I just spent a week in Paris, where I pondered the election of Francois Hollande, probed France’s Iran policy, and delved into the decline of the Eurozone.
Oh wait, I’m sorry — that was Thomas Friedman. I actually spent the week eating pain au chocolat, drinking espresso, and looking at pictures.
That’s the thing about vacations and me: Because my job involves writing, I feel guilty that I am not working, or at least gathering material for a column, even when I am traveling for pleasure. On top of that, I am a Jew, so I feel guilty that I am not visiting synagogues or Jewish historical sites. It’s like when you drive down to Philadelphia, and you don’t visit your relatives in Cherry Hill. In this case, Paris was Philadelphia, and my conscience was my mother asking, “You didn’t call your cousins?”
Paris was a gift my wife and I gave to each other to mark our 25th wedding anniversary. Our last big trip as a couple was before we had kids. Our oldest is about to turn 21. We were past due for a big romantic blowout, featuring strolls though cobbled squares, lingering meals in corner cafes, and long mornings spent in the glow of great art.
And that’s exactly how it went down. This was my first time in the City of Lights, and what I learned is that Paris is Paris. The place manages to live up to the cliches. For a few nights we stayed on a quiet street near the Eiffel Tower that was sort of a Hollywood version of Paris. There was a fruit seller, a florist, a bakery, a bookshop, two wine stores, a cheese shop, and two packed cafes. I half expected to see Gene Kelly come dancing down the sidewalk.
No one wears berets any more, but they do carry baguettes and ride bicycles, and it is apparently French law that men and women must wear scarves at all times. Every boulevard and alley gives up something new and delightful: an art nouveau Metro entrance, a monumental 18th-century fountain, a view of the Seine, a bakery window featuring a tower of pastel macarons, which are essentially MoonPies with a université education.
As for the cousins, I managed to see a lot of Jewish Paris without it feeling like a homework assignment. My grandparents stopped in Paris a century ago on their flight from Poland to America, and we spent time in the Marais, where Jewish immigrants like them would have lived and shopped before it all went bad. There is still a Jewish presence there, including an Orthodox school, a few Judaica shops, and kosher restaurants.
Nearby is the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, a lovely museum featuring artifacts from nearly 1,000 years of vibrant Jewish life in France, and two reminders of a much darker past: a haunting statue in the courtyard of a disgraced Dreyfus, and a wall of memorial plaques listing the names of Jewish artists and intellectuals deported to the camps by the Nazis.
In fact, it’s hard to miss evidence of the Shoa. On a search for Van Gogh’s house in Montmartre, we found a plaque on a school remembering the Jewish students who were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Such plaques are all over the city, marked with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in the French tricolor.
There were, as well, much happier Jewish encounters along the way. On Friday night we went to “Kabbalat Chabbat” (can’t the French spell?) services at Adath Shalom, the Conservative congregation on rue George Bernard Shaw. A lay leader welcomed a delegation from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, its sister shul. My only quibble was that during Kiddush, the wine ran out, which may be the first time that has happened in the history of France.
On Rue des Rosiers in the fourth arrondissement, there is a packed kosher Middle Eastern place called L’As du Fallafel. Kipa-wearing hipsters serve falafel and shwarma sandwiches the size of catchers’ mitts. We went there for lunch on Friday and didn’t feel hungry until the next evening.
And then there were the discoveries that were both happy and sad, like an exhibit on the work of graphic novelist Art Spiegelman at the Centre Pompidou. It was heartwarming to see a Paris museum celebrating the work of a contemporary American artist (from Queens, yet!), but of course Spiegelman’s great subject is the Holocaust.
So yes, we visited the cousins, and yes, we had the romantic, escapist week that we, and certainly my wife, deserved. I opened a newspaper exactly once, and refused to check my e-mail. We arrived on Election Day, and while we enjoyed the spontaneous celebrations of Hollande’s victory on the streets of the Latin Quarter, I resisted the impulse to pull out my notebook.
In preparation for the trip I read a nice collection of essays edited by Penelope Rowlands called Paris Was Ours, and that phrase stuck with me. The reminders of the city’s Jewish past and present assured me that Paris was in fact ours, and had been for centuries. And because I was able to put work and current events behind me for a few days, we found a private Paris, ours and ours alone.