Pauline Bebe, France's first and only female rabbi, was in town last week, soaking up not only the winter California warmth but our spiritual rays, too. Dark-haired and soft-spoken, Bebe, 36, is a leader in a growing Jewish liberal revival that is now spreading rapidly through Napoleon's homeland. But in a nation that is still startled by a newspaper headline reading "Moi, femme juive et rabbin" (I, woman, Jewish and rabbi), she's got her work cut out for her.
For many of us, French Jewry is little more than an off-road adventure during a trip to Paris. Even assimilated Jews get a kick seeking out a pastrami sandwich in the Marais or attending High Holy Days services in the ancient Orthodox synagogue where, amid intermittent anti-Semitic attacks, gendarmes guard the gates. Most of the time, France represents hostility to Jews, siding with Arabs against Israel and hiding terrorists.
But France contains the world's fourth-largest Jewish community, and 200 years ago, its Jews were the first to balance Jewish identity against citizenship in a modern state. France was, of course, the home of the great Talmudist Rashi and the birthplace of modern sociology (once derided as a "Jewish science").
Today's French Jewish society is culturally diverse, equally Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I asked the Sorbonne-educated Bebe how a Jewish mother makes chicken soup, she replied, "Couscous."
As French Jews go, so, in a way, do we all. And today they need our help.
With a Jewish population nearing 700,000, only 5 percent of French Jews are affiliated with any community organization or practice. American Jews talk about the loss of the current generation to intermarriage or disaffection, but our community participation is at the 50 percent level. For Bebe and her American-born husband, Rabbi Tom Cohen, for the French to reach 50 percent participation in two decades will be miraculeux.
But before the miracle can occur, the weight of modern history must be lifted. Of course I mean the Shoah. "I have that history in my own family," began Bebe, as she kept one eye on her 5-month-old son Elon, and an ear on two other youngsters in the next room.
"My grandfather, Paul Nathan, was in engineering school when he was told to register with the police. He was proud of his country, his family had died for his country. He never thought that by signing a piece of paper, he would endanger his life."
The infamous history of France under Vichy echoes throughout Bebe's congregation. France didn't wait for Hitler to begin its own assault on its Jews. More than 80,000 Jews were deported from France to Germany and Poland, where many were killed.
And yet, while the police cooperated with the Gestapo, many individuals, including police, took enormous risks on their behalf.
"My grandfather was out riding his bike when a policeman warned him that he better leave," she said. Bebe's mother and father, like thousands of French Jews, were hidden by Catholic families in the south of France throughout the war.
"I asked my in-laws why they stayed," Tom Cohen told me. "But it was far more complex than American Jews believe."
After the war, Jewish life ended. There were few Jewish schools. Today's synagogue-goer is making up for lost time, feeding a hunger suppressed for two decades. Though Bebe's role as first female rabbi initially caused a stir, she is the rare member of Generation J, a Jew with knowledge. There are 200 families in her synagogue, 80 students in her religious school.
"The true tradition of Judaism is being open ... and we are building its home in Paris," reads the brochure for Bebe's dream, the Jewish Community Center in Paris. Combining a synagogue, school, library and cybercafe, the center will be "a home filled with spirituality, where every step of the cycle of life can be celebrated with emotion, a home where it's good to enter and linger a while."
This is where we can help. With the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a building campaign has begun for the first French JCC. You can become an associate member of this new institution. But that's not all. Bebe says that many French Jews are still uncertain about taking the first step. A generation that grew up in Jewish ignorance needs mentoring and friendship.
"When you're in Paris, don't only visit the Orthodox shul, visit us," she says (e-mail Paris@judaisme-liberal.com). "I can tell them that Reform Judaism is the largest movement, but that's only a rabbi talking. Our congregants need to see you, to know that liberal Judaism is observed all over the world." When in Paris, get some Couscous for your soul.