One of the highlights of Paris - Rabbi Tom Cohen

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May 17th 2012
Published: May 20th 2012
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Great morning! We met Rabbi Tom Cohen, formerly of Portland Oregon at the Cite Metro stop at 10. Little did we know that we were about to spend 3 hours having fun and learning a huge amount about the history of the Jews in Paris as well as the history of the city itself. We started at The Cite Metro across from St. Chappelle because it was the site of the first Jewish community in Paris in the 4thCentury. The first synagogue which was 8’X31’ was built on the site and later turned into a church. The Jews lived there until the early 17th Century when for the first of 3 times they were expelled from France. The cause for the expulsion was that someone claimed they saw a Jew in Bourse sneak into a church and stab the leftovers from Eucharist, the body of Christ. After they burned 66 Jews at the stake for this crime, they proceeded to expel all the Jews, until they realized it hurt the economy at which time they were invited back.

After walking though a baking festival sponsored by the government to encourage more people to become bakers, we headed to Notre Dame where Tom explained the symbolism of the carvings on the front of the Cathedral. The row of men across the front are statues of the Kings of Israel because Christ is traced back through them to Ruth and stands above them on the Cathedral. Near the right door, which is the entry, stand a woman with a broken staff and a snake around her head covering her eyes. She represents the unenlightened Jew. On the left beside the door through which you exit is a similar statue of a happy woman with an intact staff who represents the enlightened Christian. Evidently, these statues appear on many churches so now I’ll look for them. Tom shared a joke with us, which as he acknowledged before he told it that it would need explanation. The joke is how could you tell the former Archbishop from the Chief Rabbi? Answer: one of them spoke Yiddish and that was the Archbishop. The Archbishop was born Jewish and his parents were killed in the Holocaust. He later converted to Catholicism, but having been raised in a Ashkenazi Jewish household spoke Yiddish. The Chief Rabbi was Sephardic and didn’t speak Yiddish. You have to be a French Jew to get the joke.

We next stopped at the government-sponsored Museum to Honor the People deported to the death camps in WWII. Of the nearly 160,000 people deported about half were Jewish. What is significant is that the government built it on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in Paris, however there is no specific mention of the deportation of the Jews in the Memorial. One story Tom told was how when he first arrived in France he received an official letter requiring him to appear at the Prefecture of police. When he asked his father-in-law to translate, the father-in-law was visibly upset. It turns out that many of the Jews, including 30 members of his own family, received letters on the same stationary telling them to report to the Prefecture and it was from there that they were deported.

We then walked to the Maris and stopped at the Jewish Memorial to the victims of the Shoah. Every year they hold a ceremony at which volunteers over the course of 24 hours read aloud 1/3 of the names of the victims. One year the Archbishop participated to be able to read the
List of deporteesList of deporteesList of deportees

1.6 million people of which 800,000 were Jews
names of his parents and other family members. His wife who is also a Rabbi had relayed another story we heard from Tom. He told us how a man who was the child of 2 Resistance fighters converted to Judaism after the death of his father and while his mother was in a nursing home. On her deathbed the mother told him that in fact his biological father was a Jew who was captured entering a subway, deported and murdered. The man sat in his wife’s office and wept upon learning his personal history. The same man stole the subway ticket that his father had been holding when arrested from the archives and kept it as his only connection to his biological father. This is one situation when stealing could be justified.

As we moved deeper into the Marais, we first encountered the gentrification of the area that historically played a role similar to the Lower East Side in New York. In a couple of spots you see remnants of what was once the thriving Jewish community that lived there for hundreds of years. You see signs and plaques and on one storefront identifying what were bakeries, restaurants and
Deportation Museum entranceDeportation Museum entranceDeportation Museum entrance

Focused on the deportation of the Jews
shops. On the facade of the building that was Goldenberg deli there are unrepaired bullet holes from a 1980 attack by a Palestinian terrorist who shot everyone having lunch killing 6 (only one person was Jewish) and injuring 30.

Our last stop was in front of the school that Reb Tom’s children attended and currently attend. He has 4 kids age 8 to 16. During the war a large percentage of the student population of this school was Jewish and at one point 260 of the kids were rounded up and deported. The head of the school managed to rescue a number of kids and was caught and sent to a concentration camp himself. Evidently, if you go into the school, you can see where he had a trap door behind his desk to hide kids. There annual ceremony includes reading the names of the children who were killed and having survivors (non-Jewish classmates) retell what it was like watching their friends be carted away.

We asked Tom about anti-Semitism in France today. His perspective is that the general French population is less anti-Semitic than it has been historically. France has had 4 Jewish Presidents and there is probably less of a glass ceiling for Jews in French politics that there is for Jews in the US. Unfortunately, the Muslim population has a relatively small percentage of people who are violently anti-Semitic (not just anti- Israel) and since there are 10 times as many Muslims in France as there are Jews there are more violent anti- Semites than there are Jews. He previously belonged to a group that included an Imam, a priest and a protestant clergy member. He said he left when he invited the Imam to his synagogue and the Imam wouldn’t come because he didn’t want any members of his congregation to know he was talking with a Rabbi. Evidently, one Imam who did talk with Rabbis now needs 4 bodyguards since he has received a large number of death threats from the Muslim community. From his perspective, the glass is half full and half empty depending on which way you look at it.

After our walk, we stopped for falalfel for lunch and tried to visit a couple of museums, but since it is Ascension Day the musueums were closed. Jack went back to read and rest and I went shopping in the
List of the RighteousList of the RighteousList of the Righteous

French citizens who risked their lives to save Jews. Names are added every year when new stories come to light.
Marais. It was pretty uneventful except for witnessing a serious fight between 2 groups of young men that was pretty scary. I hung back especially when several young men walked past with beaten faces and spitting blood. The groups appeared to be mixed race on both sides. The police came and were still interviewing men when I managed to get away. Within another 15 minutes it looked like another fight was about to break out when the police showed up and the tension dissipated.

At 6 I met Jess, Matt and Jack for our cooking class. The teacher was a total name dropper who spent 2 hours talking about himself and all the people he knew. Countess so-and-so, relatives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (2 outstanding Nazi sympathizers), Julia Childs, and on and on. I was ready to shove a tomato in his mouth, plus for all his training and high falluting connections the meal wasn’t that good. I feel like I’m sounding like Madeline Kamman, my former teacher, who was a brilliant cook and a mean, critical person. He managed to annoy Jess, Matt and Jack as well so I was in good company.

Something you don’t expect to be amazing end up surprising you and it feels like you won the lottery – like our time with Reb Tom and other things fall short of your expectations and there is a sense of disappointment. Net, net a morning like we had with Reb Tom more than outweighs a mediocre cooking lesson, so the day is memorable for this extraordinary experience.

Additional photos below
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The architect didn't know what a synagogue should look like, but he knew that Jews are the people of the book, so the building was designed to look like a book.
Goldberg's Restaurant - bullet holesGoldberg's Restaurant - bullet holes
Goldberg's Restaurant - bullet holes

Holes from the 1980 terrorist attack that have been left as a reminder
School for Tom's kidsSchool for Tom's kids
School for Tom's kids

This is where the principal hid Jewish students and was caught and sent to Aushwitz

Getting off our feet

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