By Mara Sokolsky, Jewish Exponent
This past erev Rosh Hashanah found my husband and I scurrying through the streets of Paris’s Jewish quarter. Hours earlier, those streets pulsed with the sounds of schmoozing and shopping. We, along with local Parisians and a gaggle of tourists feasted on Mi-va-mi’s falafel l’authentique and Sacha Finkelsztajn’s Viennese strudel.
But now the streets were quiet, the shops closed. The new year was at hand.
More than 30 years ago, I spent my junior year abroad in Paris. Young, eager and fluent in French, I soaked up the beauty and culture of that city like a happy sponge. Now, on our first big empty-nest vacation, I wanted to share some of that long-ago magic with my husband.
And magic it was. We glided on a boat under the magnificent bridges traversing the Seine. We climbed the hills of Montmartre; we sat with our espresso and watched passers-by from a string of outdoor cafes.
As Rosh Hashanah approached, we finalized our holiday plans with the local Chabad rabbi. He directed us, in Yiddish-tinged French, to a shteibel, a small house of prayer on the second floor of a nondescript building in the heart of the Jewish quarter. That’s where my husband and I were hurrying as the old year fell away.
Lubavitch Chasidim are wonderfully hospitable, but they aren’t known for their decorating style. The shteibel had all the makings of a beautiful, old Paris apartment: delicate moldings, chandeliers, hand-painted designs along the tops of the walls. Yet, mostly what you saw was a crowded, makeshift shul, with chairs, benches and tattered prayerbooks strewn next to a small women’s section.
I sat alone in that section. Of course! The Lubavitch wives were home preparing dinner. Ultimately, three young women with various nose and lip piercings joined my ranks. They were traveling together from Australia and, like us, had invitations to go home with one of the families after the davening.
Our host was a warm, chatty dentist who had become Lubavitch in his early 20s. His cultured wife spoke excellent English. Only five of their 10 children were at home, but they had guests around their table from Algiers and Berlin. In a lively polyglot of languages, we chatted, gorged ourselves, and dribbled enough honey to help ensure a sweet new year.
But we needed to hear the shofar. In the morning, we went to the Synagogue des Tournelles, which we’d heard was beautiful and was within walking distance of where we were staying.
Tickets weren’t required, but our admission depended upon a convincing argument to the guards posted outside. When they finally accepted that we were wandering Jews looking to be with our brethren, they opened the doors to the most- breathtaking house of worship I’d ever seen, much like a lavish European opera house.
I climbed the stairs to the balcony. Few women were listening to the service; most were chatting amiably. Occasionally, I’d hear a line in Arabic. So many Jews in France have North African roots. The Sephardic melodies were mesmerizing, so distinct from our Ashkenazi ones at home.
My husband remarked later that the men occasionally davened, but mostly kissed each other (four times on the cheek in true French fashion) and chatted as much as the women.
But when it came time for the shofar, the shul became still. All the men raised their tallitot over their heads. The women whipped out scarves and held them over their heads. It was a bit like watching everyone go under his or her own chupah.
I marveled at this ritual. Although far from home, it felt entirely natural to experience a connection with fellow Jews in heeding the call to be awake and centered as we entered the promise of the new year.