Paris Jewish quarter battles for its soul

Tourism and commerce are conspiring to turn what for centuries has been a thriving Jewish district—a slice of downtown Tel Aviv in modern Paris—into just another identikit shopping strip, locals say.

The “To rent” sign hanging over Jo Goldenberg’s celebrated kosher restaurant is a symbol of the rapid decline of the Rue des Rosiers area.

Goldenberg’s, the target of a deadly 1982 bomb and machine-gun attack blamed on Palestinian extremists, for decades served up central European Jewish dishes such as potato latkes, matzo ball soup or sauerkraut with corned beef.

But now, at a rent of €300 000 a year, it’s being fought over by fashion outlets.

A few metres down the road stands the former community hammam, or steam bath, which still houses a local Jewish radio station but which is about to turn into yet another boutique of the international fashion retailer H & M.

“We stopped McDonald’s opening in the hammam building in 2000, and we’ll stop H & M,” said Joseph Finkelstein, who has lived in the area all his life.

He runs an association of concerned citizens who hold regular protests to try to block the trendy boutiques that are rapidly replacing the Jewish butchers, barbers, cafés and bookshops in an area called the “Pletzl”, the Yiddish word for “Little Square”.

The area, described as “the heart of Parisian Jewry, a thriving, busy slice of downtown Tel Aviv in modern Paris” in a recent history of the French capital by the British academic Andrew Hussey, is still distinctly Jewish.

It is home to five synagogues (including an art nouveau one designed by Hector Guimard, famous for his work on the Paris Metro), its falafel restaurants are usually packed and its Jewish bookshops still draw loyal customers.

France is home to Western Europe’s biggest Jewish community, estimated at about 600 000, a mixture of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European origin and Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

Moving out

However, soaring house prices have forced most Jews out of the Rue des Rosiers area. Many return to shop or simply soak up the atmosphere, but now even that ambiance is rapidly waning.

Many of the shop fronts now bear names such as Kookai or Lee. The area is rapidly being engulfed by gentrification in the Marais, which stretches from the Pompidou Centre eastwards to La Bastille and encompasses Paris’s main gay district.

The Marais’s picturesque narrow streets, dotted with boutiques, are constantly thronged with tourists and leisure-seeking Parisians who have helped make the district one of the city’s most expensive in real-estate terms.

When the lease for a Jewish bakery or bookshop comes up for renewal, a retailer with deep pockets often steps in and snaps up the property.

Also, says Joseph Finkelstein, when Jewish proprietors retire, their children often don’t want to take over the business. So the premises pass to a non-Jewish concern.

“That’s what happened there,” he said, pointing to a boarded-up shop front. “That was a barber’s. He also used to give Talmud lessons. His son’s in computers, he didn’t want to take over.”

“That was an Oriental patisserie called Madame Habib’s. It closed two years ago. That was a Jewish bookshop,” adds Finkelstein, gesturing to premises now serving as fashion boutiques.

Finkelstein insists that his association will make H & M change its mind, just as it stopped the McDonald’s fast-food chain opening a branch in the building a few years ago.

But Dominique Bertinotti, the Socialist mayor of the city’s fourth arrondissement, or district, which encompasses the Marais, says the hammam is a “lost cause”, and that despite the city’s powers to step in and buy a building, Goldenberg’s is almost certain to be “lost” too.

“If what the owners are looking for is three or four times higher than our estimates, the city cannot pre-empt at any price because we’re using taxpayers’ money,” she said, adding that the city was, however, keen to preserve the Jewish character of the area.

Critics such as Andrew Hussey, author of Paris, A Secret History, say that Paris is already suffering from “museumification”, whereby entire districts are made over to cater to tourists.

“I think that the process of the de-Jewishness of Rue des Rosiers is tragic, but probably unstoppable and well under way—and definitely part of the museumification of Paris,” he said.—Sapa-AFP

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