Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Documentary spotlights the Sephardim of France

They're the largest Sephardi community outside Israel. When Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco streamed into France in the late 1950s and 1960s, they rejuvenated a Jewish community battered and bruised by the war: 70,000 Jews had been deported to the Nazi death camps from whence only three percent returned.

But the Jews of North Africa brought warmth and a joie de vivre. Being Jewish in France (Comme un juif en France), directed by Yves Jeuland, a three-hour long film documentary, played to a packed house yesterday at the UK Jewish Film Festival. The documentary, which has been screened on national French TV, did not focus exclusively on the Sephardim in its 100 year- survey of Jewish history in France. But the Sephardim are very much part of recent French-Jewish history.

"We took life seriously," recalls one dour Ashkenazi French Jew." Our recipes were always the same - gefilte fish, stewed fruit compote - and could fill a slim volume. But the Sephardim brought with them fruit and sunshine, hundreds of recipes and a different sort of Jewish culture.

The Ashkenazim of France accepted their Sephardi brethren. "They thought we were a funny lot - a bit Spanish, a bit Arab. They were not contemptuous, but they were just ignorant of us", actor Jean Benguigi says of the 'clash of civilisations'. "It was rather like what happened in Israel."

The Jews of Algeria, who were French nationals, arrived on the Marseille quayside with nothing from the Algerian war. "We lost everything, laments one refugee on a newsreel of the time. "People are nice here (in France) but we wish to go back (to Algeria)." It was not uncommon for five refugee families to crowd into one two-bedroom Paris apartment until they could rebuild their lives. There were always young cousins passing through, until they too found their own feet.

Professor Raphael Drai revelled in his triple identity. "I was happy riding my three horses," he says." French, pied noir Algerian and Jewish - in no particular order."

The newcomers had to get used to their couscous-free exile. Courgettes were a poor substitute. In France the sky was never as blue as in North Africa - " it looked washed out," says professor Drai. They had to put up with the dreary weather and the idea of getting to places on time. On the other hand, France's depleted synagogues were filled once again, and noisy arguments - even on Yom Kippur - broke out between the newcomers as to which minhag to follow.

Without a doubt, the Sephardim brought an exuberance and a pride in their Judaism. They were were not afraid to flaunt it after the euphoric Israeli victory of the Six-Day War: 1967 was indeed a watershed for all of French Jewry. To be Jewish in France was 'cool'. Jews set about frenetically exploring every aspect of their culture. But 2000 was another watershed: the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada. Synagogues were torched, Jewish schoolkids were beaten up. The spectre of antisemitism, spurred on mostly by radicalised Arab youths in the urban slums, was rearing its ugly head once again.

How do you feel when you hear about these incidents? the filmmakers asked Rachel Cohen, the headmistress of a Jewish school: fear, anger, sorrow? "Indignation," said Mrs Cohen. "It was outrageous that Jewish children could be so treated by their neighbours."

Although hers was by no means a majority sentiment, Rachel Cohen was seriously contemplating leaving France. " We split with Morocco. Now we have to split with France."
Already thousands of French Jews had made aliya - ascended to Israel.

With the rise of antisemitism, one thoughtful student leader detected a new self- consciousness in being Jewish. " "I'm not asking that every Frenchman should wake up in the morning and worry about what's happening to one percent of the population," he said. But what affects the Jews sooner or later impinges on the whole of society."

Will France, with the biggest Jewish and the biggest Muslim communities in Europe, manage to weather this particular storm?

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