Jewish Paris
Feature by Willard Manus

It's hard to write about Paris without using such familiar cliches as glamorous, romantic and enchanting.

The city remains one of the great tourist attractions, not only for the above qualities but for its food, culture, night life, wine and history. A significant part of that history belongs to the Jews, whose presence in Paris dates back to the sixth century. During the Middle Ages, there were synagogues on the Right and Left banks, as well as on the Ile de la Cite where the famous flower market later was opened.

In 1858 there were approximately 25,000 Jews living in Paris, with a two-thirds split in favor of Ashkenazim over Sephardim. Each of the two sects built a large synagogue, one on 44 rue de la Victoire, the other in rue Buffault. The architect of the former was Alfred P. Adrophe, a Jew who worked mainly for the government on international expositions and who later became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He exhibited views of the stately rue de la Victoire synagogue at the Vienna Exposition of 1873. For Jewish clients he also designed the Rothschild Orphanage, the house of Gustave de Rothschild, and the synagogue at Versailles.

The Sephardic synagogue has been replaced in architectural importance by the arte nouveau synagogue built on rue Ravee by Hector Guimard, a Catholic married to a woman of Jewish descent. Guimard's challenge was to build a synagogue on a narrow plot that would hold a thousand people. He did it by going up 4 1/2 half stories and installing enormous windows and skylights which made it more resemble a Metro station than a house of worship.

The Jewish quarter centered around rue des Rosiers remains one of the few pockets of genuine local community life in Paris; most other neighborhoods having been overwhelmed by gentrification. Although many of the grocers, bakers, bookshops and cafes are under pressure from the yuppies, the quarter remains authentically Jewish.
There is a distinctly Mediterranean flavor here, thanks to the influence of Sephardic emigres from Morocco and Algiers. They have replenished Paris' Jewish population, depleted when its Ashkenazim, having escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were rounded up by the Nazis and the French police and shipped back east to concentration camps.

At 17 rue Geoffroy l'Asnier can be found the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine which mounts exhibitions concerned with genocide and oppression of peoples. Archives, galleries and a library are housed here. In the basement of the building is a striking underground crypt where a huge black marble star of David contains the ashes of victims from death camps in Poland and Austria.

The Center encompasses another nearby monument, the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr. Erected in March 1992--50 years after the first convoys of deportees left France--to honor the memory of the six million Jews who died "without graves," the Memorial has a somber majesty.

In the Montmarte district is the Jewish Art Museum, a small but cheerful place containing devotional items, synagogue models and a few works by Pissaro and Chagall. The metro stop is Lamarck-Caulaincourt.

In the 19th century Montmarte was covered with wheat fields and quarries; today bars and nightclubs have taken over, including the Moulin Rouge, built in 1885 and turned into a dancehall in 1900. It was a bawdy, uninhibited place in its early days, immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec in his vivid posters and paintings. The place still trades shamelessly on the notion of sinful Paris, even though the show is on a par with a Las Vegas revue.
One more Parisian cliche bites the dust.