The Jewish Community in France (1922)
The Jewish community in France today is vibrant and growing, counting some 800,000 souls, kain yirbu—but it has no connection with the great French centers of the Middle Ages which existed along the Rhine River and in Provence along the Mediterranean. Those communities vanished when the Church and the king of France ordered their expulsion around 1391.
French kings in the Middle Ages had been very subservient to the Church. For example, in 1243 King Louis IX had 12,000 copies of the Talmud publicly burned in Paris at the urging of the Pope in Rome. For this "good deed" the king was sainted, and therefore he is known in history as St. Louis, the only French king ever to be sainted!
The only Jewish communities permitted to continue to exist were those around Avignon, a territory outside the realm of the Roman Popes. One such location was Carpentras, where the oldest French synagogue stands today.
Only the French Revolution in 1789 brought deliverance to French Jews, leading to their full emancipation in 1791, with Napoleon as their great benefactor. He not only instituted a Sanhedrin in Paris, but also, in 1808, organized the "Consistoire Centrale des Israélites de France," the administrative organ for all French Jews. This Consistoire has been functioning uninterruptedly ever since except for the Holocaust years, 1940-5—until today.
Last week I paid a visit to the Consistoire at the kind invitation of its senior officers. They were especially proud to show me their brand-new building, sparkling, modern and clean, which just opened at 19 Rue St. Georges, near the traditional Jewish section in the 9th Arrondisement. The seven-story building holds not only the office of the President of the Consistoire Central, but also that of Chief Rabbi of France, as well as offices for the administrative heads of all the 17 French regions.
They also have installed a beautiful museum section where right now a very educational and tasteful exhibit of the beautiful synagogues of France is being shown. Partly through expertly executed scale models, partly through large photographs, you get an idea of the architectural beauty of these houses of worship, which in some cases go back hundreds of years. No visitor to France this summer should miss seeing this exhibit.
Traditionally, the Consistoire Central has had as its President a member of the Rothschild family. Its rostrum of past Presidents contains such names as Alphonse de Rothschild, Edmonde de Rothschild, Edouard de Rothschild, Guy de Rothschild and Alain de Rothschild—all French Barons. With the decline and assimilation of the original French Jews, the influx of Algerian, as well as Moroccan and Tunisian Jews, has providentially improved the whole face of French Jewry.
The last French-born Chief Rabbi was Jacob Kaplan, who was a friend of General Charles de Gaulle. I saw him some 20 years ago, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that as a sprightly 97-year-old, he is still very active in Jewish community affairs. But after him, the Chief Rabbis, Rabbis Sirat and Sitruq, have been Algerian-born Jews, as is the present Consistoire President, Jean-Pierre Bansaro.
Under the guidance of the Consistoire, French Jewry has developed one of the most dynamic and vibrant communities in the Diaspora—but other groups, most notably the Lubavitch movement, have also had a lot to do with it. As unbelievable as it sounds, there are 60 (!) kosher restaurants in Paris, all under the supervision of the Beit Din. I remember a time when there were only two or three. In 1988 there were 27 Jewish schools and 111 kindergartens, and more are opening all the time. There are regular Jewish television programs, many organized by Chabad. The danger of assimilation and intermarriage, which worried the first North African arrivals in France (as I can remember from the 1960's), is mercifully gone.
"Jeunesse Lubavitch" in Paris offers 80 shiurim a week for adults around the city. They have recruited thousands of baalei teshuva.
Maybe the Rebbe's special attention to France stems from the fact that about 60 years ago he studied engineering at Sorbonne University in Paris, and of course, he speaks fluent French and has intimate knowledge of the country. Incidentally, I heard that he was persuaded to move his studies from Berlin to Paris by Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, who together with Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, later of Chaim Berlin fame, was his fellow student in Berlin. Soon after Hitler took power in Germany, the Rebbe abandoned Berlin for Paris.
One can gain good insight into French Jewish life by reading some of their publications. The current issue of Tribune Juive carried an interview with Danielle Mitterand, wife of the French President, in which she mentions that her son, Jean-Christophe, lived for some time at Kibbutz Hanassi in Israel. Another publication is Chroniqueur–Information Juive Internationale. With so many French Jews nowadays of Sephardic origin, their interest in the fate of Israel's Shas Party is understandable. This magazine devotes much space to the Deri affair, but in a friendly spirit, also airing the suspicion that the attacks on the Minister of Interior are partly based on anti-Sephardic prejudice. The magazine has a revealing story on Jerzy Kluger, an intimate personal friend of Pope John Paul II from the time of their youth in Poland, who defines himself as the Pope's only Jewish friend.
The Consistoire's vast organization is led by a triumvirate consisting of Jean-Pierre Bansard, President; Irène Arditi, Chief of Staff; and Leon Masliah, Director General. Mr. Bansard, a prominent self-made and self-taught businessman, was born in Oran, Algeria, in 1940. He heads business and banking ventures in France and Israel, and has undertaken a great number of communal and charitable enterprises in both countries. He was elected President of the national Consistoire in 1992, and was also elected President of the European Jewish Councils.
Of Sephardic origin, the majority of French Jews know the Arabs very well, and naturally have no illusions about the chances of peace with them. They are extremely militant in matters of Israeli politics, and will go to any extreme to protect the security of Israel and Jerusalem. I hope to have established good cooperation between the Consistoire and equally concerned Jews in America.
To many of us the name Pissarro is identified with the Italian town where one of the earliest Hebrew printing presses existed—I own copies of the Talmud printed in Pissarro in 1507. But to the world at large, Pissarro is the name of one of the greatest 19th century painters; in fact, he can be called the father of French Impressionist painting. Giants in the world of art, such as Cezanne, Monet and Renoir, got their first initiation into the impressionist style from Pissarro. But who was this famous artist?
An exhibition totally dedicated to Pissarro is now taking place at the Royal Academy in London, which I had the occasion to visit last week. It is scheduled to remain open until October 2, and surely will be a major attraction to this summer's tourists traveling to Europe.
Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830, to an observant Sephardic family in Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the Danish Virgin Islands. These islands were sold to the United States in 1917, and today they are known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Pissarro's father, Frédéric, was born in Bordeaux in southern France, a center of Spanish-Portuguese Jews, including many Marranos who escaped from Spain or Portugal-I own a beautiful illuminated ketuba from Bordeaux from 1832, in which all signatures are Portuguese names. Frédéric, a merchant, moved to Charlotte Amalie in 1824.
In 1826, when he wanted to marry the widow of his mother's brother, the local synagogue objected on halachic grounds, because his bride was his aunt by marriage. Frédéric had to invoke the intervention of the King of Denmark in order to go through with the marriage. The local Jewish community still treated the couple with some hostility, which bespeaks a high degree of religious observance in an otherwise almost unknown Caribbean community.
The third son of this marriage, Jacob Abraham, later changed his name to Camille. As a young man he was a fully observant Jew, but when he moved to Paris for his art studies he was again treated as a stranger, all of which caused him to feel hostile toward organized society and religion. In fact, he had anarchist tendencies although he was totally peaceful in character.
Although his colleagues hailed his genius as a painter, some of them showed anti-Semitic resentment toward him. During the Dreyfus scandal, some of the best known impressionists sided with the anti-Dreyfus party, and therefore hated Jews.
Foreign visitors of the time marvelled at this symptom of reactionary backwardness. One such foreigner was Norway's national composer, Edward Grieg, who was friendly with some of the impressionist painters. When they found out that he sided with Dreyfus and the Jews, he, too, was ostracized by some of his supposed friends. Although by then, in the 1890's, Pissarro was indifferent to religion, he was still a staunch defender of Jews, and quite outspoken on the subject of anti-Semitism.
As an artist he particularly loved landscapes and city scenes. In fact, the London exhibition concentrates on his countless paintings of certain streets and boulevards in Paris, although in my opinion his country scenes are even more significant. Pissarro's children were also gifted painters.
He died in 1903, and thus 1993 marks the 90th anniversary of his death. Since he spent much time in England, and painted English countrysides profusely, he is particularly beloved in that country—and hence this summer's exhibition in London.
He takes his place among the great Jewish painters who pioneered in their particular styles: Marc Chagall of Russia, Max Liebermann of Germany, Isaac Gruenewald and Ernst Josephson of Sweden.
Today, Israeli art, too, is immensely popular around the world. There must be something in Jewish genes which produces excellence in painting, as well as in so many other fields of human achievement which demand ingenuity and innovation.
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