Hanukkah lamp

Hanukkah lamp, ca 14th century France

Records exist to suggest that Jewish and Syrian traders lived in Paris as early as the Merovingian dynasty. Notwithstanding that long history, oppression dogged Jews in France for a thousand years.

A synagogue was built on the Ile de la Cite in 1119, but was converted into a church seventy years later. The road retained its name–Rue de la Juiverie–until 1834 when it was changed to Rue de la Cite.

Under Louis VII (1137-1180), Parisian Jews enjoyed relative peace and protection. Under his long reign, they prospered. It was even said that they owned half the private property in the city at the time of the king’s death.

Louis VII’s son Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) didn’t not continue his father’s tolerance. French Jewish lore calls Philippe Auguste “that wicked king.” He frequently used the Jewish people to fill his coffers and simultaneously build solidarity with the Church as well as wealthy Parisian debtors. The king arrested all of the Parisian Jews in their synagogues and forced them  to buy their freedom with half their wealth. The move appeared to only whet his appetite. Two years later he expelled the Jews from France and confiscated their property.

In his religious zeal, Saint Louis (1226-1270) burned 24 cartloads of Talmudic manuscripts and forced the Jews to wear a red wheel badge as identification.

Under the reign of Philippe le Bel (1285-1314), things were as bad as ever. In 1288, thirteen Jews were burned at the stake in Troyes. An edict in 1306 authorized the confiscation of their goods before expelling them from France. An edict issued by Charles VI (1380-1422) banished them completely in 1394.

The Jews only gradually returned to France as pressure relaxed.

In 1620, rumors spread throughout France that the Jews were poisoning wells. The accusations reemerge in 1648 to explain the latest outbreak of the plague.

Façade of the Grand synagogue, rue de la Victoire built in 1874

The periodic oppression effectively kept the Jewish population in Paris low. A 1715 list of Jews in the city (still the largest capital in Europe, at least until London would overtake it later in the century) lists only 19 names and would only expand to 500 by the time of the Revolution in 1789. A brief era of the Emancipation began with the French Revolution when the governing council gave Jews civil rights. Official recognition in 1806 spurred immigration. By mid-century, 9,000 Jews had found their home in Paris and they occupied all levels of the social strata, including the pinnacle of wealth.

Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe at the end of the century introduced the city to Yiddish culture. By the advent of WWII, Paris had 160,000 Jews living in its suburbs.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

In 1895, the wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, split the country. Friends and acquaintances lined up for or against Dreyfus in a polarizing issue that lasted years and forced the Jews to consolidate into Marais, in eastern Paris on the Right Bank.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the city became a gathering point for a cadre of artists that were forging the visual vocabulary for a new kind of art that would become the foundations of the modern movement. The Jewish immigrants included notable artists like Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Modigliani and would become known as the École de Paris (The School of Paris). Many of them either settled in Montmartre or in Montparnasse. This group may also represent the beginning of Jewish contribution to Parisian culture and ideas that spanned the 20th Century.

A long history of Parisian anti-Semitism was capped by the brutality that came from the Vichy regime cooperating under Nazi occupation. Segregation was institutionalized, property was confiscated, and vile anti-Semitism dripped from the pages of the city’s newspapers. Institutionalized oppression culminated in July 1942 when police rounded up 12,000 Jews (a majority were women and children) and deported them to Auschwitz. Of the 75,000 Jews that would be deported from France during the Vichy regime only 3,000 survived the war.

After the end of the war, France again became a haven for European Jews, and the population tripled in 25 years. The latter half of the 20th century was a period of safety for Parisian Jews, but it has not lacked conflict (clashes occurred in the wake of the Six Days War in 1967; a 1980 bombing of a synagogue; as well as the xenophobia behind the rise of the National Front party in the 1990s).

Today, Jewish culture in Paris has never been more vital. Paris is the largest Jewish city outside the United States or Israel: over 300,000 Jews call Paris their home.

Fichier:P1020669 Paris III Hôtel de Saint-Aignan Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaisme rwk.JPG

The rich history of European and Parisian Judaism can be found at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History). The museum is located in the hôtel de Saint-Aignan, a hôtel particulier built in 1650.

It boasts artifacts from throughout Europe in a chronological setting. Many of France’s Jewish pieces have been gathered at the museum. It also houses the Dreyfus archive.

(Sources: Collin Jones’ Paris: The Biography of a City; Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris; and, Jewish Virtual Library.)

Quick Facts from Sacred Destinations about the museum:

Address: 71 rue du Temple, 3e, Paris, France 75003
Phone: 01-53-01-86-60
Metro: Rambuteau
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-6pm; Sun 10am-6pm (window closes at 5:15pm)
Allow: 2 hours
Cost: Not covered under the Paris Museum Pass. 6.10€ adults, 3.80€ ages 18-26, free for children under 18.
Photos: Allowed