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Jewish Journal

Paris with a Jewish accent

by David Suissa

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

I'm sitting in a Paris courtroom, and I might as well be in an art museum. There are huge windows, high ceilings, old chandeliers, and a very nervous group of people awaiting a decision.

We're in the Cour d'appel, the French Appellate Court, on the day the court is to render its decision in the case of Philippe Karsenty against the government-funded Channel 2 television station. For the past six years, Karsenty has devoted his life to proving that the station's report claiming that the IDF was responsible for the death of young Mohammed Al Durrah at the beginning of the second intifada was part of a staged hoax. The station was so taken aback by Karsenty's public attacks that it sued him for defamation, and won. That was two years ago.

Karsenty appealed the decision and has made a serious comeback, introducing additional evidence and garnering more public support. Six years of his long fight against one of France's most distinguished reporters, Charles Enderlin, came down to this moment.

Once the panel of judges took their seats, it took less than 60 seconds for the head judge to announce the decision: The case against Karsenty had no merit. Evidently, he had introduced more than enough doubt regarding the credibility of the report. Little David had prevailed against the Goliath of French media. In the controlled chaos that ensued, opposing lawyers wore a look of shock, while everybody else just sort of looked at each other, as if to say: "What just happened?" There was enough legalese in the judge's verdict that many people on Karsenty's side, myself included, were asking questions more than actually celebrating -- wondering whether there were any legal strings attached.

But there weren't. It was a clean victory. Outside, on the courthouse steps, cameramen and reporters were clinging to Karsenty's every word, including his demand that the station make a public apology in reparation to the worldwide Jewish community, which had been slandered by the original report.

That night, after celebrating the victory in a kosher restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood of Paris, I reflected on the difference between perception and reality. It's true that there's plenty of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in France, and in fact, the opposition that Karsenty faced during his long trial showed some of that sentiment.

But it's also true that justice prevailed for a little Jew against an icon of French media and culture. Considering all we hear about the precarious situation for Jews living in France, that kind of result shouldn't be taken lightly.

Beyond the high drama of this Jewish victory for truth and justice, however, there is another, quieter drama unfolding for the Jewish community of Paris. This is the silent drama of neighborhoods, the kind I often write about in Los Angeles.

During my week there, I visited two of these neighborhoods, each one going in a very different direction.

The first was the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Paris, known as Le Marais, home to the renowned Jewish Museum, a yeshiva, kosher markets, Judaica stores and anything else you'd expect to find on Fairfax or Pico.

But with one big difference: this neighborhood is disappearing.

The manager of the Mi-Va-Ni kosher grill, Benny Maman, lamented the decline. Five years ago, he told me, there were about 20 small kosher restaurants in the area; today there are only three. Same thing with synagogues, kosher butchers, Jewish bookstores, etc. There is only a handful left, mostly on one street, Rue des Rosiers.

Where Jewish merchants once stood are now trendy boutiques with names like Koo Kai and Custo Barcelona. A storefront with the faded name of a Jewish bakery is now a gay bar. Of the remaining Jewish shops, several have "for lease" signs on them.

Where did the Jewish life go? Did Jews scramble out because of the anti-Semitism we hear so much about? Actually, according to Maman, it's mainly about the parking. When they turned Rue des Rosiers into a pedestrian walkway, it made a bad parking situation even worse. As a result, significantly fewer Jews have patronized the area, and businesses and residents have wandered off to other neighborhoods.

Like, for example, the neighborhood where I spent Shabbat, the 17th "arrondissement." This is becoming the Pico-Robertson of Paris. There's practically a Shilo's Restaurant or Delice Bistro on every corner. I spent Shabbat with my all-time favorite chazzan, Ouriel Elbilia (you must hear his Shabbat CD), who runs a synagogue called Beth Rambam in an ornate old building. The community here is on the upswing, but are residents afraid of anti-Semitism? I asked a few people, and they all told me the same thing: The fear is mostly in the racially charged suburbs. But they still watch their backs around here, and several of them complained about the difficulty of making a living in modern-day France.

So those were my Jewish encounters in Paris. I met a Jew in an old neighborhood who lamented the passing of the good old days and complained about parking. I heard a Sephardic chazzan singing beautiful melodies in a thriving Jewish neighborhood, where Jews aren't afraid to be Jews, but where they still find plenty to kvetch about.

And I hung out with an outspoken and articulate Jew who annoys the establishment with his relentless pursuit of truth and justice, and who wouldn't mind, by the way, turning his story into a Hollywood motion picture.

Really, if it hadn't been for the gorgeous architecture, I might have felt right at home.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.



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