The last time I visited family in Paris, several years ago, was around Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. My husband and I both grew up in that city, he a native and I a resident from the time I was a toddler to the age of 9. We both still have family living there, he an uncle, I an aunt, and both of us a number of cousins.
Suzanne Messing remembers her grandmother, Teltsa Messing, left, as deeply religious. At right, the young Suzanne Messing’s passport photo, with which she left Paris. Photos courtesy of Suzanne messing
Both our families, the Sznajdermans and the Messings, emigrated from Poland and had a lot in common. One of the areas in which they differed, however, is how they expressed their Yiddishkeit
The Sznajdermans came from Kazimier, a special shtetl, in that it attracted artists during the summer but for Jews, a shtetl nevertheless. The young Sznajdermans went to Warsaw and then to Paris, leaving their parents behind. For them, Paris was liberation from the strictures of Orthodox life in a small town. In fact my mother-in-law, Yenta, later Jeanne, adopted the l4th of July, the anniversary of the French revolution, as her birth date. We have always suspected it was not her real birth date. They were Yiddishists, and one of their siblings, S.L. Shneiderman, was a well-known Yiddish journalist and author.
The Messings, six siblings who lost their father when the oldest was only 1′, started to arrive in Paris, one by one, in their early ‘0s. What brought them was their mother’s second marriage to a Jew living in France. Teltsa, my grandmother, was fervently religious, and in spite of the difficulties of running a kosher household in Paris, never wavered in her adherence to the traditions.
I left France when I was 9, but some images of my grandmother’s life are bright in my memory. I can still see her and her three daughters chopping fish for gefilte fish. To buy kosher provisions, she had to take public transportation to the Platzel, as it was known among the Jews. This was and still is the Jewish neighborhood in Paris. I would see her come back laden with two heavy shopping bags.
Passover at my grandmother’s house is the holiday I remember best. The rectangular dining table seemed endless. Not only was our entire family there but Teltsa seemed to have collected every Jew who had no family to come share our seder.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur I see in my memory only as my father, his two brothers, and my grandmother dressed up, in hats 1930s style, rushing off to shul.
On my recent trip, I wanted to see the synagogue where the family worshipped. On erev Rosh HaShanah we ate dinner at my husband’s Uncle Moishele’s house. We had gefilte fish and chicken soup, but it was a completely secular event.
The next day we went around the corner to Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, where the synagogue is. I remember it being referred to as La Synagogue Notre Dame de Nazareth, but that of course is ridiculous. Its official name is La Synagogue Nazareth and it was founded in 18”. The first time I went there I saw a plaque that said that a famous French/Jewish composer had once been the choir director. Unfortunately I did not write down the composer’s name. When I later tried to get that information, the plaque had been removed before the building was painted, and in spite of great effort, I was never able to track down that intriguing bit of knowledge.
We walked into the long narrow room that appeared to be modeled on the style of a cathedral. No one at the door asked for tickets. I looked for a siddur. A table held an assortment of books, no two alike. The women prayed upstairs. The women’s section was rather small, considering the size of the synagogue, and each woman seemed to have a different siddur. Very few were actually following the service.
The bimah seemed to be a mile away. The cantor was one of the best I have ever heard. But the rabbi and the others leading the service carried on, seemingly oblivious of the congregation. They gave no little reminders as to where we were in the siddur, which in my case is necessary in order to keep up. For me it was a totally unspiritual experience.
Nevertheless, we returned on Yom Kippur. This time I was with my aunt and my cousin, Teri, a former American yeshiva girl now living in Paris and completely secular.
Thanks to Teri, I knew where I was in the service. She even seemed to really get into prayer. While Teri was deeply engaged, my aunt offered both of us a piece of candy.
So much for being the daughter of my fervently religious grandmother.
After my grandmother died, my French family seemed to have abandoned all attachment to religion. As far as I know, they even gave up seders. This is not unusual for French Jews. Although deeply attached to some things Jewish, as devoted to Israel as any other Jews, they are detached from religion. And frankly, if I were living in France and had to attend services like the one in which I participated, I would probably have dropped out also. As a matter of fact if 300,000 African Jews had not arrived in France in the 1950s and ’60s and revived Jewish practice, La Synagogue Nazareth might very well by now have been converted to L’?glise Notre Dame de Nazareth.