In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, the city where I was born, wearing a kippah, or any other garment that manifests your religion, is very natural. The freedom to be who we are in our land is a contrast to some cities around the world where those who wear kippot are identified first and foremost as Jews, and thus live with a fear that I understand and can identify with. Does freedom mean “to run between the drops lest we get wet?”
During my travels, I recently spent a period of time living in Paris, where my family lives in a suburb on the outskirts of the city. There is a warm community life there and people are connected to one another. Almost like in Israel. But only almost.
My uncle has lived in this community for more than twenty years. He celebrates Shabbat and holidays in the synagogue. When I came to Paris, I joined him. The synagogue is located in the heart of the residential area. It’s actually a private house that was purchased with communal funds. During weekends and holidays, there are always two armed security guards posted at the gate of the house. As time passed, I began to notice that most of the people who came to attend services concealed their kippot as they walked to the synagogue, and once again when they leave.
During my stay there, I got to know many local members of the Jewish community. In their eyes, Israel denotes the true freedom, to be a Jew in Israel and to wear a kippah without fear that hatred and boorishness will overtake some insane person. As such, constant fear or always being in a state of alert limits one’s sense of freedom.
Jonathan, a young man my age who was born and raised in Paris, belongs to the community and regularly attends the synagogue. He would look at me longingly when we spoke about Israel, and about this simple act of wearing a kippah in the street, or alternatively the fact that one can stand on the balcony of his home and lay tefillin. “Here, I can’t take the risk of wearing a kippah,” he says. “In Israel you can wear a kippah, and be a Jew. Here, I conceal my religion.”
As an Israeli, I know what he means. Warnings against traveling to certain locations with Israeli symbols that must be concealed are an unfortunately reality. The freedom to be who you really are is limited in this life. Walking around with an Israeli flag sewn to your backpack is a risk, as is wearing a Star of David around your neck outside your shirt.
It was a dismal, dark afternoon in Paris. I went out to find some work. I had planned to take the Metro towards the Hotel De Ville station, and from there to walk to the Latin Quarter. As I went, Jonathan’s words resonated in my mind over and over again. I walked and thought. The gloomy weather was the perfect backdrop for my thoughts. I wandered through the city’s alleys, and apparently, my frame of mind confused me, and the route I took carried me to an area that I had never yet visited.
I recognized the SeineRiver, but not the street that I was on. It was a side street, relatively quiet for the bustling Paris thoroughfares. The wind was blowing against my face, and I turned my face downwards to try and ward off the cold. When I raised my eyes, I was standing in front of a bookstore. As a book aficionado, I stopped to take a look. My eye caught a title that was printed in large yellow letters: Horowitz. I don’t know what caused my curiosity to continue sharpening my senses, but I couldn’t continue on my way. I froze in my place. Right next to that book I saw another one with a similar name, and then another and another. When I glanced further around I saw that this bookstore was a store of Jewish books, about Jews. About Israel. About Judaism and the Holocaust. When I raised my eyes to read the name of the store, the sign said Memorial de la Shoah. It was like getting lost in a dark forest and suddenly coming across an illuminated hut. You just have to go in. I looked to either side to try and find the entrance, but to no avail. Apparently, I must have looked rather confused standing in front of the display window, because the man inside the store looked at me and pointed to the left, to the entrance. I followed his instructions and turned left, but I didn’t see anything except for a grey, gloomy alley.