Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New York vs. Paris, the Jew Edition

I know, I said no more comparisons, but before that, I promised an explanation of why I suspect that cultural Judaism lives on here in a way it doesn't back home.

My first inkling of this came the first night I was here, when I attended a movie premiere for an Israeli romantic comedy. The film was supposed to be premiered somewhere else, but that theater decided a boycott was in order and replaced it with (what else?) a Rachel Corrie documentary. The movie itself - A cinq heures de Paris - was nothing special, but the rally that preceded it left me with plenty to think about. The whole event was organized by a French-Jewish student group, and the speakers included prominent students, film directors, how many of each I can't remember what with having basically just gotten off the plane. Anyhow, what I noticed was that, while the speakers made a big and very French fuss about the importance of Art and Cinema, and about the universalist (French) values, they were very clear that they believed the boycott to be motivated by... anti-Semitism. Yeah, they said it. American Jews, in my experience, go through the motions of making it clear that they wouldn't in a million years accuse anyone or any institution of that. I also found that the energy of the crowd, particularly on the topic of the climate towards Jews in France, was such that French Jews - or at least those in this particular packed theater, who did not seem especially religious for the most part - feel a) that the Jewish Question (for lack of a better term) is a current one, and b) that the state of the Jews in France is something up for discussion. For all kinds of historical (Vichy) and present-day (Middle East policy) reasons, secular-ish American Jews do not, again, in my experience, gather to discuss whether or not America is a good place for Jews. This much is taken as a given. Anyway, it's tough to gauge 'types' in a new place, especially on no sleep, but my sense of the crowd was that these were people who, if American, would not be at an event like this. I personally felt much more in sync with this set than with any group of Jews in NY, but felt odd about applauding after the speeches, given that, in a sense, their fight isn't mine. In another sense, it is.

Next, French-Jewish radio. When my computer was kaput, I'd run out of podcasts to listen to while cooking dinner, and ended up with something called Radio Shalom. The programs were everything from secular literary discussions to fairly middle-of-the-road (to American ears) discussions of Iran, but the ads! The ads were directed at an audience either about to move to Israel or living half of the year in that country. One in particular was a Jewish Mother chatting with her Nice Jewish Son (yes, stereotypes can cross the Atlantic) about whether he'd prepared his family for their aliyah. The ad was for some kind of Francophone health services in Israel, and ended with the mother asking his son if he'd eaten yet. ("Oui, maman," he says, exasperated.) I don't know of any secular yet aliyah-oriented Jewish radio station back home, but I can't imagine the demographic it would be addressing.

Finally, there's the persistence of Jewish neighborhoods. New York kind of has this, but typically far from the city center and very religiously-focused - Orthodox or, in the most-equivalent case of West 96th Street, Modern Orthodox. My sense - again, only a sense - is that, whether because of more recent immigration or who knows, culturally Jewish areas exist here in a way that's not quite present in NY. There are places like the UWS (below 96th)* or LES, which were once Jewy but are now just yuppie. A possible equivalent to N. African Jews here would be Russian Jews in NY, but my sense - again, again, I haven't researched this - is that they see themselves and are seen more as Russians than as Jews in New York (as in, what does "Brighton Beach" bring to mind?), whereas there's little sense that Moroccan Jews here are undifferentiated Moroccans.

Basically, the disclaimer that's the undercurrent to all of this is that I don't have a clue, and have barely just arrived.

*This happened: an American couple was having an argument with a security guard at one of the Jewish museums here in Paris. All I overheard from their argument, which was in English, was the (possibly Israeli, possibly French) guard telling the couple, "This isn't a supermarket." The man was wearing a hat and shirt with the orange Zabars logo. Never have I felt such a sense of Jewish peoplehood.


Jesse A. said...

I suspect the difference between Russian Jews in the US and Moroccan Jews in France has more to do with differences between Morocco and Russia than the US and France.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Interesting. That probably is where the differences originated, but once the immigration waves take place, they in turn end up defining the differences between the diaspora communities they contribute to.

Jesse A. said...

My (granted, entirely anecdotal) experience with Moroccan Jews in the US and Canada is that they are far more like the Moroccan Jews you've described in France than Russian Jews in the US. They often form their own communities, they don't marry out very much (even other Jews, though they aren't as extreme about this as the Syrians), and, even when they don't do these things, most emphatically identify as Moroccan Jews, not undifferentiated Moroccans. You see the same thing in alot of other Jewish communities that come from Muslim countries. My entirely uninformed guess is that national identity in these places is tied very strongly with Islamic identity, to the point where you can't be, say, Moroccan unless you're Muslim.

Most of the people I know, however, are first and second generation immigrants. I have no clue if this continues in later generations.

Anonymous said...

Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh (where I grew up) is a largely secular Jewish neighborhood near the city center. But I think it's pretty much unique in that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Jesse A.,

I think I got what you meant the first time around. What I'm thinking is that, because different Jewish communities end up different places, it's not merely that Russian and Moroccan Jews are different, but that these differences come to define the differences between, in this case, the French and American Jewish communities.


I've never heard of that area, but you may be right. There are secular Jewish pockets of NY, but they're filled with Jews who, if background comes up in conversation, describe themselves as of Polish or German heritage, and often seem as though they're not so much denying that these "Poles" and "Germans" were (also) Jews as either unaware of this or under the assumption that this would be somehow odd or racist or irrelevant to add - like saying you're not of German ancestry but of German ancestry with a left-handed great-grandmother.