Hidden Paris

Golden days are gone, but Paris's Jewish quarter still has rich story to tell

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The name Goldenberg Pletzl still proudly announces itself on the frilly red awning where potato latkes and matzo ball soup were, for decades, a fixture of Paris's ambling Jewish quarter in the medieval Marais. Only these days,  7 rue des Rosiers flogs designer jeans instead of Central European kosher fare.


While the French call the area “Le Marais”, which rather unattractively means “bog” in English, to its Jewish inhabitants this cluster of crooked streets is “Pletzl”, Yiddish for “little place”.

It's been a few years since Jo Goldenberg packed up the family business - amid several widely reported health violations - but his namesake lives on as an emblem of Jewish pride here in the 4th arrondissement.

When, in 1982, the premises were the target of a grenade and machine gun attack that killed six people, the shocked community rallied around Goldenberg's, and its doors stayed open. (Responsibility was later claimed by Carlos the Jackal and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).

Goldenberg's may have survived a terrorist attack, but its famous Pletzl premises were no match for the onslaught of high-end fashion. A victim of the times – and it's not alone.

Everything from bakers, barbers, bookshops and beyond on rue des Rosiers - the paved thoroughfare that's been a nexus of Jewish life since the 13th century - are being gradually replaced with chic boutiques and high street outlets.

A one-time community hammam, or steam bath, was in 2008 transformed into another link in the chain of Swedish fashion retailer H&M.

“We have practically lost 80 percent of our identity in the Marais,” says Gabriel, a rabbi's assistant at the Beit Yossef synagogue on rue des Ecouffles, a little street off Rosiers.

Miranda Crispin

“The mayor of the 4th arrondissement decided this area should become a prestige district and not a Jewish district. Apart from the museums, the very few businesses here are the only thing left to tell the Jewish story.”

At the time of Goldenberg's closure, in 2005, the area's mayor, Dominique Bertinotti, said there had been a movement towards turning the premises into a heritage site, or even a small library.

"But Goldenberg's new owners were asking prices that were beyond reason," she said. "It was impossible for the city to get a long-term lease and impossible for the local Jewish community to rent it."

So while the premium rents are helping to squeeze out the smaller fry, Gabriel says many families took the decision to go when they were made offers too good to refuse.

“Let's put it this way - some people in the city hall arranged to buy off the businesses here with big offers. So they took the money and moved on,” he says.

All this left Jews in the Marais fighting to save their fading community – and, in March 2008, more than a hundred concerned residents took to the streets. Their meeting place? Jo Goldenberg's, of course.

One of the demonstration's organisers, Joseph Finkielstein, reportedly led the chant: "No to the disappearance of rue des Rosiers. No to the predominance of high-priced clothing stores. This is only the beginning, we will assemble here every Sunday."

Miranda Crispin

These were fighting words that would not be seen through to the end.

“People aren't protesting anymore,” says Gabriel. “Most families have moved to other Paris districts. The few businesses that are left are here because they have no choice. If they had the means of starting elsewhere they would have done it a long time ago.

“The Jewish bakeries in the Marais cost a fortune to build – plus they have their own clientele. So the owners feel that it is better to survive than to start again elsewhere.”

But while some might consider the commercial makeover of rue des Rosiers - or “rose bush street” in homage to the plants that once covered the area - a defeat for the Jewish community, not everybody sees it that way.

Jean Pierre Allali is a French journalist and member of the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France, known as Crif, which speaks on behalf of the French Jewish community.

He says the Jewish quarter extends beyond the limits of rue des Rosiers, however emblematic the street may be, and while the community has been taken to task by vendors of all things fancy, its pulse beats on.

Miranda Crispin

“We needn’t get too worried about the Marais because we‘ve still kept a certain nostalgia,” Allali says.

"Jewish spots can still be found amid the little streets, like in the rue des Ecouffes. Here there is a restaurant called Le Train de Vie that continues to offer, practically every night, klezmer music together with Central European food.

“In rue des Rosiers, you can still find Hebrew writing in shop windows. And in a nearby street, the Jewish Epsom Café that had closed is going to reopen.

“There are plenty of bakeries, and the synagogue in rue Pavée is still going. So while some slices of this Jewish quarter have been transformed into a chic fashion strip, we haven’t seen a complete disappearance.”

Wander around the hub of streets on any day of the week, save for the Sabbath of course, and you'll likely encounter a lively scene: falafel vendors touting for business, students scurrying off to Torah class and bearded folk dressed in long jackets and tall hats slipping off into one of the five synagogues.

Miranda Crispin

This is an area which may be fighting for its future as a Jewish heartland, but whose deeply entrenched past proves it to be just that.

This area was the site of massive Jewish arrests and deportations during the Second World War. Among these is the notorious Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, in which more than 13,000 Jews were rounded up by French police in July 1942, and herded into the Vel d'Hiv stadium in Paris's 15th arrondissement. From here, they were dispatched to concentration camps.

During one such mass arrest, a number of Goldenberg family members were apprehended and deported, never to return.

Today, with a population of 600,000, France has the largest number of Jews in western Europe. They include the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews originating from eastern Europe, and Sephardic Jews from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Crif's Allali says the Jewish community, both in Paris, and the rest of France, has rapidly evolved over the past 60 years.

Miranda Crispin

“Before the war it was essentially Ashkenazi,” he says. “Then a large part of the community disappeared in the concentration camps. Following that, in the 1960s, the Sephardic Jews originating from Arab countries arrived.”

In turn, they have now taken over many Jewish areas, with most Ashkenazi-built synagogues now occupied by Sephardic Jews. One thing they inevitably brought with them was their native cuisine – hence the falafel rolls (stuffed with hummus, aubergine and red cabbage) and baklava pastries on rue des Rosiers.

“Today there is a sharing between outlets that remain Ashkenazi, and those run by people who come from North Africa or Turkey,” says Allali. “They have introduced a new dimension, selling falafel and Tunisian sandwiches, that kind of thing.

“It’s not a replacement of one thing by another but it works in parallel - like in countries where two lifestyles live side by side in complete harmony.”

War and displacement have served to augment the Jewish community over the past century and, as Allali points out, nowhere is this more apparent than in Paris.

“Here, you’re just as likely to find a bookshop run by an Ashkenazi sitting next to a bakery run by a Sephardic,” he says.

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