Oui, Paris: My Adventures in the City of Lights
My grandfather, Nathan Bernstein, of blessed memory, a kind, even tempered, and mild mannered man, never fully explained his intense and almost violent reaction whenever anyone suggested visiting France. All he ever said was, “it had to do with the war.”
Unlike my grandfather, I have no qualms about visiting France and before a recent trip with my husband during my sabbatical, I emailed Robert Ley, the Coordinateur Relations Internationales for the Mouvement Juif Liberal de France (MJLF; the Liberal Judaism Movement of France) and the president of Arzenou France, eager for information about the Reform Jewish presence in Paris. He responded immediately, which is how I found myself enjoying a Kir Royal at a Paris restaurant with the Australian born Reform Jew whose wife is a Moroccan-born Sephardic Jew. He generously gave me an abridged history of the Jews and the Progressive Jewish journey in France. A warm welcome, indeed. (This article by Bernard Edinger, marking the 100th anniversary of Liberal Judaism In France, fills in any missing pieces of liberal Judaism’s history in the country.)
Understanding the challenges that must be overcome to create a progressive Jewish identity in France requires some understanding of the traditional and historic Sephardic and Ashkenazic experiences and all that an emotional and often tragic journey entails.
For example, the immigrant Jewish artists of the School of Paris – Modigliani, Chagall, and Soutine, as well as the lesser known Lipchitz, Zadkine, Kisling, and Kremegne – all were classically trained and exceptionally diverse. Yet each found his “visual voice” by drawing upon millennia of Jewish history and his own roots. As I immersed myself in the works of art at the wonderful Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme, I began to grasp, with a deep artistic resonance, the importance of the cultural history, traditions, and diversity of the Jewish immigrant experience.
In today’s France, Karen Reb Rudel, an American in Paris who identifies as a progressive Jew, is connected to Communaute Juive Liberale, where she has found a Jewish home in which her eight-year-old son enjoys religious school and her French-born husband is studying with France’s first female rabbi, Pauline Bebe, toward conversion. Karen shares her knowledge of Jewish Paris by offering a variety of upbeat, entertaining tours, including one that provides a view of the city through a uniquely progressive Jewish lens and includes a sojourn to the highly recommended L’As du Falafel for delicious eats.
I looked forward to celebrating Shabbat in Paris and immediately was struck by the welcome, warmth, and musicality of Shabbat services at MJLF, which were led by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, one of three rabbis at the congregation, who also serves as the editor-in-chief of the quarterly Jewish magazine Tenou’a. Along with a trio of excellent musicians, Rabbi Horvilleur engaged her congregation with ruach (spirit) and music, including melodies from Israel and the Diaspora, compositions from classical Reform composers, and folk settings. I was honored to join her on the bimah during services to introduce the community to Moshe Rothblum’s much-loved setting of V’shamru, which was new to its members.
In these increasingly insular times, one of the greatest gifts we can give (and receive) is to reach out as a united, but culturally distinct, Reform Jewish community in North America and make new connections with members of our worldwide mishpacha (family). Through the World Union for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), and the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ), let us embrace and support our progressive Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the world, continuing to develop and nurture partnerships, cultural exchanges, and connections – and sweeping aside in an instant our personal preconceived notions and concerns.