Buying challahs in France this past Friday was an encumbrance that wasn’t really necessary. Touring Lyon while my husband attended a conference, I had brought everything we needed for Shabbat from Israel: rolls, wine, microwavable meals, and plenty of junk food – what any kosher traveler could want. But I set out in search of fresh challah, crisscrossing the city on foot and by bus, because I am part of something bigger: It would make our Shabbat fare tastier and would give me a glimpse into local Jewish life.
Had I not bought challahs on Friday, Lyon would have remained a picturesque French city, dominated by an imposing Basilica with a mini-Eifel tower at its side. It would have remained a city with a Roman district, a Renaissance district, and a silk district, and a town square where the Little Prince peers down at passersby. It would have remained a city where the Rhone and the Saone rivers meet, and the Confluence Museum rises up to salute the history of humankind. Like my city of Jerusalem, it would remain its country’s second largest city, with a World Heritage Site at its center, an annual light festival, and iconic lions advertising its wares and affairs.
But I went to buy challahs early on Friday morning. And as I approached the kosher mini-market, I saw throngs of parents and children flowing down the street, on their way to school. The parade was undeniably Jewish, marked by hats, berets, skullcaps, wigs, tzitzit, and skirts. The name of one young man, emblazoned in Hebrew on his black velvet yarmulke, caught my eye: Uriel, just like my own son. Yoram, a little boy with a big green pacifier, also displayed his name on his kipah, and the fringes of his tzitzit hung down to his ankles. I marveled at these public affirmations of Jewish identity despite rabbinic calls to conceal such markers, these proud, brave statements by a community obviously reluctant to give in to terror.
Silently, surrounded by backpacks and chatter, I followed the parents and children down the narrow road. There in the distance, on either side of the street, were their educational institutions. I soon discovered, however, that I was not in a school zone; I was in a war zone. Protected by metal barriers, the buildings were flanked on all sides by French soldiers in camouflage fatigues and full battle gear. Brandishing machine guns and poised for action, they were far more intimidating than any guards I’ve seen outside schools or public buildings in Israel. This is the sight that greets the Jewish children of Lyon as they make their way to school in the morning. For they are not just children; they are targets.
I watched as the students disappeared into the wide doorway of one of the buildings, filing beneath the words liberté, égalité, fraternité inscribed overhead. The irony was staggering. This is not what liberty, equality, and fraternity are supposed to look like.
Shaken, I began to make my way back to the kosher market, stopping at some distance to take pictures of the scene so as to bear witness to the plight of our brothers and sisters in France. But this innocent act set alarm bells ringing. A young man accosted me, jabbering animatedly in French. “He needs to take your telephone to delete your pictures,” explained an English-speaking mother. Reluctant to turn over my phone and determined to maintain my autonomy, I deleted the photos myself, since I would not want to compromise anyone’s safety. “All gone. Finished. Garbage,” I announced, searching for a word that might be understood.
My compliance, however, was insufficient. As I reached the mini-market, a few minutes later, an English-speaking security guard who had been dispatched to find me, questioned me, demanded to see my papers, and photographed my Israeli passport. If anything, God forbid, happens to the Jews of Lyon in the near future, I will be one of the prime suspects.
It’s not easy to enter a kosher mini-market under a sign boasting the word “Cacher” (kosher) some three months after the attack in the Hyper Cacher in Paris. Once inside, on the eve of Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, I found people shopping amidst spotless displays marked “Cacher Lepessah,” and remembered the cleaning awaiting me at home. As I stood on line to pay, I realized that this trip was not an escape from my Passover preparations but an integral part of it. This coming Friday night, the Jews of France, like Jews all over the world, will raise their matzahs at the Seder and chant:
This year, we are here; next year we will be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free.
But will they be free? Will they be able to live in their current homeland in security? Will they be able to wear the symbols of their religion? Will they be able to go to school, to work, and to synagogue without fear? When they affirm at the Seder that they are en route to Israel, will they be expressing a theoretical longing or a concrete plan? And for how many of them is relocation actually a viable option?
As I left the mini-market with my challahs, back in Jerusalem, my 17 year-old and 18 year-old sons were preparing to host friends for Shabbat. Their studies nowadays are punctuated by interviews for the army, where they will serve for three to five years in whatever capacity the IDF deems best. While that lack of choice often concerns me, I suddenly find myself very glad that my future is in the hands of my boys and their friends. The specter of French soldiers guarding the Jewish schools of Lyon has made me eminently aware of the value of the Jewish sovereignty that has always been a given in my lifetime and that is so easy to take for granted.
Had I not bought challahs for Shabbat, my experience of Lyon would have been incomplete. Had I not bought challahs for Shabbat, the matzah of freedom at my Seder would not be nearly as sweet.