Beautiful and terrifying, trip offers insight into plight of French Jews
Wondrous visit abroad reveals life amid splendor and dread.
Abraham Azagury was going home. His cousin was getting married in Aix-les-Bains, a city of 1,000 Jews located in the Alps. Azagury extended an invitation. The trip, he said, would offer insight on a life he left behind. Not entirely certain what to expect, I went.
I met Azagury in the summer of 2016, shortly after he and his family moved from Paris to Pittsburgh. From limited observations, they appeared to adapt. Their four children made friends with neighborhood kids and classmates, Azagury and his wife Alice had gainful employment and the family lived in a beautiful house in Squirrel Hill.
At the time, Azagury knew little English, but was confident that relocation boasted the best chance for calm. In early 2015, while he and his family considered moving, anti-Semitic attacks in France rose 84 percent from the previous year. Of the more than 500 incidents reported, the worst occurred on January 9 in Paris, when an Islamist killed four Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket.
Although the Azagurys’ exit was spurred by rising anti-Semitic fervor and increased attacks on Jews, leaving was daunting. Azagury was a successful optometrist who owned two shops. Alice had a good job as an attorney and their children were happy. Moving to America meant leaving much behind: Although members of Alice’s family would soon embark on a similar exodus to the Steel City, Azagury’s parents, his seven siblings and scores of extended relatives and friends would remain.
At 35, Azagury acutely understood the trade-off. Emigration afforded his young family a chance to live a comfortable Jewish life. It also meant relative isolation. Pittsburgh’s Sephardic community is small and the number of French Jews is minuscule. Finding a familiar face at synagogue was unlikely, but at least his sons could wear yarmulkes on the way there.
Three years have since elapsed and Azagury’s English is now fluent. Going back to France, he told me, would yield perspective on the choice he made and grant me a chance to see France from a Frenchman’s eyes. So a few weeks ago we flew from Pittsburgh to Paris by way of New York for a six-day trip.
What I saw was beautiful, heartbreaking and confounding. Palpable joie de vivre was mixed with noticeable alarm, as radio reports regularly reported anti-Semitic activities: swastikas were drawn in public places, graves were desecrated and Jewish students were subject to hate. I encountered citizens (both Jewish and not) who lambasted their government, debated immigration reform and lamented their current state.
In the U.S., we are subject to similar daily discourse, but context matters. French Jews regularly encounter stark reminders — some etched in marble, some known only to those familiar with a venue’s past — that 75 years earlier their neighborhoods and walkways were deportation sites. The Other has a troubled narrative there, and like passing through the tapestried rooms of Château de Fontainebleau, walking in France is a trek through history filled with both splendor and dread.
Graciously, and with the patience of communicating through translators, my hosts permitted me to appreciate this. Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, who months earlier visited Pittsburgh in solidarity after Oct. 27, patiently led us through the gargantuan Romanesque-style building over which he presides.The 19th-century marvel on Rue de La Victoire is marked by spaces such as where Herzl stood asking for Zionist support decades before the Holocaust and a crank-opening ark holding a Torah dedicated in memory of former congregant Col. Alfred Dreyfus, of the infamous “Dreyfus Affair.”
Throughout the trip, I kept returning to this coupling of grandeur and dismay. In conversations, mostly occurring over food, I learned how France had welcomed Jewish families and enabled them to thrive. There are nearly 500,000 Jews in France. Yet now, for many of these people and their offspring, the sense of security they once had here is gone.
During lunch at L’As du Fallafel — the Lenny Kravitz-recommended eatery with lines down the street at 2 p.m. — owner Yomi Peretz recounted how his Israeli family built the famous restaurant over decades. As I enjoyed entrecôte and sat beside five young Parisian Sephardic Jews during dinner at Tikoun Olam, I needed to shout past more than 100 other eaters, who at 10 p.m. celebrated birthdays with streamer-lit desserts and song, to learn how my fellow diners’ families arrived in France after World War II. During more audible moments, we discussed who still wore a yarmulke in public and why.
At Kavod restaurant, where the salmon carpaccio may have been fished from heaven, an asset manager related a familial plight. His daughter married and moved to New York. The distance is troubling, but he is happy she is no longer subject to the anxiety he and others face.
What I saw and heard was both gorgeous and upsetting, and nowhere did I find this duality more evident than in Aix-les-Bains, a city of unbounded beauty. For four days, and more meals than I can count, we stayed with Azagury’s parents, Rabbi Salomon and Corrine Azagury, at their home overlooking the French Alps’ southeastern peaks. Next door a farmer tilled his land while his sheep grazed on the hillside.
Between eating nut-filled-chocolates and singing “Bendigamos,” a Spanish hymn, I learned that Azagury’s Moroccan father came to France at 16. Azagury’s Algerian mother arrived earlier. Her mother, Marie Benayoun, 89, recounted life in North Africa: her eight-day-long wedding, how when the Americans arrived during World War II the only English she learned was “very good” (it’s what the Americans said after every meal), and how though her family lived in Algeria for hundreds of years, she was forced to flee in 1961 so that her own children could live safely as Jews.
At a wedding we all attended together, I watched as this matriarch was enveloped by her offspring. I watched her grandchildren clasp her hands, and I watched how, when saying goodbye, she hugged Azagury, her oldest grandson, who had left one life behind for another, just as she did many years ago. These embraces, like the one shared between Azagury and his parents outside their home before we departed, were painful to observe. Azagury has no immediate plans to return. He exchanged family and fear for family and hope. But life is so uncertain, as our drive from Paris to Aix-les-Bains had reminded us.
It was mid-morning when we set out from Paris to drive to Aix-les-Bains. Azagury was driving and wearing a yarmulke. I wore a cap. As we drove, a car approached from the right. The driver swerved in front of us and slammed the breaks. He came to a complete stop, in the left lane of the highway, as did we. He peered into his rear-view mirror, thrust his finger in our direction and shouted. Cars passed at high speeds. The driver threw his car in reverse, and in order not to crash we too drove backwards on the highway. He came to a stop — still pointing, still shouting. In silence we sat as cars raced by. Finally, he switched gears and drove away.
Thirty-six hours later, Azagury related the incident to his friend, who also wears a yarmulke, as we sipped beer at L’insolite. Azagury was sure it occurred because the other driver saw his yarmulke. The story was met with no surprise. Azagury’s friend told him as difficult as it was to leave his family, his business and his country behind, Azagury made the right decision. He told Azagury to never move back to France. He said that he did not know how much longer, even in the peaceful setting of Aix-les-Bains, Jews will be safe.
In a December 2018 report from the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, 95 percent of French Jews described anti-Semitism as either a “very big” or “fairly big” problem in the country today. The findings follow a 2013 survey, noted the FRA: “Due to the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism on the ground, the opinions formulated in 2013 remain valid in 2018.”
I have been back for days and people keep asking about my trip. It is difficult to explain: I am not a French Jew. I was there for less than a week. It was beautiful. It was terrifying. Je n’ai pas de mots. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.