With the unprecedented attention on French Jewry this week, little has been said about Jewish life in the country over the centuries. To appreciate the heritage of Europe’s second largest Jewish community, take a walk through the Marais, known as “the Jewish heart of Paris.”
Jews have been living in the Marais since the Middle Ages. At the end of the 19th Century, it was teeming with Jewish immigrants who arrived from Eastern Europe and Alsace Lorraine; the district was known as 'The Pletzel,' Yiddish for little square, because of its narrow cobblestone streets and small buildings. It was packed with small shops, mostly clothing, kosher delis and bakeries, yeshivas and synagogues.
As French Jews improved their social and economic conditions, they left the Marais, which had become dilapidated, for other parts of Paris. In recent years, the Marais has become gentrified, a popular attraction for tourists, now featuring trendy boutiques, restaurants and clubs.
Still, the Jewish presence in the Marais is unmistakable. The main sights are in the area of Rue des Rosier, Rue Pave and Rue Ferdinand-Duval, previously named Rue des Juifs, or Street of the Jews. Parisians flock to the district to eat from the famous falafel stands or for a mix of French and Eastern European Jewish dishes at Florence Kahn’s Bakery and Delicatessen.
There are a few synagogues, most notably the architectural gem on Rue des Tournelles. A yeshiva in the neighborhood is evidenced by Orthodox Jews in traditional black coats and hats walking along Rue Pave.
Video via Jewish Discoveries
For a history of French Jewry, it’s worth visiting two museums in the Marais: The Museum of Jewish Art and History (Rue de Temple), housed in a large mansion, provides a retrospective of French Jewish history, a compilation of Judaica, the Dreyfus Affair and other anti-Semitic events, and a celebration of notable French Jews and their contributions to the country.
Another museum, Memorial de la Shoah, rue Geoffroy l'Asnier commemorates the 76,000 Jews deported from France to Nazi concentration camps. The names of all the victims are engraved on the walls leading to the entrance. Inside, there are permanent and temporary exhibits, as well as video testimony from survivors. Across the street, on the wall of a school, is a plaque in memory of the 11,000 Jewish children who died in the camps.
Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac, historian and resident of the Marais, speaks about the paradox of French Jewry. “It’s often tragic to be a Jew in France. But at same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews live here, regard France as their home, making significant contributions to all sectors of society.”
With so much gentrification in the Marais, it is possible to miss how central it was to Jewish life in Paris. But for the interested and discerning visitor, the Marais is essential for understanding the long and bittersweet history of Jews in France.