Art and History in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan, a 17th-century mansion on rue du Temple.
During our stay in Paris, the museum featured a wonderful exhibit of Chagall’s biblical paintings.
An unexpected, really surprising find came just before lunch; it was hidden behind an over-sized door without any external identification on rue des Rosiers.
Grant rang the bell and someone released the lock electronically to let us in. We walked upstairs and were warmly greeted by a young Chabadnik. What we found was a small synagogue dating back to1780, when Jews still were not officially recognized or allowed in the city, though about 500 of them apparently were living there clandestinely.
It was a fitting end to our Paris journey, which took us from fifth-century Jewish life along the Seine to Parisian Jewish life today.
Next week: The best baguettes in Paris.