In predominantly Catholic France, it’s interesting for a Jewish girl and a nothing-in-particular girl to observe the differences between here and at home. For example, schools (including Sciences Po) observe Christmas break, with the Christmas clearly specified, and nobody would ever think of protesting.
Paris has, of course, nearly a cathedral for every corner creperie, but it’s easy enough to visit for the architecture rather than the religious significance. Still, the Christian presence is everywhere. Walking up to Sciences Po from Montparnasse the other day, R and I decided to do a bit of DaVinci Code tourist hunting at Saint Sulpice on the way. I remember visiting European cathedrals on past trips to France and England, and made sure our shoulders were covered and our camera flashes were off before entering. To me, that sort of thing is more of a matter of respect for those who do worship there, than an observance of any religious deference.
Everyone in Paris knows that if you want a good falafel, you have to go to L’as in the Jewish quarter (it’s Lenny Kravitz’s favorite falafel place, apparently). Fitting neatly between the Marais and the Parisian equivalent of Castro St., San Francisco, the Jewish community of Paris has historical roots. Outside of the 3ème, however, you learn to keep kosher as discreetly as possible.
Tonight, R and I had dinner with a boy named Rubens we met near Montparnasse. He ran into us searching apartment ads last Saturday and immediately wanted to help. He gave us the phone number of his influential uncle and promised to contact some other potentially helpful people, so R and I decided to take Rubens out for a “thank you for being nice to us dinner.” (I apologize for the long tangent, but I had to find a place to fit Uncle Volario).
At dinner, we asked Rubens to pick out our meals. When Rachael said “je ne mange pas de jambon,” (I don’t eat pork), he whipped out his cell phone to show her the star of David icon on his screen. R and I both kind of chuckled at the secret handshake-style cell phone thing, but he shook his head at us and said “you don’t say it here.”
According to Rubens, while there may not be a ton of outright hostility, people “are meaner” if they know you are Jewish. Before leaving the U.S. I did hear a few stories about anti-Semitic France, but I was really surprised to learn that French Jews have to keep their faith on the “down low” so to speak, relegated to small displays of cell phone screen icons or tiny necklaces worn under shirts.
Before parting ways, Rubens assured us that we would be glad we’d met him, and invited us both to celebrate the Shabbat with his mother. Well technically, he invited R, but quickly turned to me and said, “of course you are welcome too, but maybe you say to my mother you are Jewish as well.”
As a practicer of nothing-in-particular, I’ll keep my eyes open for more observances.
** By the way, I am writing this from the kitchen of the apartment R and I are subletting for the rest of September. The owner of the apartment is the cutest, nicest, tiniest professional French comedienne I’ve ever met. The downside is that R and I have to share a bed for a month, but we have a kitchen and a shower, so we feel that the scales are tipped happily in our favor.
*** One more note: Rubens ordered tartare de boeuf (raw beef) at dinner, which he insisted that I try. To my horrified surprise, it was delicious. So delicious that I might just muster up the courage and order it for myself one day.