A sentimental journey

A walk through the historic Marais neighborhood of Paris.

October 18, 2016 00:05
4 minute read.
Paris, France

Paris, France. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Subway or bus stations matter, even to travelers visiting large cities. They too, want to avoid huge taxi ride charges and choking traffic.

One stop most important to the Jewish traveler who wishes to connect with his brothers and sisters, for example in Paris, is Metro stop Saint-Paul on Line One. This is the main station for Le Marais district, also known as the Pletzel and still a viable center of Jewish life in Paris, though much less these days because of a wave of new, fabulous boutiques and town houses that have taken over.

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Walking through the Marais section of Paris, I’m reminded of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both areas once contained a large Jewish community and remain very tourist attractive areas, each drawing thousands of travelers of all religions and ethnicities each day.

Indeed, the historic Marais section of Paris is one of the most visited districts of the French capital, because of its architectural heritage and outstanding museums, as well as its establishments from top establishments to off-beat shops.

Exiting the Saint-Paul station which actually is located at 10 Rue de Rivoli, I meander up Rue Pavee to No 10, the historic synagogue, Agoudas Hakehilos. Austere on the outside and beautiful inside, this Orthodox synagogue was designed in 1913 by Hector Guimard, the famous art nouveau architect who fled the Nazis and reached the US in 1942. Two lateral aisles, each having two rows of overhead galleries for the women’s section, supported by four massive pillars, highlight the neo-Gothic structure. Wooden benches are in place for worshipers.

I amble down the Rue des Rosiers, the heart of the Jewish quarter.

I spot stores with religious goods; then a bookstore. Kosher restaurants, and eateries, many specializing in felafel, abound. Unfortunately, with the passing of Jo Goldenberg, his ionic kosher-style restaurant, Goldenberg’s, at 7 Rue des Rosiers, is gone.

The Marais district gets its name from its location. Once a marshland, it has been inhabited ever since it was drained in the 12th century. The district is shaped like a triangle, bordered by Place de la Bastille, Place de la République and the Hôtel de Ville. Located in the district or nearby are a number of private mansions dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, some of which have been converted into internationally renowned museums such as the Musée Picasso, the Maison de Victor Hugo, Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Musée Carnavalet, which is closed for renovations until the end of 2019.

The Pletzel is situated on the site of the 13th Century ghetto of Paris known as the Juiverie. From then, Jews (when they were not expelled) resided in the rue Ferdinand-Duval, then called “street of the Jews.”

When those first Jewish immigrants settled in the Pletzel, they called it “little square,” or in Yiddish, the “Pletzel.” Today, several thousand Jews, many of them religious, live in this neighborhood.

Elvira Serby of Armonk, New York, who lived in Paris for many years and visits frequently, noted that there is a heavy Israeli presence; with more Hebrew rather than Yiddish advertisements. There are large numbers of Sephardic Jews from North Africa who were forced out of Arab countries after Israel’s independence.

Located at 17 Rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, is the Memorial of the Shoah, previously called named Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr. The Memorial of the Shoah was inaugurated by President Jacques Chirac on January 25, 2005. Built between 1953-1956, it was opened on October 30, 1956 and renovated over the years. The building serves as the Museum Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation.

I pass through a massive street-level courtyard that actually is the roof of an underground crypt. In the courtyard is a large bronze cylinder shaped in the form of a burial urn. On it are engraved the names of concentration camps. Below the courtyard, two flights down is a tomb of black marble in the form of a Star of David. An eternal flame flickers at its center. The memorial building contains archives and a reading room.

Not far away is the Museum of Art and History of Judaism located in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan, 17 Rue du Temple. Housed in one of Paris’ most palatial mansions are works of Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine, Kikoine and other Jewish painters.

The beautiful and well-proportioned square known as Place des Vosges is a highlight of a stroll through the Marais. This square is one of the most beautiful squares in all of Paris. The writer, Victor Hugo, lived at No. 6, the site today of his museum. Temple des Vosges which fronts on the Place des Vosges, is situated at 14 Place des Vosges.

Within the old-world borders of the Marais stand trendy shops, including its own department store, the BHV Marais. Within the last decade, the Marais has become an emporium of “edgy clothing and design,” boutiques with an avantguard reputation. The area also is known as a gay neighborhood.

Residents and tourists alike flock to the Marais to grab up Gucci, Moncler, Fendi, Givenchy, Valentino, The Kooples and Sandro.

So like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, including SoHo; the Marais has become fashionable.

Still, there is a Jewish presence, but better hurry, the neighborhood is changing.

Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-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; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America, (all Pelican Publishing Company) Follow him on twitter @ bengfrank

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