Bienvenue à Paris: The Jewish Version

A father and daughter trace the history of Jews in France. 

Today is the last of my four days in Paris. It’s a little chilly but still sunny. Perfect weather, again, like yesterday and the two days before that. Better make today last. I pack up my pajamas, wrinkled shirts and hairclips and then attempt to breakfast on one of those instant cups of soup (which I dump and promptly substitute with coffee cake after discovering the soup tastes unbelievably gross). Well, then.

My Dad and I have already visited the Eiffel Tower. We’ve gone to the Louvre, seen the Mona Lisa. We even spent a day at Versailles and walked its gardens. What now? As a Jewish Orthodox family, churches aren’t exactly our thing. But my Dad and I still catch a bus to one of the world’s most famous churches, Notre Dame.

We stand there among the throng of people trying to get a picture from every angle. It certainly is a beautiful building; there’s no arguing that. But my Dad didn’t bring me here to see the Notre Dame, translated as “Our Lady.” We came to visit the two ladies, or rather statues, situated on the upper left and right hand sides of the entrance to the church.

To the left stands Ecclesia, the woman representing the Church.  She proudly bears a crown on her head while holding a staff in one hand and in the other, something that looks like a goblet.

Across from her is another lady. This one is Synagoga and she represents Judaism. If it hadn’t been pointed out to me I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but she looks very different. Her crown has fallen to the ground next to her. A serpent covers her eyes and is wrapped around her head. She too holds a staff, but this one is merely a stick while Ecclesia’s staff is intricately carved.

In Synagoga’s other hand, she holds the tablets with the Ten Commandments, but they are slipping out of her hands and could fall and shatter at any moment. The statue is, quite obviously, a degradation of Judaism; it exists to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity.

This is a bit disturbing to me. I’m in a country where my father can’t wear a kipa in public for fear of anti-Semitism and here we are, standing in front of a church where tourists snap pictures of carvings that include a defamatory representation of Judaism, the religion I live for. I was certainly excited to visit Paris initially, but now I’m just uncomfortable. I’m more than ready to go home — or at least away from the country I quickly realize has an all-too brutal history of Jewish discrimination. Who knew that such a well-known, oh-so-grand landmark snubs Judaism so overtly? I don’t care if the statue was put there 800 years ago. I hate it.

Later, we are on to a Holocaust memorial on the edge of the Seine, the river that runs through the middle of Paris. It is called Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. We walk down narrow stairs to a small, circular, gray room. Though this is not a memorial exclusively for Jews, I still appreciate it, and I feel better than I did standing in front of Notre Dame. My father, who grew up just outside Paris, translates the engraving scratched in all capital letters above the entrance: PARDONNE/N’OUBLIE PAS. “Forgive, but do not forget.”

We walk to another memorial: Mémorial de la Shoah, this one for the fallen Jews of the Holocaust. It consists of rows and rows of gray stone walls, each one stuffed with thousands of names — all the French Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. My dad and I locate the G’s and find my great-grandfather’s name and date of birth: Moïse Ghozland, 1890. He was sent to Auschwitz and lived his last days there.

I walk into a dark room. Inside are squares of stone wall from the barracks of Buchenwald; they are encased in glass and bear inscriptions from the imprisoned Jews. Someone scratched a Star of David in one. Someone wrote a poem on another. The poem is titled in French, “Departure.” My father translates for me again,  “I am departing towards the unknown….”

On our way to the Arc de Triomphe, we pass the American consulate. I’m told off by a French police officer because I’m about to take a picture and apparently photography is not allowed. We also pass the Israeli consulate. Clearly, Americans think very differently from Israelis because here we ask the police officers standing guard, and yes, I’m allowed to use my camera all I want. They couldn’t care less because they’ve blocked the whole street off anyway. I laugh to myself.

The sun is already setting after we have dined at a kosher restaurant where I sit gawking at the Arc de Triomphe, just a block away. It is time for our last stop. My father’s close college friend’s parents, Henry and Rosette Boret, live nearby in the most chic area of Paris, the 16th district, and they have been looking forward to our visit.

After ascending seven flights in an antique glass elevator that I think is going to collapse with us in it, we ring the bell and are ushered into a small, but exceptionally grand, apartment. After introductions to Mrs. Boret and her very energetic two grandchildren, one boy still in elementary school and a girl who is around 13, (and none of whom speak much English, so here I am entirely left at my father’s mercy) we are swept into chairs on a porch looking out onto mansard roofs. There I meet Mr. Boret who is tall and white-haired. His personality is warm and his character resembles a great brown teddy bear.

While we sit and eat apple strudel from the Pletzel, the old Jewish quarter in the heart of Paris, Mr. Boret starts to schmooze and my Dad translates. “France is a nice place,” he tells us. “The only thing wrong with it is the French.” The yellow star and Hero of Israel medal Mr. Boret's carries in his wallet always.

After a couple more minutes of a conversation I don’t at all understand, and then a chat with the Boret’s daughter, who actually does speak a very tiny bit of English, Mr. Boret opens his wallet and takes out a piece of graying cloth covered in protective plastic. I recognize it at once — it is a yellow star and I don’t need a translation from my father to know that the middle word “Juif” means Jew. It was Mr. Boret’s star and he still keeps it in his wallet to remember, my father explains. But there is something gold pinned to the plastic. It is another star, but not a badge of shame — a badge of honor.

It is the Gibor Yisrael — Hebrew for “Hero of Israel” — medal, the highest military decoration in the IDF. This particular one was given to Moshe Levy, a fearless soldier who lost an arm rescuing two comrades from a burning tank in the Yom Kippur War. Mr. Boret and Mr. Levy are such close friends that Mr. Levy gave Mr. Boret the badge to keep. He keeps it in his wallet, together with the yellow star, to remember then and now.

And so, inevitably, when I think of Paris — the cafés, the romance and the glamour — I also remember the history — the then — and the now.Boys Shoes

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