Flora Goldenberg will show you the Jewish Paris you never knew

Goldenberg, whose grandfather owned a famous restaurant in the Marais district of Paris, has been offering tours of Jewish Paris for the past seven years.

WHEN FLORA GOLDENBERG was growing up in the Marais district, it wasn’t the impossibly chic destination neighborhood we know today (photo credit: Courtesy)
WHEN FLORA GOLDENBERG was growing up in the Marais district, it wasn’t the impossibly chic destination neighborhood we know today
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the world reopens post-pandemic, the question arises: Can we travel to a familiar place and still find something new? Everyone loves Paris, the city of lights. For Jews, Paris is a romantic destination as well as a repository of Jewish history going back centuries.
So as you think about getting away to Paris, you also want to think about Jewish Paris. And if the question is Jewish Paris, the answer is Flora Goldenberg.
Goldenberg, whose grandfather owned a famous restaurant in the Marais district of Paris, has been offering tours of Jewish Paris for the past seven years. She is knowledgeable, well-spoken, good-natured and fun. She helps visitors understand the connections between multiple layers of French Jewish history, from Roman times through the Medieval era, from the building of the Louvre to the time of Napoleon, and from the Holocaust to the present day.
When Goldenberg was growing up in the Marais, it wasn’t the impossibly chic destination neighborhood that it has become in recent years. Today, the Marais is gentrified beyond all recognition and a favored Paris weekend hangout – not unlike Soho in Manhattan or, for that matter, Soho in London. In between the high-end boutiques and top restaurants, however, can be found all manner of Jewish history.
On a recent February morning, Goldenberg gave a private family tour that began in the nearby Place des Vosges, adjacent to the Marais neighborhood, and the beginning of where modern Jewish Paris really began. The Place des Vosges is best known for the magnificent home of French literary legend Victor Hugo, but who knew that it also contains two Jewish synagogues, one of which has existed for almost two centuries?
Paris is slow to reveal its hidden beauty, and Goldenberg is a pro at identifying the mansions, gardens and other delights that are never obvious to the average pedestrian or tourist. On our Marais tour, she took us inside the private gardens attached to centuries-old mansions or hotels particuliers where aristocrats once roamed.
She took us inside a synagogue built in 1914, when the Jews began to feel secure about themselves in France, and showed how collaborators bombed the front of the synagogue in 1941 as World War II began. A few blocks away, she pointed out one of the “hidden synagogues” on the second floor of a normal-looking apartment building, in continuous use since Napoleon’s time, and where the Lubavitcher Rebbe prayed while he lived in Paris in the late 1930s.
The Marais contains many Holocaust memories as well, as thousands of its inhabitants, including hundreds of children, were arrested and deported as the Holocaust wore on.
Goldenberg also pointed out the location of her family’s restaurant, which was attacked by Arab terrorists in 1982, killing six and wounding almost two dozen more. You can still see a bullet hole in one of the windows above the former site of the restaurant.
As is often the case, reports of anti-Jewish violence in the streets of Paris, especially in the Marais, are greatly exaggerated. As we toured the district, we saw plenty of men wearing kippot or hats indicating their religious identities.
“Despite what you read in the news,” Goldenberg says, “here, life is normal for Jews. The world as a whole is more violent, but Jews do not have any more problems than usual.”
Goldenberg refers to the Marais of her childhood as the center of much more Jewish life than today. As the neighborhood gentrified, commercial and apartment rents skyrocketed, pushing out most of the little Jewish shops and causing most Jewish residents to decamp to the suburbs.
Despite that, Goldenberg points out that there are still plenty of synagogues and fantastic kosher options in the neighborhood, ranging from a “macaron” store to bakeries, a pizza place, and falafel and shwarma hangouts.
You can always come to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa, but if you’re Jewish, the smart play is to reach out to Flora Goldenberg and discover the hidden Jewish Paris that the average tourist would never see.
The writer is a New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank contestant. He runs the Michael Levin Writing Company, a company that creates ghostwritten business books and memoirs. [email protected]