My high school math teacher, Mr. Harvey Blech z”l couldn’t understand why I went to France on vacation instead of to Israel. He said that after the Holocaust he could not understand why Jews would want to go to France. I tried to explain to him that the best way to learn a language and culture was through immersion but he was not convinced.
In the summer of 1988, I spent a month in Nice, on the Riviera studying French and living with a Jewish family originally from Tunisia, owners of a kosher bakery. I sampled all sorts of Tunisian foods, went to the beach, the Chagall museum and a perfume factory. On Shabbat I prayed in a Sephardic synagogue. After class I enjoyed shopping for the latest French fashions. By the time I returned to New York I was speaking French fluently.
The summer of 1990 was spent in Paris at a Jewish Community Center called Centre Rachi. I studied French in the morning, toured Paris in the afternoons, visited the Chateaux in the Loire Valley, Giverny- The home of Claude Monet and Versailles and spent Shabbatot with the Moroccan community of Paris. I lived in a dormitory on a street that had an open market in the mornings, boutiques in the afternoons and nightlife in the evenings. A sobering moment was a visit to the Veldrome d’Hiver indoor sports stadium in Paris where as part of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in 1942, 7000 Jews were packed in as they waited shipment to the death camps.
In the summer of 1993 Josh (now my husband) and I led a group of thirteen teenagers from North America to Paris. In addition to visiting the Louvre and Disneyland Paris we visited the Consistoire- the Grand Synagogue where the Rabbinate of Paris is housed.
Everything went smoothly until one Saturday night when we were attacked on the Metro (Subway) returning from the homes of our Shabbat hosts.
A group of teenagers noticed that the boys were wearing kippot under their baseball hats and tzitzit under their shirts. They grabbed one of the boy’s hats and started throwing it around. As we were about to get off of the train they tried to push one of the boys between the doors of the train as they were about to close. Josh helped free the boy who was stuck just in time but not before the teenagers smashed Josh’s head into the wall.
Luckily we all made it out of the train but at that moment we were all shaken up.
After that incident I thought about Mr. Blech and understood why he was not interested in going to France.
When the summer came to an end, Josh and I made a decision not to return to France.
Twenty-two years later things have not gotten better in France, they have gotten worse.
Were all of those years of studying French wasted now that I would no longer be going back to France?
I now live in Jerusalem and I still use my French when speaking to senior citizens who attend my classes in Jerusalem’s nursing homes. Even though they understand Hebrew, those who made aliya from French speaking countries when they were already older can often express themselves better in French and much of their wisdom would get lost in translation.
The younger immigrants from France are anxious to integrate into Israeli society and are very quick to pick up Hebrew. Over the last few years we have seen many Jews from France buy apartments in Israel, some making aliya. There are many more French students in our children’s schools in Jerusalem now than there were ten years ago.
Although I don’t plan to return to France, I now have French neighbors who are just as warm as the members of the Jewish community that I spent time with while visiting France.
In addition to coming with a sense of style and culture, the French Jews who are making aliya are bringing values that Israel desperately needs: a commitment to Judaism, to Zionism and to religious tradition.
French immigrants are also contributing to Israeli society. One example is Golan of Golan Telecom who started a cell phone company which offers low rates and has helped lower the rates of his competitors.
In Parshat Vaera (Shmot 6:6-8) God promises to bring the Jews out of Egypt, save them, redeem them, take them as a people and bring them to the Land of Israel.
May God continue to help the Jews of France and Jews from throughout the world fulfill the prophecy of making aliya to the State of Israel.