People stand outside the ‘As du Fallafel’ shop in the Marais district in Paris / Getty Images
The news from France is bleak: anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise, violent incidents are piling up, and Jews are packing up and leaving for Israel.
Recently, I learned that one of my cousins, tired of feeling marginalized, was planning such a move. That got me thinking.
I lived in Paris for a three-month period in the summer of 2013. Even then, I felt that being Jewish in France was a whole other ballgame than my experience as a Jew in Montreal or New York. French Jews were either French people who happened to practice Judaism, or Jews who happened to be French. I felt that there was no, or little, French cultural Judaism such as the Woody Allen/bagel-and-schmear combo we’re used to. At the same time, I felt more kinship with the Jews in France than I do with most New York Jews — because Jewish culture in France is Sephardic and, well, incredibly French.
There is certainly cause for alarm when stores close their doors for fear of attack; when shul-goers need to hide from an angry mob like the recent events on Rue de La Roquette; and when Jews like my family, who have been proud French citizens for decades, feel the need to leave their homes. But in all that panic, it’s easy (and dangerous) to forget what a strong impact Jews have had, and continue to have, on French culture. Here are a couple of examples:
Given the amount of street style snaps and runway shots invading my Facebook and Instagram feeds, fashion seems like a good place to start. French Jews have always been involved in fashion. In fact, the cult classic “La Verite Si Je Mens” revolves around a non-Jew trying to pass himself off as an Ashkenazi Jew in “Le Sentier,” Paris’ garment district — which is inherently funny because, duh, everyone there is Jewish (and Sephardi, but more on that later).
More recently, Jews have left the shmatte for high-end luxury. French brands like Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot have fashionista followings from London to New York. You may not know, however, that all three brands are owned by Jews — sisters, in fact. Judith Milgrom and Evelyne Chetrit were born in Morocco, and moved to France with their parents when they were kids, mirroring the experience of many French Sephardic Jews, who now outnumber the older Ashkenazi community. Both are vocal about their Jewish heritage. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Milgrom even talked about not working on Shabbat: “About 20 years ago, I started to observe the Jewish Sabbath really seriously. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, I don’t do any work, don’t shop or look at my email or phone. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”
On the more kitschy side of things, let’s not forget Yiddish Mama. As Laurent David Samama over at the Daily Beast shows, young Parisian designer Camille Vizioz-Brami is doing for French Yiddish culture what Mile End did for the New York deli. Boasting slogans like “Power Yiddish Mamma,” “Super Mensch” or “Chepselleh,” her apparel makes quite a statement in a time where Jews may feel compelled to mask their identity for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals.
As a Jewish food educator, I’m often asked for ways to enhance holiday celebrations with authentically themed dishes for the season. What was once a simple plate of apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah becomes a series of prepared desserts featuring these key ingredients. Chanukah gelt can now be acquired with fair trade certification. Vegans can finally enjoy kale challah shipped across the country.
And yet, for Shavuot, folks only want to know about one thing: dairy. Since the majority of elaborate Shabbat and holiday dishes are centered around meat, when it comes time for Shavuot, people think: Finally, an opportunity to plan a delectable dairy meal!
Only problem is, dairy isn’t originally a Shavuot food at all.
What do Hasidic hats, the Borscht Belt, the king of competitive dreidel-ing and a tiny row house shul have in common? They all played starring roles in the Forward best videos of 2013 — along with a poignant portrait of the Jewish mother who lost her son in the Newtown school massacre.
This year saw a major transition in our video department: Nate Lavey, who had laid the groundwork for stunning video journalism at the Forward moved to the New Yorker. Since the fall, I have the privilege to continue our practice of ambitious visual storytelling. Here are them most delicious highlights from this year.
We used the camera for time travelling. Borscht Belt takes us on a trip to Upstate New York to re-discover the history of Jewish summer resorts. Little Row House Shul depicts how a tiny synagogue in southeast Philadelphia is struggling to survive after a century of service. And Men of Many Hats investigates the changes in two Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn through the prism of hat fashions. This beautiful report won Lavey the first award of the national Press Photographers Association.
It’s always yummy to combine film and food. In Debating the Deli David Sax and Josh Ozersky go head to head-to-head on “new school” versus “old school” delis. We also had the pleasure to chat with the famous chef duo Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi who share insights on The 8 Flavors of Jerusalem.
One of my favorite challenges is to produce “vox pops”, which confronts a diverse set of people with the same question. In response to the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we created quick video portraits of Jews from different backgrounds. The question: What does “Jewish” mean to you? The answer: It’s Complicated. The video A Fine Balance features the voices of participants of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Conference (JOFA). It’s intriguing to witness how Orthodox feminists are trying to balance the desire for inclusion with the aim to preserve traditional gender roles.