Jewish Journal

City of Lights sparkles with Jewish life

by Curt Leviant and Erika Pfeifer Leviant

Posted on Jun. 20, 2012 at 11:23 am

Nazareth Synagogue, built in 1852, is the oldest in Paris. Photo by Leora Chefitz

Nazareth Synagogue, built in 1852, is the oldest in Paris. Photo by Leora Chefitz

Paris, the City of Lights, also brims with the bright light of Jewry.

Jewish history stretches back more than 2,000 years in France, and Jewish life in the city best known for the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame dates to the first century B.C.E. In modern history, three Jews became prime ministers of France, the first European nation to grant Jews citizenship: Léon Blum, René Mayer and Pierre Mendès-France. In Paris, Theodore Herzl was inspired to create the great Zionist manifesto “The Jewish State,” a document central to modern Jewish history.

France has the largest population of Jews outside of Israel and the United States, about 500,000, with approximately 280,000 in Paris. The City of Lights has also become a kosher-friendly capital, with hotels, markets and more than 150 kosher-certified restaurants. Kosher delis and falafel stands line the Marais district, with other Parisian kosher restaurants offering French, Israeli, North African and Tex-Mex cuisine. 

Among the dozens of synagogues in Paris, three magnificent buildings stand out: La Grande Synagogue de la Victoire, otherwise known as the Great Synagogue or the Rothschild Synagogue, stands at 44 Rue de la Victoire. Built in 1874 by Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe, this Byzantine-style synagogue’s sanctuary features 87-foot ceilings and impressive circular stained glass windows in yellow, blue and red. A few minutes’ walk is the slightly smaller but equally dazzling Synagogue Buffault, a Sephardi synagogue built in 1877 by Stanislas Ferrand at 28 Rue Buffault. The third is at 15 Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, a street where lots of Jewish shops display Israeli flags in their windows. Built in 1852, the Nazareth Synagogue is the oldest in Paris. Newcomers are warmly welcomed in each of the synagogues.

Paris’ Fourth Arrondissement features the oldest and most famous quarter, the historic Marais district. Some 700 years ago this used to be the Jewish residential quarter, La Juiverie, when Rue des Rosiers was called the Street of the Jews. Now the area around Rue des Rosiers, between Rue Malher and Rue des Hospitalières-St.-Gervais, is filled with Jewish restaurants, bookshops, boulangeries and charcuteries. One shop offers “Yiddish sandwiches,” as though an entire language could be swallowed. Synagogues in the area include the Synagogue de la Rue Pavée, designed by Hector Guimard, the architect famous for his art nouveau Paris Metro entrances.

Nearby is the Museum of Jewish Art and History at 71 Rue du Temple. Located in one of the most elegant private mansions in Paris, the museum accents the history of Jewish communities in France with displays of manuscripts, clothing, artifacts, ritual objects and paintings. Also, behind the Notre Dame, on Ile de la
Cité, is the moving and somber Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, an underground site dedicated to the 200,000 people, most of them Jews, who were deported from France by the Germans and their Vichy collaborators. The words above the doors read: “Pardonne mais n’oublie pas” (“Forgive, but do not forget”).

Although it doesn’t possess the same history, the Ninth Arrondissement, around the intersection of Rue du Faubourg-Montmarte, Rue Cadet and Rue Richer, features another Jewish neighborhood with shops, Israeli and North African restaurants, and a dozen synagogues.

The wide spectrum of entertainment in Paris includes the ornate grandeur of the Palais Garnier, the famed opera house that is a mid-19th century architectural marvel. A Sunday morning tour offers insights about the building and entry into the great concert hall, which includes Chagall’s beautiful ceiling mural. Chamber concerts are offered by Paul Rouger and his Les Solistes Francais at La Sainte-Chapelle, with its superb acoustics and centuries’-old famous stained glass windows.

To mitigate hefty museum admission fees, consider a museum pass, which saves both money and waiting in long lines. Economical, too, is a Metro pass, which provides unlimited rides on the easily negotiated Paris subway system and on all the bus lines. For a great way to get an overview of the city take the hop-on, hop-off bus tour offered by Les Cars Rouges, with many stops at all the important sites and monuments of Paris.

For travel outside of Paris, consider the money-saving France Railpass, which permits travelers to board all trains in France without waiting for tickets (for the high-speed TGV, reservations are required).

Paris Tourism parisinfo.com

La Grande Synagogue de la Victoire www.lavictoire.org

Museum of Jewish Art and History www.mahj.org

Curt Leviant’s most recent book is the comic novel “A Novel of Klass.” Erika Pfeifer Leviant has written travel articles and essays on Jewish art for various publications.

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