Monday, June 22, 2015

Paris & Amsterdam – Random Impressions

One of the pleasures of traveling for me is returning home feeling glad that I'm back. But also feeling that I've learned something about the places I visited.

We are just back in Israel after five days in Amsterdam and another five in Paris.

We encountered two very different Jewish communities.

From a Jewish perspective, Paris is at once vibrant and moribund. There are over 300,000 Jews living in France. Some claim there are 500,000. On our final day, we had to wait for a seat in a kosher dairy restaurant during the lunch hour rush. There must have been 75-110 people inside; the place was buzzing.

At the imposing Grande Synagogue de Paris, where we davened on a Thursday morning and over Shabbat, security was airport-like intense. At the Thursday service it took 45 minutes until a minyan of 10 men could be gathered. On Shabbat the decorous and better attended service includes a choir.

Jacques Canet, the synagogue's genial president told us that after the January terror attacks authorities had asked Jewish leaders to cancel Saturday services. The community responded that if they were able to maintain services during the Vichy era they were not about to go into hiding now.

We spoke with some young people over Friday night dinner (also at the synagogue) and none saw much of a future for themselves in France. One spoke of moving to LA where his Persian family is concentrated.

Hundreds (probably thousands) of Jews who can (financially) leave France are doing so or making plans to do so or doing some on a part-time basis. Anecdotally, I can say that we've never heard so much French spoken in our neighborhood as we have in the past year. 

Over 1,000 Jews made aliya in the past year from France.

We found it helpful to speak in Hebrew (rather than English) at many Jewish restaurants and shops.

France, like so much of Europe, loves it's dead Jews. 

The Holocaust memorial (an imposing museum with an attached book shop) was protected by heavily-armed militia and police. Plaques on the museum's parameter wall, along the Allee Des Justes, are filled with the names of hundreds of Parisian gentiles who helped save Jews during the Second World War.

Opposite the museum is another plaque memorializing 11,000 Jewish pupils who were rounded up by the Vichy authorities (French collaborators with the Nazis) in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.

We were told not to miss the Islamic Center because of its interesting architecture. 

What we found at the entrance was a sign promoting "Palestine" – a reminder that Arab and Muslim mobilization against Israel is ubiquitous, worldwide, and unrelenting. 

A huge poster adorning the outside wall of the Islamic Center commemorating the protest against the January 2015 Islamist terrorists attacks. Israel's Premier Benjamin Netanyahu is airbrushed out of the photograph.

Those willing to pay the price of admission can see an exhibit on the Jews of the Middle East. It is unlikely the display notes that—in the best of times under Muslim rule, Jews were considered Dhimmi or second class non-citizens.

France has the second-largest Muslim population in Europe (behind Germany) with 4.7 million people or 7.5 percent of the population.

We very much enjoyed the Musée d'Orsay which contains a treasure of impressionist paintings. The structure is a converted a Beaux-Arts railway station constructed around 1898.

The Louvre Museum was overwhelming; more a circus and spectacle than a chance to contemplate great art. Still, there was plenty of great art and artifacts to see amidst the throngs of fellow tourists. From the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1754 BCE) 

 to Leonardo da Vinci's  Mona Lisa (circa 1503).

It may be that the museum does not like visitors from the Jewish state – but if you keep a low profile, and they don't know you are Israeli you can enjoy your visit just like anyone else.

Paris is a metropolis. Great Metro (endless warnings to watch out for pickpockets). Not many New York-like towering skyscrapers but heavy traffic and (very) occasionally menacing denizens.

Seemingly, people are constantly smoking outside stores and offices. Questions abound. How is it that Parisians are continually eating yet stay skinny? Why do Japanese & Chinese tourists line up to buy designer products most likely manufactured somewhere in Asia. 

Le Marais, the lower east side of Paris was bustling, mostly with non-Jewish tourists and young people. There were lots of kosher and kosher-style eateries and almost no security. The Chez Jo Goldenberg restaurant which was bombed by Palestinian Arab terrorists in August 1982 is now a clothes store.

We also traveled by railroad to visit an elderly relation in a once predominantly Jewish suburb. She told us that her synagogue still held regular services. Perhaps. Though from the railroad platform, on the way back to Paris center, it was the golden dome of the neighborhood's mosque that was visible.

AMSTERDAM'S COMMUNITY seems more at peace with its diminished prospects and circumstances.

There are something like 30,000 Jews in the country. Maybe at a stretch 0.3 percent of the population.

There are perhaps three Jewish neighborhoods in Amsterdam. One outlying area can be considered Jewishly self-sufficient.

Fewer kosher eateries (in stark contrast to Paris) but lots of good vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

We visited the historic (circa 1675) Portuguese synagogue several times.

It is near the Jewish museum and other Jewish heritage sites. 

Also worth a visit if you have never been is Anne Frank House (get your tickets in advance). It is said to be the second most popular tourist attractions. 

Don't miss the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt) and the Stedelijk Museum of modern art which has a special exhibit on Matisse this summer. 

Curiously, their book shop is loaded with anti-US (Chomsky), Marxist and pro-Arab (Said) books which don't have anything to do with the exhibited art. Go figure.

Suggestion: Buy the "I'm Amsterdam Card" as soon as you get into town at the visitor's center near the main train station. I'm told you can also purchase it at the airport. 

The card allows you to enter certain museums and gets you on public transportation. Swipe when boarding and de-boarding. Those of us from Jerusalem, where there is one tram line, can only marvel at Amsterdam's advanced tram system.

Amsterdam, though packed with tourists, the occasional beer lout, and a decided level of sleaze, is simultaneously quaint with picturesque canals and townhouses. It is walk-able (though watch out for the bicycles) & all around delightful. The city is in a good place right now – so this is the time to visit. Enjoy the parks. Tilt at a windmill.

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