Some of my happiest and best travel experiences have occurred in the thriving port city of Marseille, France.
The first time I visited Marseille was in the 1950s when it had a fixed place on the front page of newspapers around the world. The city was playing a very important role in modern French Jewish history and especially in the founding of the State of Israel. This municipality stood as the port of embarkation for Jews fleeing North Africa and sailing to the nascent Jewish state.
Termed the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” Jews were coming home, and Marseille was the hub for those ships conveying them.
On that first visit to Marseille as a teenager, I traveled with immigrants from North Africa to Israel on the S.S. Negba. A decade later as a journalist visiting the last remnants of the Jews in Algeria, I followed Jews from Algiers to Marseille, gateway of many of the 100,000 Algerian Jews passing through that port.
Since they were French citizens, many were resettling in France.
The massive influx of North African Sephardi Jews to the French Republic in the 1960s was one of the most exciting movements of immigration in contemporary Jewish history, and Marseille played a big part in it. Nearly 300,000 Sephardi Jews went to France, revitalizing French Jewry to such an extent that some have called the present Jewish community of France “the second French Jewry.”
On most trips to the city, I stroll along the famous La Canebiere boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare, always chock full of sailors and crowds. Shops, banks, cafés mark this street; it’s exactly what one thinks of France, especially the fresh fish harvested from the beckoning blue Mediterranean. No wonder I and thousands of tourists while away hours in cafés and restaurants that serve up savory seafood dishes, such as a bowl of bouillabaisse (a rich fish stew) that is Marseille’s classic signature dish.
Another choice is turbot, accompanied by white wine.
I buy a beret on La Canebiere and head for some of the sights, humming “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. Written in 1792, the tune was a revolutionary song, a call to mobilize all the citizens in the fight against tyranny and foreign invasion of France. “La Marseillaise” acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille.
For the tourist, the city boasts the Longchamps Palace with its Fine Arts Museum and the National History Museum. Atop a hill, Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica offers a breathtaking panorama of Marseille.
I take a bus up to the basilica that dominates the city and overlooks nearly every inch of Marseille from its 505-foot high perch atop Colline de la Garde.
As an emporium, Marseille trades with the Levant and beyond. Called “Europort of the South,” the “City of Conventions,” “Gateway to the Riviera,” it remains a tough harbor city. While its history stretches back more than 2,000 years to its foundation by the Greeks in the sixth century BCE, the Old Port (Le Vieux Port) remains home to small ships, fishing schooners, white sailboats.
I wander around this U-shaped Old Port area where ships have been docking for centuries. I observe ferry boats chugging across the harbor.
I watch fisherman mending nets on wide quays. I spy seamen lounging on benches.
Rambling along the Quai du Port, Quai des Belges, Quai de Rive-Nive, I munch on salted peanuts. The warming sun and the smell of the harbor invigorate me as I gaze at the Chateau d’If, the tiny island that houses the 16th-century prison portrayed in the book Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
But more than 100 years ago, the Old Port became too small to handle the huge maritime traffic, so now nearby Marseille-Fos port is the main French trade seaport.
This seaport stands as one of the 15 world largest cruise ports. Nearly 1.5 million passengers passed through last year.
I dawdle in the Old Harbor, where I cannot help but recall those post- World War II days when old, unseaworthy Staten Island ferry-type boats, their beams bursting from the overcrowding of Jewish refugees literally stuffed on board, sailed secretly at night from Marseille into the Mediterranean to run the gauntlet of the British Navy in order to reach the Jewish homeland.
Lest we forget! I often stop at the Place de la Bourse in Marseille. The place is a large downtown square that witnessed revolutions, demonstrations, financial crises, peaceful gatherings and celebrations.
The place was the first stop of the North African Jews forced out of their countries when they arrived in Marseille.
Marseille remains the second- largest Jewish community in France and the fifth-largest in Western Europe. About 65,000 Jews reside there, amidst the city’s metro population of nearly two million, a city which counts about 220,000 Muslims, of whom 70,000 are practicing.
Marseille is predominantly a city of Sephardi Jews, with family names like Chiche, Dahan, Zana, Solal, Amsellem and Zemmour; and they are committed to Judaism.
Marseille Jews are proud and active as they try to keep a community alive, fighting assimilation and rising current anti-Semitism and hatred that too often occur today in the French Republic and throughout Europe.
According to Rabbi Michael Rosenthal of Beth Habad Chateau Gombert, “There’s not much anti-Semitism on a daily basis,” but there is a large Muslim population, and that creates an “uncertain future,” the rabbi adds.
Despite the fact that the number of synagogues has increased over the last three decades, one synagogue is scheduled to be converted into a mosque, reflecting demographic shifts in southern France.
The Or Torah synagogue is being used less and less by Jews who have actually moved from that neighborhood near the main railway station.
The synagogue is being sold to a Muslim cultural association.
But for now there are eight Chabad centers, and “Marseille may be one of the world’s most vibrant Jewish communities when you speak about engagement in the everyday Jewish life,” says the rabbi, referring to “Jewish weddings, kosher observance, bar mitzvas and, of course, Jewish schools.”
The Jews of Marseille sponsor 32 kosher restaurants, 18 kosher groceries.
Two restaurants among the many are Jackinot, 9 rue Sainte-Victoire, for meat meals; and Le Huitieme sud, 51 avenue Georges Pompidou, for dairy. Contact for Rabbi Rosenthal is http://www.bethabad8eme.com.
There are several dozen synagogues in Marseille. Besides its eight centers, Chabad maintains day and vocational schools and youth centers. The Consistoire Israelite de Marseille is located at 117 rue Breteuil. Temple Breteuil is at 117 rue Breteuil. This main synagogue conducts a Sephardi service.
An Ashkenazi service is held in the synagogue at 8 Impasse Dragon. A Liberal congregation stands at 21 rue Martiny.
Yes, indeed, Jewish life remains “vibrant” in Marseille.Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the recently published “Klara’s Journey, a Novel” (Marion Street Press); “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press); “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition (Pelican Publishing Company); and “A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine (Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on Twitter @bengfrank; www.bengfrank.blogspot.com