When I arrived in Atlanta two years ago to join my fiancé, an American orchestra conductor I met in Paris, I only had the phone number of one other person, a friend’s cousin. I had been deputy editor of a French magazine and my fiancé and I decided to live in Atlanta, where he was working. Today, I continue to freelance for various publications and lecture at the Alliance Française. I return periodically to France to visit my three children attending college there.
As a French Jew in America, I felt it was more important for me to integrate into the Atlanta Jewish community rather than the Atlanta French community. I remembered Golda Meir’s reply to Henry Kissinger when he said to her: “Golda, you must remember that first I am an American; second I am Secretary of State, and third I am a Jew.” She replied: “Henry, you forgot that in Israel we read from right to left.” That’s exactly how I felt. Here, in America, you are first an American, then a Jew. In France, like Golda Meir, we think in the other direction: we are first and foremost Jewish. Being French is very important, but it will always be our Jewishness that prevails when it comes to taking a stand.
What I notice in common between being Jewish in Paris and being Jewish in Atlanta is, first of all, the need to bond together. There are many Jews here in Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Dunwoody and East Cobb. In Paris, there are many large Jewish communities in the 16th, 17th and 19th arrondissements. In both countries, we take pride in our religious affiliation. But we are living our Judaism in different ways.
First of all, most of the Jewish community in France is of Sephardic origin and follow the Sephardic tradition. Those Jews, for the most part, came to France in the 1960s from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. I was born in Tunisia and arrived in the suburb of Paris in 1972. The North African Jews replaced the Ashkenazi Jews, who had previously been the predominant Jewish population before the Shoah. Emigration, assimilation and mixed marriages reduced their population further.
In less than a generation, Sephardic Jews have succeeded in establishing themselves in French society. They have become renowned doctors, famous lawyers, successful actors, political advisors. The Sephardic people brought with them their joie de vivre (joy of life) and their exuberance. Some bar mitzvahs are legendary, such as the one that brought together for an afternoon all the players of Paris Saint-Germain, the most famous French soccer team, for a game with guests. Imagine in the U.S. having the New England Patriots come to your bar mitzvah to scrimmage with your guests!
In Atlanta, when I talk with others about Sephardic Judaism, it’s rare that they know exactly what I’m talking about. The rites, songs and traditions are not the same. On Rosh Hashanah, our tray is filled with things like garlic, squash, figs, sesame and fish heads. A friend from Atlanta was amazed to see how Rosh Hashanah was celebrated by a Tunisian Jewish family.
This recent Sephardic immigration is largely traditional in practices. There are few Reform synagogues in Paris. To marry in one of these traditional synagogues, a non-Jewish person must convert. The conversions are very long, more than five years, and very restrictive. There are only three female rabbis in all of France. Synagogues remain just places of worship, with little in the way of community life. This is definitely not the case here. In Atlanta, everyone has a synagogue with reading groups, Sunday associations, organized trips and community engagement. In Reform synagogues here, the rabbi shakes everyone’s hand – including women – and speaks into the microphone on Yom Kippur day, less restrictive practices than in France. I even saw valet parking in front of the synagogue on a Sabbath. Unthinkable in France! I like this way of living Judaism in Atlanta, much more relaxed, more fun, less subject to the religious laws and the rigor of traditions.
It’s amazing to me that in the United States, 59 percent of American Jews – six in 10 – have never been to Israel, according to recent surveys by the American Jewish Committee. The excuses include it being too far away or too dangerous. The attachment of French Jews to Israel is enormous. In France, only 35 percent have never been to Israel. This is especially true when more and more Jews are asking themselves the same question today: Do they have a future in France? This sort of question would never be asked by an American Jew. Obviously, the rise in hatred and anti-Semitism in Europe is the main reason why more and more French Jews choose to pack their bags. Some go to live in Quebec, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but especially to Israel. Despite a drop in aliyah in recent years, 2,600 French Jews moved to Israel last year.
Is it more dangerous in France than Atlanta? First, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it dangerous to be Jewish in Atlanta?” The answer is yes, when you consider the recent killings of American Jews in their synagogues by madmen with assault rifles. Atlantans are still mindful of The Temple bombing in 1958 for which none of the accused perpetrators were ever convicted. But does that mean we enter a synagogue with fear in our bellies? Life goes on. Jews have had this strength, always and everywhere. The only difference is that anti-Semitic violence here is the action of extremist white-supremacist groups, while in France it is the action of certain Muslim groups, which are probably more present on a daily basis. It is advisable not to wear a yarmulke on the Metro, but it is not fear. It is just a reasonable precaution, that’s all.
In any case, on both sides, I find this constant: When faced with an event, a political decision, or even a princely marriage, the Jew from Paris or Atlanta asks him or herself the same question: Is this good for us?
France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, about 500,000 people, or less than 1 percent of the French population.