Jewish Life Lessons from Holidaying in France

September 2, 2014Joy Weinberg

When most people think of “France” and “Jews” together, past or current anti-Semitism comes to mind. That wasn’t our experience while vacationing in Brittany this summer, although we were just American tourists visiting for two weeks.

Fourteen days was, however, long enough for this American Jew to learn life lessons – Jewish life lessons even – from a country that prioritizes values of living over accomplishing.

In America, the Holy Grail is being successful: accumulating wealth, status, power, and, recently, thousands of Twitter followers. The path to achievement is strewn with personal charisma and grit, nonstop work, and luck – and its key mindset is “more.” In other words, never be satisfied with what you’ve got; relentlessly forge ahead by “more’s” ineffable promise.

In Judaism, the goal is becoming a more holy person: “accumulating” compassion, wisdom, generosity, and the strength to act on the courage of one’s convictions. The path forward is strewn with personal growth and grit, work to better both oneself and others, and luck, too. Its key mindset is dayeinu (“it is enough”) – to rejoice in the gifts we already have. The people who are truly rich, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 32a), are “those who rejoice in their portion.” (To learn more, read Alan Morinis’ article, "Bondage to Busyness.")

The French people have a lot to teach us Americans about dayeinu, notwithstanding their inherent advantage: It’s easier to rejoice in your portion when there’s a freshly baked chocolate croissant on your plate.

Bon jour!

The French don’t quite say it. They more or less sing it to everyone they meet. Listen and you’ll hear the drama, each syllable’s melodic, gentle rise and fall.

Everyone begins daytime conversations with bon jour! (“good day”). Missing are the curt, hasty greetings prevalent in American culture: “hi,” “hello,” “hey,” “what’s up?,” “what’s goin’ on?” – or, in certain service establishments, “Whattaya want?”

In France, no one’s personal time is ever so important as to preclude a generous exchange of pleasantries.

I wanted to buy a shower curtain. In the countryside, Monsieur Bricolage – the French equivalent of Home Depot – is the place to go.

When we arrived around 12:30pm, the big-box store was gated and locked.

Why? It was lunchtime.

The employees’ well-being mattered. They deserved a long lunch. The store would reopen at 2:00pm.

That was fine. We didn’t need a shower curtain that moment. We drove into the town center and feasted upon a Breton specialty, homemade buckwheat galletes (crepes) filled with French figs and goat cheese. A couple of hours later, we happily returned to Monsieur Bricolage and bought a beautiful curtain patterned with antique French postcards.

In many Breton towns, you won’t see pharmacies or nail salons or even supermarkets. But every town has at least one boulangerie (bakery), where natives and tourists alike line up for a sweet brioche (roll), a Breton Far (custard-like dessert typically filled with prunes), and, at lunchtime, a sandwich starring the long, crispy French baguette.

When a filling of your choice is enveloped by that morning’s exquisitely baked bread, a sandwich-to-go becomes the ultimate dayeinu – a symbol of all that’s right with the world.

We learned to get to our favorite boulangeries early. Every morning, the bakers prepared just a few different kinds of sandwiches; by early afternoon, all were gone. The popular boulangeries could have made extra euros by prepping more sandwiches, but that would infringe on their quality of life.

It’s no different in the supermarches (supermarkets), which close early, typically at 7:00pm. If you arrive later, hankering, say, for real – e.g., not American/pasteurized – cheese with depths of flavor to jolt your palette, you’ll have to head to a restaurant/café. There, kicking back for hours enjoying life are people of all kinds—including the supermarche cashiers.

For two weeks, we did not see anyone reading or texting on a smartphone – or, for that matter, anyone on a phone when enjoying lunch or dinner out. Phones were off; life was on.

Life on, people connected. Families biked together: dads and moms on their cruisers, teens on theirs, even infants in tricycles somehow pedaling up the seaside hills. They danced together. At fez nost (local night festivals) and larger celebrations, children, parents, and elders joined hands in circles, swaying and pivoting, and flailing legs almost in unison. The old folks were indefatigable. The younger ones were just as joyful and proud to keep Breton cultural traditions alive.

I’ve returned from my vacation renewed in ways I hadn’t imagined – and determined to bring the lessons of France to my ways in America.

My vow: not to heed my smartphone, but the call to dance.

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