When Paris is sunny, it’s even more glorious than any photo. And this was one of those days. Just off the Eurostar train from London, a most convenient, easy and comfortable 2 ½ hour ride away, I was walking along a wide boulevard, to my meeting at the Great Synagogue (also known as the Rothschild Synagogue and Synagogue de la Victoire) How lucky Parisians are, I was thinking. However, as I approached the monumental building I had some second thoughts. If, in fact, it is such a wonderful place, then how come there is a maze of barriers, security guards, not just one but many, eyeing suspiciously anyone that comes near the building.
Luckily, I had a pre arranged appointment and obviously my name was on a visitor’s list. However, I still had to show my passport and wait between locked entrance doors before I could enter. All this on rue St. George, the side entrance, not the magnificent arched entrance on rue de la Victoire.
That done, the reception was most pleasant, being greeted by a friendly receptionist and various other people in the area. See, I told myself, not all French are unsmiling, unhelpful and pompous.
Mr. Adler, synagogue board member, was delayed but would soon arrive. He did arrive just minutes late. During the time, I was told that no photography was permitted and I was given postcards instead. Since there had been a rare Bar Mitzvah (this is due to the dwindling Jewish community) the night before, the dismantling crew was everywhere. It was a grandiose event judging from the long, clothed tables in the ante room, the extravagant floral arrangements still in the room, camera crew and multi wires hiding under tape. They were also getting ready for the annual memorial of the round-up Jews in Paris. Senior officials of the French Government always attend the event which is broadcasted nationally.
Jews have been in France for nearly two millennia and France had been a center for Jewish life and education. Their Rabbis were renowned for their interpretation of the Torah , When one discusses the history of the Jews of France, inevitably, the name Rabbi Solomon ben Issac (1040-1105) comes up and he is considered one of the great scholars of all times. More recently, the names
Marc Chagall, Andre Citroen, Sarah Bernhardt, Camille Pissarro, Jacques Offenbach and Marcel Proust, to name a few, are more familiar and contributed to the French community.
As executive of the synagogue, Adler a Jew from Strasburg whose father never left the concentration camp, is dedicated to the Askanazi/Shepardic synagogue and so proud to show me around.
I wasn’t expecting to see a cathedral, but that comparison of this neo-Romanesque building, dedicated in 1874, would not be out of place. Its interior is most impressive. What struck me first were the circular intricate stained glass windows followed by the overwhelming huge concrete arches. The grand sanctuary has 87 foot ceilings and the Bimah is flanked by seating which is reserved for the chief rabbis of France. With great luck and good timing, four Torahs were still on view before the curtain was pulled. One interesting fact is that the Paris government owns 80 churches and synagogues and finances the major maintenance. It’s due to this fact that during the war, the Nazis respected this therefore the Great Synagogue building and its contends weren’t destroyed or desecrated
Seeing the Torahs was ‘un bon chance’ but on a sadder note, while leaving from the front entrance, there were huge posters of the round of Jews, young and old. The majesty of the building couldn’t compete with this horror which left me departing with a heavy heart from a glorious edifice.