Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Torah Thoughts from Paris

This week I bring you “Torah Thoughts from Jerusalem – via Paris.” After two wonderful and productive weeks at the SEC in Jerusalem, where we held our historic first annual Sephardic Summer Institute, I decided to take a few days with my wife and visit the city where my father lived for ten years, where my parents spent their first year of married life, and where intellectual and artistic inspiration is as common as the corner café.
We arrived here Wednesday, and after checking into our charming little hotel, we went out to explore the neighborhood where we are staying – Le Marais – the historic Jewish neighborhood of Paris. I would like to share with you our first afternoon in Paris.

My friends have often commented that I must have a built –in wireless detector in my brain that detects Jewish bookstores (In Israel the signal is always beeping!), for within a few minutes of our walk down Rue de Rosiers in the Marais, Peni and I found ourselves in one of the most magnificent Jewish bookstores I have ever seen (and I have seen a few in my day). There in front of us, in a smorgasbord of books as varied as French cheeses and wine, we discovered the vibrant intellectual and spiritual world of French Jewry. Torah commentary, literature, poetry, intellectual journals – you name it, it was there. Peni studied French in college, and French is my first language from childhood, so we were both fortunate enough to appreciate the depth of what this bookstore represented.

This brought to my mind the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh: “Behold I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). Throughout the Jewish world, the “blessing and curse” is often expressed by the conscious decision to strengthen and perpetuate Jewish life – a blessing – or the abandonment of anything Jewish – a curse. Here in Paris, as reflected by the vast intellectual and spiritual treasures I found in this bookstore, the Jewish community has decided – despite, and perhaps in spite of, an unfortunate resurgence of anti-Semitism (as told to me first hand by a local café owner), to choose the path of blessing and express a serious engagement with Jewish life. My library is now enriched with the Torah commentary of Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi (a French Sephardic rabbi who helped re-build French Jewry after the Shoa) and Marc-Alain Ouaknin (A French rabbi/intellectual who writes creative spiritual works on many Jewish topics) – and I also purchased a Moroccan Shofar.

As we walked out of the store – our minds and souls nourished – we felt it was time to also nourish our bodies. What to eat? And where? The answers to these questions were right in front of us, in every direction we turned. On these few charming Parisian blocks in the Marais, we were presented with more kosher restaurants than one can find in any given neighborhood of Tel Aviv. French food, Israeli food, Moroccan food, Ashkenazi food, kosher markets filled with gourmet meats, wines and cheeses, and patisserie/bakeries with pastries and baguettes that make you say “diet, what diet?”

Here again, I looked at this bustling Jewish life – this time in the culinary arts -- and it brought to mind yet another teaching from this week’s parasha, one of the most characteristic expressions of living a Jewish life: the laws of Kashrut (the Jewish Dietary Laws – see Deuteronomy Chapter 14, verses 3-21, for a full listing of the permissible and prohibited animals to eat, and the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy). Here, in the heart of Paris, you can enjoy life as any other Parisian – eat the best cheeses, taste the finest wines, walk out of a bakery with a baguette that you finish by the time you get back to your hotel, or enjoy the finest entrecote steaks and pommes frites (that means French Fries – they don’t call them that here, FYI) – and you don’t need to compromise your observance of the Torah’s laws of kashrut. Simply magnificent, and once again, the expression of being a blessing, not a curse.

After a wonderful meal, we continued to explore, and we found a beautiful historic synagogue, opening its doors in time for Minha – the daily afternoon service. As opposed to what media might present, the synagogue was packed -- more so than I have seen in many US or Israeli synagogues – and mostly locals, not tourists. After the services, Peni and I met in the lobby, and we almost simultaneously commented how powerful it is that no matter where you are – Los Angeles, Boston, Jerusalem or Paris – the feeling of community in a synagogue is always that of feeling “at home,” and the language of prayer is always one. Of course, when that language is laden with a French accent, it brings out the romantic side of spirituality, and makes prayer a language of love. Parisians wouldn’t have it any other way.

Shabbat Shalom and Au Revoir from Paris!
August 6, 2010