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