Commentary Magazine


French Jewry in a Time of Decision:
Vestigial Remnant or Living Continuity?

Though the Jews of France now form the largest Jewish community in continental Western Europe, it is doubtful whether we are at present any better informed about their collective life than about that of the Jews of Iran or Iraq. Yet, the fate of Jews in the contemporary world is being decided in French Jewry too, and its decisions, if largely unconscious, are nonetheless important. The lifelong intimacy with things Jewish of Arnold Mandel, French Jewish poet, novelist, essayist, and reporter, equips him eminently for the task of describing the situation. 

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Every Friday afternoon at coffee time, between the afternoon news bulletins and the stock market quotations, listeners to the French radio’s Chaine Nationale can hear the sermon of a rabbi, perhaps even a Grand Rabbi, followed by synagogue chants sung by a mixed choir. This is the weekly broadcast of the “Voice of Israel” and it marks, along with certain other periodic manifestations, the tenuous presence in French life of an element called “Judaism.” Continuity or vestigial survival? It is hard to say. You have a sense of one of those traditional French institutions that live on their past, about which people say, “It doesn’t work, but it lasts.”

The many synagogues of Paris, like the rarer ones of the larger cities in the provinces, have no architectural distinction whatsoever. (Those that have some quality, like the Renaissance-style synagogues in Cavaillon and Avignon, in the old “Papal States,” are among France’s “national monuments”—but unused for some twenty years now.) For the most part they even lack the imposing, monumental ugliness that often distinguishes French banks, courthouses, administrative buildings, etc. Built mostly in the second half of the 19th century, their lack of style is due to an uneasy compromise between utilitarianism and solemnity. Sometimes vague Moorish or Spanish ornamental motifs hint that the architect had heard of the Alhambra but hadn’t thought much of it. Inside, the sprinkling of faithful at Friday evening and Saturday services are watched over by ushers wearing the Napoleonic cocked hats that are the hallmark of the French synagogue.

A Consistoire Central, or Main Consistory, was originally established by Napoleon to regulate synagogal affairs and to make sure that official Judaism adhered to the patriotic duties it had assumed at the so-called Great Sanhedrin, also Napoleon’s creation. The Consistoire Central supervises and coordinates the work of departmental consistories, mostly having to do with the maintenance of synagogues, and appoints rabbis. When church and state were separated in France early in this century, the law provided for the continued existence of the Consistoire Central as the governing body of a Union des Associations Cultuelles Israelites. From the first, the Consistoire Central has been dominated by laymen, and the latter represent chiefly the most influential elements of the Jewish population, the Ashkenazim of Alsatian origin, who have been long established in France. The Consistoire has made little effort to attract the more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe or their children. The religious life of this immigrant element—its synagogues, its rabbis, its education—largely ignores the Consistoire, which returns the compliment.

The atmosphere and ceremonies of the Ashkenazic community’s synagogues under the Consistoire are like much of the typical Reform German synagogue of pre-Hitler days; if there is less stiffness, there is also less fervor. Though, officially, the majority of the French Jewish community calls itself “Conservative” (there is a minority Liberal community in Paris with a separate synagogue, but Reform Judaism as such does not exist in France), its doctrinal position is closer to the Reform synagogues of the Jewries of the German-speaking countries, and the organ is permitted in its synagogues.

It should be noted in this connection that the influx of German Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1938 had no perceptible effect on the synagogue, the Jewish community proper, or French Jewish life in general. Most of these refugees were transients either in fact or in spirit, and in their great mass de-Judaized—products of the German political parties of the left rather than of any Jewish religious or secular tendency. After liberation, the few groups of German Jews that had escaped destruction left France for America or Israel, or to return to Germany.

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Nor does the Jewish community of France have any extensive network of schools at its disposal. In the public schools, which the immense majority of Jewish children—even in Orthodox families—attend, they receive no religious instruction whatsoever, except in reconquered Alsace and Lorraine; there the French law separating church from state does not hold.

In the synagogues themselves elementary courses in Hebrew and Biblical history are given on Thursdays and Sundays, when the public schools are closed. As a general rule, the rabbis do the teaching, which is designed to prepare boys for their Bar Mitzvah and give a more or less equivalent amount of learning to the girls. When these courses are finished the pupils are presented, after an examination, with a “certificate of religious initiation” by the Consistoire. In Paris and its suburbs the total number of students attending synagogue school twice a week is not much more than a thousand—out of a Jewish population estimated at 125,000. In the provinces this proportion is even lower, except for Alsace, where Jewish religious fervor was always intenser than elsewhere in France.

Paris has one Jewish primary school and two secondary ones; Strasbourg has one Jewish secondary school. The four schools together have several hundred students. These are public institutions of the Jewish community, but they are not free, and the parents pay tuition fees that vary according to their means. These four schools operate officially under the regulations of what is called “free instruction”—that is, they are certified and inspected by the state but not supported by it. Aside from the standard French curriculum in its variations, an important place in these Jewish schools is given to the study of the Bible, modern Hebrew, Jewish history, and—in the higher classes—the Talmud. Most of the students come from Orthodox Jewish families that have emigrated from Eastern Europe or North Africa, and some of them are studying for the rabbinate.

The Rabbinical School of France, founded toward the middle of the last century, and a number of technical schools and vocational courses run by the ORT, complete the Jewish educational system in France.

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There is no central agency of any kind for Jewish cultural activity in France. Sporadic manifestations of such activity are usually Zionist in origin, have a propagandist purpose, and are invariably directed at the same initiated audience. The Federation of Jewish Organizations of France, which comprises several dozen organizations of immigrant Jews, has created the beginnings of a popular Jewish “university” in Paris, where lectures, most often on Yiddish literature, are held before Yiddishist audiences. The Alliance Israélite Universelle maintains a fairly well-stocked Jewish public library, which was looted during the war but has now been rebuilt in large part. Its public reading room, on the threshold of noisy Montmartre with its dance halls and night clubs, furnishes a working place for the few scholars of Judaism that are to be found in Paris. The Society of Hebrew Medicine gives an occasional scientific lecture—on a very high level. A debating club, the Cercle du Marais, located in the heart of Paris’ Jewish quarter, and run by a militant Orthodox rabbi, adds a picturesque touch to the capital’s Jewish life thanks to its “public trials,” which remind one of the soap-box orators in Hyde Park.

Two Yiddish dailies are published in Paris, one of them Zionist, the other Communist, with a combined circulation of about 15,000. Neither has a high intellectual level. Jewish periodicals in the French language have to cope with serious financial difficulties because they lack organic roots in French Jewish life—in other words, a “natural” audience. Since liberation, a number of French-language Jewish periodicals have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. On the scene at present is Evidences, published by the Paris office of the American Jewish Committee, and a Zionist bi-monthly, La Terre Retrouvée, whose literary page has earned it repute. Evidences has a real influence in certain intellectual circles among French-born Jews, and finds most of its contributors in the same quarter; it is also read by non-Jewish intellectuals. La Terre Retrouvée, on the other hand, is read largely by immigrant Jews who talk and read French but whose interests are more parochially Jewish. The Consistoire puts out a little semi-monthly magazine, Le Journal de la Communauté, chiefly filled with notices of the religious holidays, Bar Mitzvahs, marriages, births, and deaths; a similar gazette is published in Strasbourg. In addition to all these, a Yiddish literary monthly of fairly high quality, Kiyoum, is published in Paris by the Federation of Jewish Organizations.

No single publishing house in France specializes in Jewish titles, and several attempts to create such an enterprise have failed. What is called “Jewish literature in the French tongue” does indeed exist, but it is an area difficult to delimit. Although not recognized as such by the “Republic of Letters,” there is a “Jewish group” of French writers who draw their inspiration from Jewish life, or at least the Jewish “problem.” This “group” spans three generations. Eminent in the oldest generation are the “Patriarchs”: Edmond Fleg, poet and novelist (who has just brought out a new, enlarged edition of his famous Anthologie Juive); André Spire, Zionist poet; and Henri Hertz, poet and critic. The literary beginnings of all three date back before 1914, and they are all natives of France or of a French-speaking country (Fleg was born in Geneva, Switzerland). In the second generation are Armand Lunel, novelist from Provence; Elian J. Finbert, who was born in Palestine but writes in French; and Albert Cohen, novelist and poet, who has been called the “French and Sephardic Sholem Aleichem.” The newcomers, since the liberation, are David Scheinert, novelist (who has appeared in COMMENTARY); Emmanuel Eydoux, a deeply religious poet drawing inspiration from the Bible; Rabi, a literary critic; and, finally, the author of these lines, who is a novelist.

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The philanthropic activity of French Jewry was considerable in the days of Baron Hirsch and the first French Rothschilds, but it has dwindled since then. There are hardly any more great Jewish fortunes in France, and French middle classes, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, do not as a rule practice philanthropy; it brings them little reward in terms of publicity, and they are not allowed to write their contributions off against taxes. The few important Jewish donors of money did what they thought was their utmost, especially for Israel, between 1948 and 1950. Now Jewish charities in France are undergoing a real crisis.

The HICEM and HIAS continue to help Jews to emigrate overseas, but with reduced funds. Aid to Israel collects money regularly for the State of Israel. And the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, which was founded several years ago on the model of the United Jewish Appeal, organizes the collection of money for Jewish social work in France: that is, children’s homes, summer camps, scholarships, home relief, etc. Local charity committees for emergency cases function in every organized Jewish community in the country; and almost every Jewish organization except the synagogue has its own social services.1

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The rabbinate in France is a strongly centralized organization, and each French rabbi is an official in it. Several attempts to “hierarchize” the rabbinical function by adopting vestments more or less sacerdotal in appearance and unctuous in effect, in imitation of the Catholic clergy, have fallen through (being too much for the critical Jewish temper and its hostility to any sacerdotalization of communal functions).

The French rabbi’s standard of living is rarely as high as that of any of the small tradesmen among his congregants. At the same time he would have to lack all sense of reality to take literally his calling of “spiritual guide,” for outside the domain of ritual and ceremony his influence is extremely limited. True, a group of young rabbis who had studied at the Rabbinical School in Paris tried in the first flush of the liberation to start a religious renaissance. Though for the most part more rigorous and more rigoristic than their elders, they were very open to new social conceptions, and flirted with a vaguely defined “Jewish socialism” that was obviously suggested by the “Christian socialism” of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP). Some of these rabbis were finally absorbed by the Poale Mizrahi, and lost themselves in Zionism. If a few of them still use a little “rouge” in their sermons, there is no longer any question, as there was a few years ago, of “working class rabbis.”

For the rest, the French rabbis do not seem to have any light of their own to shed on the questions that now preoccupy the ministers of the other faiths. War and peace, the future of Germany and the attitude of Jews toward that country, sex education, conscientious objection, the agonizing problem of ends and means—all these, for the rabbis of France, are things now outside the realm of their strictly limited and, so to speak, “technical” competence. When the Jewish state was fighting for its life in Palestine there took place a kind of “conversion” of the synagogue to Zionism or para-Zionism. The feeling of pride that then filled most of the Jews of France—even, and perhaps especially, those furthest from Judaism—was voiced, echoed, and reverberated under the arches of the houses of prayer. For once the French rabbis really dealt with the world scene because they extolled or exalted an event taking place on the larger stage and watched by numberless spectators. In those stormy summer days of 1948, the violent springtide of the new Israel, the services in the synagogues of Paris and the provinces saw a great many new “worshipers”; Jews who had lost all contact with the Jewish community for years were suddenly remagnetized by the thrilling event.

But all that is over now, and belongs to history. The present difficulties of Israel, the end of the “heroic” phase there, and a sort of consolidation of the fact of Israel—all these have reestablished the traditional attitude born of Jewish emancipation in France, an attitude to which many Jews returned with a real sense of relief: “We backed Israel in her struggle; our prayers continue to accompany the builders and defenders of the Holy Land; but we are still French, and we must not lose ourselves in the affairs of this young state with so many troubles.”

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Such in effect is the life lived inside the area—that tiny “God’s acre”—occupied by the autochthonous French synagogue. The other area, that of the immigrant Jew, is superficially much larger and more agitated, if not really more alive. Walls separate the two, with only here and there a rare breach.

The center of gravity of France’s Yiddish—speaking Jews lies in the neighborhood of the famous Rue des Rosiers, “the ghetto of Paris.” It would be pleasant to talk about a symbiosis taking place between the wandering Jew and his new French homeland, with the interpenetration of picturesque and variegated folk elements. But actually no such process is visible here, and if it is to develop it will be only after several generations—then, perhaps, one could imagine the coming into existence of that “Franco-Jewish double nature” of which the literary historian Thibaudet speaks apropos Proust and his genius.

Instead, what we have now is a foreignness that stubbornly persists despite all the suggestions and invitations of the surrounding world. Spontaneously ethnic Judaism—the natural kind that does not go in search of its own essence, but expresses itself both in full consciousness and full unconsciousness—is living out its last days here, as in other similar places. It may be that these “days” will be decades. But until then the “Jewish folk” of the modern Diaspora are to be seen in this neighborhood much as they were yesterday, and the day before yesterday, in Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, and the Ukraine.

Native French Jewry offers little social variety; taken as a whole, it is a part of the French middle classes, the upper bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie; there is really no Jewish “folk” in France. In immigrant Jewry, on the other hand, the “folk” element is dominant, and it is because of the vitality of this folk element in the immigrant Jew—even when he has grown rich—that the Jewish consciousness persists in a passive, profound way. It is exactly the other way round with the native French Jews, who are much less “de-Judaized” at their top than at their middle or lower social levels, because their Judaism is a patriarchal and aristocratic tradition, an integral part of their patrimony which is also part of their family prestige.

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Until the very eve of the Nazi persecutions of World War II, the native French Jews and the immigrant Jews had virtually nothing to do with each other. Consistorial Judaism, the official and “constituted body” of French Jewry, absorbed a small number of immigrants, but these thereupon immediately stopped regarding themselves, and being regarded by others, as East European Jews. The mass of the Polish Jews in Paris and the big provincial cities, when they gave social, cultural, or religious expression to their Judaism, did so in a particularistic spirit that sprang from their attachment to the “old country” in the Slavic East. At Paris, the Federation of Jewish Societies of France, founded just after the First World War, gave organizational expression to this feeling by uniting in one body the different Jewish immigrant associations, as well as all the landsmanshaften.

Between the two world wars, several unsuccessful attempts were made to get the Federation and Consistoire to work together. During the Second World War, the distress in occupied France, and the semi-clandestine circumstances in which the Jewish organizations had to work in southern France under Vichy, brought about a rapprochement out of sheer necessity. To be sure, the Jewish resistance in France was composed in large part of immigrant Zionist or pro-Zionist Jews. But it also had the assistance of all the French Jewish organizations that were able to keep alive, including the official Consistoire. The various activities (fabrication of false identity papers, smuggling of Jews into Switzerland and Spain, rescuing of children, etc.) were generally organized and executed cooperatively by all Jewish groups, native as well as immigrant. The leading element in this rescue work was the Eclaireurs Israelites, the Jewish branch of the French Scout movement which had been established after the First World War. After the liberation, efforts were made to keep alive the unity which had existed during the years of peril. The CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Israelites de France) was established as the representative organization for all of French Jewry, native and immigrant. But unfortunately, the admission of elements representing pro-Communist organizations into the CRIF led to confusion and disorder, and today the CRIF exists in name only.

At present, things are slipping back to the way they were before the war. The two French Jewries are again divided and apart, with the additional circumstance that the immigrant sector has lost much of its vitality as compared with pre-war times. It is significant in this connection that during the recent Finaly affair the initiative in all the protests, negotiations, and moves made to return the two kidnaped children to their family was taken almost entirely by people from the Consistorial circles.

A “Kehillah of Jews of the East” was recently established in Paris. Its promotor, Israel Jefroykin, a leading figure among immigrant French Jews, who died last winter, thought it impossible to look forward to an organizational union, much less a true commingling, of the two divisions of French Jewry. To guard against the “assimilation” of the immigrant Jews of France—and especially of their children—he advocated the reestablishment of the traditional Kehillah, by adherence to which the Jewish conscience would signify its allegiance and attachment to Judaism above and beyond any particular definition of it. The Parisian Kehillah of the Jews of the East already numbers several thousand members and has proposed, among other things, to set up several Jewish schools and also a Jewish center of demographic research and statistics. It is possible that this new effort will help to stir the immigrant Jews of France from the apathy into which they have sunk in the past several years. Such an attempt would, however, only confirm the present split in French Jewry.

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The Zionism that was a bridge between the Jews of East and West yesterday can no longer unify French Jewry, as it did before the birth of the State of Israel. It has ceased, in large measure, to be a movement of popular hopes and feelings, and has become a “power”—even outside Israel—a source of authority. The various Zionist groupings in France are now entirely concentrated on getting help for Israel. Zionism no longer exerts any direct influence on this country’s Jewish consciousness because it no longer functions outside the context of politics and government, and does not even pretend to contribute to Jewish life in France itself.

Thus Zionism, statified and “de-ideologized,” having stopped fighting the “assimilators” (on condition that they give help to Israel) and with no real adversaries left—though without having gained any large number of real adherents—has removed itself from the Jewish communal scene, leaving a great void, and accentuating the tendencies toward isolation on the part of immigrant Jewry. In 1898 a Russian Jewish workman from Paris’ Hôtel de Ville quarter who went to Zionist meetings could see the French writer Bernard Lazare there, or the French poet André Spire. Such men, distant from him and his way of life, were nevertheless his brothers. The poor artisan without much knowledge of French could not, certainly, hope one day to become like them, but it was perfectly permissible for him to think his young son could.

In the optimistic and “progressive evolutionist” days at the turn of the century, a benevolent professor of the Sorbonne, taking a walk in the noisy Rue des Rosiers with its signs in Hebrew letters and its picturesque people talking in the “jargon” (i.e., Yiddish), would have seen in all this the simple effect of a relatively short delay in the march of progress. This, he would have said, contemplating a bearded Jew in a black derby, is what the grandfather of my honorable colleague Levy, who teaches phonetics, must have looked like; and doubtless the grandson of this good man will look like Lévy too.

Today, the “stopover” made in the native French Jewish community by second-generation Jews before entering non-Jewish French society has been eliminated. The established Jewish community of France no longer offers a required school or antechamber for the immigrant. It has lost some of its social prestige and thus its attractiveness. It no longer includes, as in the 19th century, people like the great teacher Arsène Darmsteter, or the scientific dynasty of the Reinachs, or political men of the stature of Benjamin Crémieux. Its intrinsically Jewish spiritual content is a feeble and formal traditionalism that has ceased really to be practiced while remaining inalterable in principle. The younger generation of Jewish immigrants bypasses this Jewish community and makes its entry into French society direct.

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During these last years conversions and changes of name have become more and more frequent throughout French Jewry. This is something quite new in its history. What distinguished it until quite recently was a natural and spontaneous kind of assimilation, almost never the result of deliberate resolution. “The polemical shafts of the Zionists and other Jewish nationalists against the French Jewish assimilators miss their mark,” the philosopher Brunschvicg said to me one day. “My father was a rabbi and I am an assimilated professor, but I am not an assimilator at all; I never made the decision to be a Frenchman—I became one all alone, and quite naturally.”

In Germany and in the more or less Germanized countries of Central Europe, assimilation was a clearly and consciously formulated position whose goal was the transformation of the Jewish condition by means of a complete adaptation to the environment. A man like Jakob Wassermann, writing My Road as German and as Jew, tried to justify his attitude and at the same time preach by his own example. There was nothing like this in France; assimilation there has never—except perhaps in the very first days of Emancipation—been a motto inscribed on a banner. The progressive disappearance of Jewish separateness came about without conscious choice. It is for this reason that conversions were quite rare among the Jews of France, even while they spread elsewhere—in Germany, Hungary, etc.—like an epidemic. Likewise the other moves short of formal apostasy that were intended to camouflage one’s Jewish origin or compensate for it by adding something external and showy—like a change of name, the adoption, more or less legitimate, of a noble title or the aristocratic de—found very little favor in France. Even the rush for university diplomas, so widespread everywhere else, was not particularly marked among French Jews, for none of them thought a Lévy presentable only when he was called “doctor.” (Besides, only M.D.’s are called “doctor” in France; a doctor of philosophy or science is addressed as monsieur like everybody else.)

There was a further consideration. The road French society seemed to have taken at the end of the 19th century was toward a more and more thoroughgoing secularization; and this was the realization of the very ideal of the “progressive” French Jew. In the framework of such a society there was no need to make any concessions whatsoever to Christianity; the ticket of admission to the great world was not, as in Heinrich Heine’s Germany, a certificate of baptism. All that was needed was civic feeling and some recognition of one’s participation in the culture and civilization of modern France, without precise reference to any religious heritage. In some very influential liberal quarters where anti-clericalism was a “republican” dogma (the League for the Rights of Man, the Freemasons, etc.) the Jewish origin of an initiate seemed even to constitute an a priori warrant of loyalty and a certificate of republicanism by virtue of the absence of the “clerical complex” stamped on others by their education. This mental climate had indirectly favored the preservation within the French Jewish community of a certain formal adherence to its own tradition, an adherence no one felt to be in conflict with the ideas otherwise ruling society in general.

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Today the trauma suffered from Hitler has provoked among some Jewish circles in France that negative “Jewish psychosis” that was illustrated years earlier in Austria by the extreme case of an Otto Weininger. It is certainly no accident that the French counterpart of Weininger, Simone Weil, with her blazing self-hatred, appeared on the horizon of French thought shortly before 1945.

In their relative security before Hitler, there was no pressure upon French Jews to reject completely a Judaism which had long ceased to be a discipline and was merely a family tradition. Once the lasting seriousness of the Jewish situation was plain to French Jews, they reacted in two ways. Some had the desire to make their Jewishness authentic, and thus render the Jewish condition once more conceivable, intelligible, and therefore supportable. It was this current of feeling, strong on the surface if lacking depth, that crystallized around Zionism after the liberation. Other Jews were acted upon chiefly by the instinct of self-preservation with its amoral categorical imperative that bade them to escape from the camp of the eternally persecuted, no matter what the cost. For many reasons, chief among them, no doubt, the fact that self-interest or the illusion of selfinterest generally wins out over moral considerations, the latter current prevails today and expresses itself in a wave of Jewish conversions to Catholicism—above all in the little towns and cities of provincial France, where no Jew can hide his Jewishness.

According to interested Catholic quarters, tens of thousands of French Jews, a large proportion of them children and adolescents, have changed their faith since the end of the war. Even if these approximate estimates are exaggerated, the importance of this trend seems undeniable. Conversion is made very easy in France by its apparent meaninglessness. In countries where belonging to a religious community is the rule and not the exception, the conversion of a Jew to Christianity acquires a certain gravity, at least on the formal level. The rupture is public, and administratively consecrated, as is the new adherence. Not so in France. Of the 250,000 Jews who, according to the statistics—themselves open to question—live in this country, only about 7,000 are enrolled in the registers of the only Jewish community officially recognized, that of the Consistoire Central des Isráelites de France. The immense majority do not belong to any form of civilly recognized religious community.

Sometimes parents have their children baptized and not themselves. Taught by the experience of German racial anti-Semitism and the Nuremberg laws, they do not think that their own conversions would be of much help in case of need. But safety can begin with their children, and be guaranteed to their children’s children.

Along with the conversions, another quite massive trend is that toward “dis-identification” by the administrative road. These measures are generally considered legitimate, harmless, and not to imply any desire to repudiate one’s Jewish identity. A French law permits citizens of foreign origin whose names are difficult to pronounce to Gallicize them by legal act. Each week the Official Journal of the French Republic lists authorizations of this kind. Generally, naturalized Jews with Slavic, German, or Oriental names are the beneficiaries of such decrees. But the effect of these changes of name is not as empty of meaning as one would like to think. In France, his name is often the only Jewish thing left to a Jew. Nor, in the course of their transformation, do the names of foreign Jews ever become French Jewish names. No Monsieur Steinberg, for example, ever solicits permission from the Council of State to call himself Lévy—which is as common a name as Durand in the Paris telephone directory, and not really difficult to pronounce. He wants rather to be called “Piermont,” that is to say, acquire an “Aryan” identity. In this respect as in many others one remembers the cynical German proverb: “Wenn schon, dánn schon.” If you’re going to do it, then do it.

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Is French Judaism really in process of liquidation”? It would be an oversimplification of a quite complicated process to describe it as that. Many factors tending to the conservation of Jewishness—if not to the continuity of Judaism—remain. Sometimes they are the same as the factors of dissolution. The feeling of insecurity that leads so many French Jews to abandon Judaism forever acts on others to an opposite effect. To adopt Sartre’s terminology, they have “chosen” themselves as Jews, thus transcending, by accepting and conferring meaning upon it, the condition imposed on them; they make a virtue of necessity, and discover the virtue of that necessity. However rare they are, such acts of conscious choice find an echo. In Parisian intellectual circles the “integral Judaism” of a man like Henri Baruk, famous professor of psychiatry and deviser of the “Tsedek test,” preaches by example; in his scientific work Baruk constantly refers to the données of the Jewish religious ethic. This example, even if not much followed, has definite importance.

Another “positive” element is the decline of “lay” or secular society in France, in the slow but constant disintegration of the whole politico-philosophic complex of assumptions derived from Renan’s The Future of Science. These were an essential part of republican France—the ethos of its administrative classes, its intellectual elite, and its proletarian masses. If there’s not really any question of a religious renaissance in France it still has to be admitted that there is a kind of religious troubling of the air and at the same time a clear dissatisfaction among the young with 19th-century rationalism, which is considered an academic residue of the old days. Even the atheism of contemporary French intellectuals—often excessively aggressive, as in Sartre, for example, and sometimes in Camus—is not a simple negation of religious values like that expressed by traditional anticlericalism. These writers belong in the category of “blasphemers” and “demoniacs” rather than in that of the adepts of Enlightenment. They struggle with God and the idea of God in terms of an anguish and despair of the same quality and essence as that which makes others decide to “return to the Lord”—in the phrase that furnishes the title of a recent book by one of these “returners,” Robert Aron, himself a Jew. Under these circumstances and in this climate a spiritual renaissance of Judaism is not inconceivable. The moment is propitious in many respects.

What is lacking, however, is a source. Most of the Jewish intellectuals of France who strain their wits trying to rediscover Judaism remind you of explorers without maps or compasses. France has not for many centuries—not since Rashi, the Tosafists, and Rabbi Jehiel of Paris—been a center of Jewish culture. The residual Judaism of the Orthodox, the conservers, or the simple traditionalists, is very remote from the world of the intellectuals and, what is more, confined to a ritualism in which real knowledge of the disciplines of Judaism has little place. The rare originals from Eastern Europe who stroll the streets of the Latin Quarter and St. Germain-des-Prés with the impressive Talmudic baggage they acquired before the war in the yeshivas of Lithuania are not much help to native Jewish intellectuals who want to find their way back to the “unknown sanctuary.” Sometimes contemptuous, sometimes the objects of contempt, these Talmudists have been unable to salvage the core of their culture from the destruction of the world that gave it to them. Their vehement dialectics cannot be fitted into that frame of ordered discourse which is the way of communication native to the French mind.

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What has always been wanting to modern French Judaism is the integration of positive Jewish elements with French culture. One can talk of a German Jewish culture that was a reality up to Hitler. It was genuinely Jewish and genuinely German at the same time. It concerned non-Jewish Germany as the German culture of the “Jewish sector,” and it affected Judaism in its entirety as the culture of a particular area of the Jewish community.

There was no Franco-Jewish culture; the question was not even raised. France, the motherland of Jewish emancipation, never “digested” the Jew whole. To accept him, meant for her to make an abstraction of his Jewishness, to deny it or minimize it, in the hope—often realized—that the Jewishness of the Jew would thereby end by dissipating itself. In return, and in perfect agreement, French Judaism never asked of France that it be recognized as such. If one called attention to the merit, on whatever level, of an individual Jew, it was only to signalize the undeniable fact that a Jew could win merit like anyone else; that, neither in this respect nor in any other, was Jewishness of any consequence. (The designation of the Jewish community as a “spiritual family of France” was not the work of a Jew, but of Maurice Barrès of the anti-Jewish League of Patriots, who later, in the First World War’s atmosphere of union sacrée, repented of his anti-Semitism.)2

In spite of the changes brought by the late war, this still remains the spiritual climate. The result is that the données of Judaism, its rhythm, its way of seeing, its point of view, seem to the Frenchman, even to a Jewish Frenchman, completely exotic to begin with, and translatable only with the greatest difficulty into the familiar domain of his own thought. Another obstacle is created—unconsciously and involuntarily—by “political” Judaism, with its clamors and its manifestoes, its emphatic vocabulary and its hammering syllogisms. With its handbills and its newspapers, its meetings, its committees, and its functionaries, the Zionist or pro-Zionist movement is much more conspicuous, much more “important” in the public’s eyes than the synagogue or any other manifestation of Judaism. To the outsider, these organizations represent the real message of the Jewish community, its emblem and its social function. It sometimes happens that the native Jew in quest of new certitudes, the “searcher for God,” directs his steps mistakenly in this direction. If he persists it is only to be disappointed.

“Ethnic,” folk Judaism, with its facile, sentimental euphorias, its bombast, and its “culture” put together out of reminiscences of the Haskalah, is impossible in France, where neither moral nor social conditions could ever afford it an organic basis of existence. “Ethnic” Judaism had already been eliminated as a tendency by the absorption, on the one side, of second-generation Jews in their non-Jewish French environment, and, on the other side, by the statist evolution of Zionism, which has not only withdrawn its support from “folk” Judaism, but has, more generally, stopped fighting assimilation.

Nor has the autochthonous and traditional French Jewish community any apparent future. Its evolution was halted and its thought frozen by the ideas it marshaled to fight through the Dreyfus case. A strange synthesis of the raison d’état of the Napoleonic era and the liberalism of later periods, it seems anachronistic in spirit as in structure.

_____________

 

Unless some vital new development appears, we must look forward, it would seem, to the disappearance of organic Judaism in France, and its survival in the form of an “examination of conscience” by individuals. Let me quote an extract, from my own response to an inquiry conducted by the magazine Evidences, on the future of the Jewish community of France.

“For us, Judaism, to the extent that it continues to involve us, will be henceforth an affaire intime, and, like a secret love affair, we shall have to live it individually, on the margins of society. Our situation will be, with all proper allowances made, like that of those practitioners of Buddhism found in London, Paris, and in the other great cities of Europe. These men make no pretense of constituting, as Buddhists, a ‘spiritual family’ of England or of France. Lost in a human multitude that knows nothing of them, they are the keepers of a wisdom and a knowledge that they have chosen by an act of the mind. They do not ask themselves: In what am I a Buddhist, and up to what point? Do I feel myself to be really a Buddhist? What have I in common with a Polish Buddhist? . . . In any case, for us surviving Jews of Europe, the true Exile begins tomorrow.”

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 The political crisis threatening French North African Jewry and its serious welfare problems may come to have real impact on French Jewry. But to date, for complex reasons that require a separate story, there is little interest evinced here—not to speak of constructive help—except in Jewish education, as compared to the efforts of the Jews of America, Israel, and elsewhere abroad.

2 Contrary to the fears of some, and the hopes of others, Mendès-France’s coming to power has had almost no effect on French anti-Semitism, one way or the other. The single “official” anti-Jewish note, in the midst of his present almost universal popularity, has come from the Communists. Fears as to the future are unhappily not without some basis: in France, anti-Semitism has always depended on events of the moment. But at this moment, the myth of Mendès-France is still operative, both among the masses as well as with an important section of the elite. So long as the new Premier continues to succeed, or appears to succeed, his “Jewishness” is beside the point: the immensely popular feat of ending the conflict in Indo-China was the deed of a “courageous Frenchman”—not of a Jew. But if things should take a sudden turn for the worse, the harmless joke “Mendès-Israel,” a wisecrack that is now only whispered here and there, could take on unpleasant currency, especially now that we have to reckon not only with the “classical” anti-Semites of the right, but with a newer kind of anti-Semite who follows the Communists.

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