Being Jewish in France? Ça va bien

By Naomi Firsht, October 11, 2013
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This Rosh Hashanah, I was reminded of the sorry state of affairs that is Jewish life in France when I read the “It’s been quite a year” JC news round-up.

Apparently this past year has seen a surge of French Jews crossing the channel due to a 58 per cent rise in antisemitism in France, a view that I imagine was based on an earlier article entitled “Exodus to the UK as

French Jews escape antisemitism”, which was filled with scary statistics.
Well, I’m Jewish, I’ve lived in Paris for the past five years and I’d like to offer an alternative side to the story.

Having worked at the European Jewish Congress in Paris I know antisemitism statistics cannot be taken at face value. But beyond my work with the EJC, it is my personal experience of life in France that convinces me of my belief: on the whole, life for Jews is good here.

When discussing Jewish life in Paris with Jewish friends in the UK, they inevitably raise the question of antisemitism, asking: “Would you wear your magen David necklace in the street?” and “Aren’t you worried about all the antisemitism?”

But honestly, the idea of not being safe in Paris had never really occurred to me, because it is just so easy to be Jewish here.

Yarmulkes on the Metro and 100 kosher outlets

Compared to London where almost all Jewish life is contained in the north-west, the Jewish community of Paris is spread across the whole city.

Jewish friends from the UK are often surprised to learn that not only is the French community the largest outside Israel and the USA, but that, in Paris, almost every arrondissement or neighbourhood has more than one synagogue. There are also over 100 kosher restaurants and numerous shops and butchers.

Jewish cultural and religious life in Paris is openly celebrated through dozens of exhibitions, concerts and festivals.

Chanucah vans and mobile succahs zip through the streets blaring out zemirot during the festive times of year; a giant chanukiyah is lit in a different arrondissement for each night of the chag, while Lubavitch hand out free doughnuts to bemused passers-by; and on Simchat Torah the shul at Place des Vosges takes its sifrei Torah outside to dance around the famous square in central Paris.

The community is well integrated into Paris life, yet retains some joyfully eccentric idiosyncrasies.
On Shabbat afternoon my local park resembles a Jewish version of an American high school film with the community’s adolescents taking over various benches and areas depending on which group they belong to: tzitzit and nervous-around-girls boys on one bench, while the cool kids who use their iPhones on Shabbat plan their evenings on a grassy knoll.

One of our nearest supermarkets is managed by an elderly Jewish couple where the woman has established herself as the neighbourhood Jewish mother. On recognising my boyfriend as one of the kin, she has taken to scrutinising the items in his shopping basket before recommending alternative “better” choices.

The only Jew-bashing I have ever encountered in Paris has been from Sephardim, mildly mocking me for my Ashkenazi roots. On one occasion I asked my local kosher butcher which meat was best for making a dafina (the Sephardi equivalent of a cholent). He took one look at my pale face, smirked and declared: “You’re not making a dafina! It’s cholent for you — n’est ce pas?”

It wouldn’t surprise me if there had been a rise in French Jews moving to the UK. After all, in terms of population, London is France’s sixth largest city. But I sincerely doubt the 400,000-strong French community of London have hopped on the Eurostar “to escape antisemitism.” Just like any other foreign community in the UK, they have come for the job opportunities.

Of course antisemitism exists in France, as it does everywhere, and I’m aware that Jewish life will be harder in poorer areas outside Paris, but it needs to be put into perspective.

When I go about my daily life I do not see Jews living in fear. I see men openly wearing yarmulkes on the Metro, new kosher restaurants opening on my street — and French Jews living normal lives.

Last updated: 5:45pm, October 11 2013