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Paris: A look through Jewish eyes

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Eiffel Tower

I had forgotten how beautiful Paris was or maybe when I last spent time there decades ago as a student, I had not really appreciated the magnificence of the city’s architecture.
But as our taxi from the airport wound its way through the city, my sister and I marveled at the ornate heritage buildings gracing every block we passed.

On our first day we took an hour-long boat cruise along the Seine River. It gave us an overview of this storied city and iconic landmarks like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.
We also had a late lunch in Le Marais, a quaint hub of narrow winding streets. The district, was known as the Juiverie in the Middle Ages, but the Jewish community declined by the mid-17th century.

However, the area was settled by east European Jews at the end of 19th century and so it’s known as the Jewish quarter.
In recent years Le Marais has become very trendy. Clothing boutiques and upscale restaurants are interspersed with kosher bakeries, delicatessens and falafel shops.

Felix Loeb

You can have a shwarma and then go shop – or browse – at the Chanel store in the area.

A more affordable option may be the glam lingerie boutique located just up the block from Agoudas Hakehilos, a century-old Orthodox synagogue.

Hector Guimard, a Parisian architect famous for his Art Nouveau style, designed the synagogue. It opened at the end of 1913 and still runs daily services.

Most of the Jewish stores in Le Marais are located on Rue Pavée and Rue des Rosiers. Our first visit to the area was on a Friday afternoon, and many Jewish stores were already closed for Shabbat.

I had just enough time to order an omelet (at that hour it was takeout only) at Pitzman, a popular kosher Middle Eastern restaurant (8 Rue Pavée) located next door to Agoudas Hakehilos.
During our five days in Paris we went to art museums (our favourite was the Rodin Museum Sculpture Garden), and famed sites like the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame Cathedral. We even went to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

But one of our most memorable experiences was our tour of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, inaugurated in 1874. It’s also known as Grande Synagogue de la Victoire because of its location at 44 rue de la Victoire.

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Advance reservations are necessary for attendance at the daily morning and/or evening services, as well as the weekly Friday night communal dinner, which costs 20 euros (https://www.tiny.cc/shabbat).

The synagogue is open to tourists on Monday and Thursday mornings. However, it’s advisable to email ahead to request a tour. A passport is necessary for admission.

We entered through a side door and were met by Félix Loeb, a delightful older gentleman who gave us a tour of the synagogue in French.

Loeb, a child Holocaust survivor from Strasbourg, told us his father perished in Auschwitz. After the war his family relocated to Paris and became affiliated with the synagogue. He said he grew up there.

With its Romanesque facade the exterior of the synagogue could easily be mistaken for a church. We were wowed by the gorgeous sanctuary. It has soaring arched ceilings, massive circular stained glass windows, and a bimah with exquisite wood finishings.

Loeb told us the synagogue was not destroyed by the Nazis because the building was not owned by the congregation. Apparently all places of worship in France are the property of the state.

On another day we visited the Museum of Jewish Art and History, which is housed in an old, well-appointed mansion in the Marais district, some distance from the kosher shops.

The exhibits include religious art objects, manuscripts and artwork that reflect the history, culture and traditions of French and North African Jewry.

Alfred Dreyfus

The most interesting displays pertain to the Dreyfus affair. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish military officer was falsely convicted of treason because he was Jewish. His conviction was a huge scandal, however, in 1906 he was exonerated.

On the day we went to Notre Dame we stumbled upon the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, found just behind the cathedral. The 1962 memorial marks the deaths of the 200,000 people deported from France to the Nazi concentration camps.
The memorial occupies a former morgue and has a crypt-like feel as the exhibits are all underground.

The narrow dimly lit corridors leads to jail cells and a central rotunda with two chapels that contain ashes and bones from the concentration camps.

There is no specific mention of the 76,000 Jewish deportees, but the Shoah Memorial in Le Marais honours their deaths.
I didn’t have an opportunity to visit this memorial, but it’s on the list of sites to see on my next trip to Paris. This time I won’t wait 40 years to return.

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