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WHAT IS A FRENCH JEW ?
. Coming back from New York, where I tried to rebuild links between two close parts of my family who were separated just after the Holocaust, I now realize the enormous cultural and historical gap, and mutual lack of knowledge, between those two worlds. Being a Jew in France has nothing to do with the heritage in the United States. So, I decided that, with my poor English and limited New York experience, I would write this article, not only for my French readers, but most of all, for my US friends and fans.(The picture : Yves Montand and Françis Lemarque, born Nathan Korb: two Figures of typical French singers)
The Jewish-French community is essentially Sefardic (around 80 %). After the Holocaust, France lost most of its Jews to the camps, and the ones who came back had to struggle between their ancient and living faith, and the recurrent memories of lost relatives, parents and friends; The memories of those times, even in very poor working families (mostly working in the apparel industry) were happier than those of life in Eastern Europe. Being observant was just NOT possible for someone who was back from camps. Believing in God, acting and praying to a God who had let it happen was inconceivable. So this heritage, just like in other centuries of Jewish history, turned into A CULTURE.
Aside from our ancient biblical heritage, we started to cling to literature, ways of thinking, a language (Yiddish), and the arts, ways of expressing and saying things, rather than having to ask “why ?”. There was also the desire to blend into French society at large, knowing what the cost could be if you did not! Then we changed our names, our identities, some even changed their faces through surgery (like my mother: the jewish nose... ).
Those times are not so far from ours, and those influences are critical to the way that Ashkenazi Jews live Judaism today. Our parents and grandparents were not observant. My mother (born in the 40s), like all of them, refuses to say any prayers, but she taught Yiddish to the Lubavitch. Shabbes was never kept, but we did sing the words, whether in Hebrew or in Yiddish, through the Barry Sisters' or Leo Fuld's songs.
Speaking Yiddish in France has nothing to do with what it means in America. Beyond the sweet and brilliant, intelligent and peculiar language, it is also the auditory memory of a time when it was forbidden, and unconsciously, it is still very hard to rid it of its associations with the past, with the people who used to speak this language for buying their bread or greeting their family... I had this conversation with David Krakauer once about what I felt upon hearing him the first time (or Socalled) singing in Yiddish to some Rap/Rock music, and I remember that he struggled to understand what I was talking about.
Most of French Ashkenazy Jews are liberals politically. Why ? Well, in a nutshell, mostly because they are afraid of nationalism or national parties. 'International' socialism or communism, even with the terrible handling and low status of Jews, still seemed safer than old feudal systems. Being left and systematically fighting for the rights of any humans (other than us) is also an easy way to forget about ourselves, to escape from being specifically Jewish, with a specific and different history, a way to renounce specific claims to the Jewish identity in favour of a more general human identity. It also means practically giving up the fight for individual rights, as all minorities do and especially in France.
Sefardic Jews, who don't know much about the Holocaust, (and when they do, it's through a knowledge of history) don't suffer from the same fears, moral disease and self-hate... because this tragedy has nothing to see with generations or time, but more with the spychological dimention, and his heritage. As for those who do know about it, it's often because they've been directly affected by it (like the Greek or Turkish Jews... who had their own heritage, art and language - Ladino...). Above that, the unconscious does its part, and deeply influences our present options.
The Jewish French community is not more than 500 000 people when there are more than 8 millions of Muslims living here. While some of those Muslims are not observant, the things that are happening here in France (and all of Europe) seem very hard to imagine (or sometimes to believe) for Americans.
What is normal here today, would have seemed insane just a few years ago. And it's not words, it's what we experience every day. Arab antisemitism has been building bridges with the French leftist-liberal antisemitism. That makes it one more problem grasp with, not even counting the old-fashioned, historical catholic antisemitism, which is still deeply ingrained in the conservative and far-right portions of society. We have to face this, day by day, thru radio, tv... and of course, when we meet a girl. For sure, nobody would insult you saying "damn yud" but they now can officialy spit on Jews using the word 'Israelians' instead of 'Jew'. That is now permited (and well seen). I have a good friend who always says : "You can always take a non-jewish or an ashkenazy girl in your life, but don't even think about opening the radio, reading the news or watching TV with her".
In France, most of Ashkenazy's are very proud to fight against the 'inhuman behaviour of Israel' (I personaly don't know ONE that doesn't fit to that). It must be seen as a will to be accepted by the french society. In the US, there is not necessary a link between being left and pro-palestinian. Here, you have to pledge allegiance to the pro-Palestinian dogma in order to be accepted by the majority of the true humanists, and so, to hate a part of yourself or at least, a part of the people whom you belong to (if you still feel that you belong to that one)... In France, if you dare say that you're jewish in a party or a pub, or wear something that can link you to the jewish religion, you have to be ready to face to, at least hostility, sometimes, physical agressiveness. As fast as possible, you have to condemn Israel, and show yourself on pictures, hugging close Muslim friends of yours, or defending Palestinians, then, you can be accepted as a 'good Jew'.
Rather than feeling lonly, lost, among the others and mostly by lack of courage, most of ashkenazim chooses the complex path of being Jewish and faking that they don't see that anti-semitism is in their close relations.
That's not the sefaradic choice. Except the university and colledge mid, traditionaly left (like in US), the French Sefaradim don't suffer from the same Shoa trauma and are from the right. They simply faced Muslims because they lived close to them, and with them, often in a good exchange of rites and culture, from Tunisia, Algeria and Morroco. That builds a different point of view about the middle-east conflict and Islam, and then a complet opposition to the Achkenazy's posture. This is not the only opposition.
I remember that my granma in the 50's was horrified by the Sefaradic people and my parents almost enraged against them :
When my grandma, back from extertermination camps, from the Shoa, having her family burned almost in front of her eyes, some women used has slaves or medical expemitental bodies by the Nazis, a digit tatooed on her arm... at that time, she remembers facing sefarads who where complaining about the ashkenazys being sad and hiding their judaïsm, not observing enough, 'why are you so ashamed of yourselves' they said (and they still say that) also, complaining about not finding the good vegetables for the coucous, here in Paris, like they did in Algeria, complaining about le lack of sun, while dancing the belly-dance...What a gap, what a violence for my grandma !
That's an old story, you would say... things are different now, time passed and things changed ?!
I would say Yes and No. As you can see, the heritage is clearly readable in the French community.
Observant Ashkenazim are nearly inexistants and Old Synagogues are now all Sefaradic rites, and thanks to them, they still fight for that living symbol of our religion. The traumas are deeply buried in the inconscient, so still affect the behaviours of ashkenazys even if they always tries to deny it. The trauma affected the childrens of the war, and most of the ashkenazy's are now maried to non-jewish. They usualy make a child and sometimes, tries to find a jewish companion in the second part of their life, after 40.
So, we're not only a very small quantity of people, but with a huge variety of background, sometimes in a complete opposition of judaïsm. That doesn't make a community at all... and the vision of a soldered and helping jewish community is on only a antisemitic phantasm.
And me ?
As i'm not what we call here an observant, has i'm not 'righted' but not lefted at all, and had a good therapist, I try to meet someone who would accept me as a Man, as a Mensh, but also as a Jewish man. As it's getting harder and harder to find this in those times in France, then, i'm still searching. 600 000 jews makes not more than 7 000 single persons, from 30 to 40. That makes almost 4 000 jewish women in the country of France !
When i went to New-York, crossing the ocean for a dating that my beloved US family organised for me, i dated a sefaradic New-York girl.
Coming from Paris to NY, from downtown Soho to West uptown, in the freezing storm, walking in the snow with my brand new shining shoes, ready to spend my second 100$ banknote (as they explained to me that it's a minimum bill for having the priviledge of dating a jewish new-york girl), i thought that my identity as a jew and my huge knowledge of the jewish art and culture, my way of singing in Yiddish, my French accent and my dark jewish humour would be enough to guarantee my pedigree : No
The girl simply asked me if I go to the synaguogue sometimes, or do the shabbes. I just replied that I would love to, and that I go for Kippour, and do Pessah with the four of my family still there and that's why i'm looking for a jewish girl to have the joy to share each other heritage, dancing and singing on the sound of my clarinet...
Then, she answered sadly : "statically, when you are not an observant, you loose the JudaIsm, and you can't count on the women you meet to do that... "
Maybe, she has never been interested by any other way of being jewish, nor the struggle to exist as a Jew in France, nor the journey I went thru to be there, 6 000 km from home, in front of her, by this freesing winter, in this ugly restaurant, now, asking for the bill and a taxi to rapidly go back to my hotel room.
This is why i wrote that article.
Sorry for my poor english... working on it...
Thanks for your comments.