Commentary Magazine

Du Ghetto a L'Occident [

France's Lower East Side

Du Ghetto A L'occident [“From the Ghetto to the West”].
by Charlotte Roland.
Editions de Minuit (Paris). 292 pp. $6.00 approximately.

There are now some 225 sociological studies of American Jewry, and they form only one part of an increasingly vast literature that deals with American immigrant groups. In France, on the other hand, where little work of this kind has been published, Mme. Roland's portrait of a French Jewish community breaks a great deal of new ground and is to be valued on that score alone.

In his preface, Professor Louis Chevalier suggests that the reason why French writers have paid slight attention to the group life of minorities stems from the common assumption that the different streams of folk culture, whether immigrant or regional, have had little marked impact on the national culture, whose matrix is Paris, or contributed anything of value to it. Yet for centuries, Paris had drawn its citizens from all parts of France as well as from abroad. During the period between the two World Wars, for example, the French government, alarmed by the threat of a declining population, encouraged workers from Poland to settle in France. More recently, the lowering of barriers by the European Economic Community has prompted the entry of workers from most of the member states. Moreover, North Africa has been sending large contingents of immigrants, Moslem as well as Jewish and Christian. As in the past, however, Paris seems to have borne with these new immigrants coldly; they are tolerated rather than welcomed or assisted. Far from understanding the difficulties that these newcomers must face, the natives remain comfortably complacent in their assumption that it is the immigrants' destiny as well as privilege to find their way into France's thousand-year-old civilization. Now that Paris shelters a large self-contained group of North African Moslems, however, its citizens may become more conscious of the process of assimilation and the problems it creates.

Mme. Roland presents a careful and detailed study of only one corner of this larger canvas. She examines the group structure and life of the Yiddish-speaking community living in Belleville, a depressing working-class quarter of Paris, not far from the Père Lachaise cemetery. Of the 91,000 East-European Jews who were estimated to have settled in Paris between 1880 and 1939, Mme. Roland believes that a large proportion started out in Belleville, whose population today is less than 10,000. Quite apart from other evidence of social mobility among French Jews, these figures show how small a proportion of the East-European Jews have remained in their original place of settlement. They also caution us against regarding the occupations, family life, social status, or attitudes toward Judaism of the Belleville group as representative of the East-European Jews who have become part of France. This small community, still largely tied together by its secular Yiddish culture, tells the whole story no more than does the community that still manages to survive on the Lower East Side of New York. It represents the immigrant element that has least become part of French culture. What the other immigrants and their children have achieved in art and letters, as well as in business and the professions, is necessarily left out of Mme. Roland's study.


One striking fact which emerges from the study is the high proportion of craftsmen and small tradesmen among the Jews in Belleville. Sixty-seven per cent of the gainfully employed males belong to this class (20 per cent are salaried employees, and 12 per cent belong to the élites économiques et intellectuelles). Within the first group, more than 70 per cent are involved in either the clothing or leather trades. All of which is typical of the traditional Jewish preference for independent labor and of the tendency to congregate within a few specialized trades. It also shows that, until recently, the French economy provided a place for the individual, assisted perhaps by members of his family, who made and sold shoes or clothing in a small workshop. However, Mme. Roland finds that the artisan class was declining in 1956-7, when she made her study, and since then, modernization of the French economy accompanied by the competition from the more advanced methods of production and distribution practiced by other members of the Common Market will undoubtedly have accelerated the attrition of Belleville's economic life.

Along with this increasing marginality of its means of livelihood, the Belleville community remains isolated from the established French Jewish community as well as from the surrounding population. Rabbi Schwarzfuchs, in his Brève Histoire des Juifs de France, has described the relations between the native and immigrant Jews as follows: “The two groups were . . . mutually unknown to each other. If it is exaggerated in the connection to speak of a class war, it remains true nonetheless, that the search for a basis of understanding became very difficult. In fact the Jewish community of France split into two unequal parts. The two groups lived side by side without meeting. Even marriages between Jews of different origins were rare. The Zionist question separated even further the two segments of the community.” Mme. Roland's far more detailed study confirms the persistence of this split.

At the turn of the century, a somewhat similar separation occurred in American Jewish life, between the established German Jews and the East-European immigrants. But in contrast to the situation in France, this separation has virtually disappeared. The greater cultural coherence of American Jewry is doubtless related to the greater mobility found in American society through which the second and third generations of “Ostjuden” have achieved a position of social and economic equality with the German Jews. However, this equality and coherence is also partly to be explained by the historical fact that the Jews of America provided various kinds of assistance to the immigrants, and in time charity became the link joining such groups as the Orthodox and Reform, the Zionist and non-Zionist, as well as the German and East-European. In marked contrast, any strong impulse of charity appears to be quite absent from French Jewish life. The traditional divisions among the Jews of France have recently been complicated by the arrival of large numbers from North Africa, but whether this influx will create a felt need to provide assistance and foster solidarity remains to be seen.

Another contrast with conditions prevailing among American Jews is the tenuousness of religious affiliation among the Jews of Belleville; Mme. Roland finds there none of the revival of Judaism which, however superficial and temporary it may prove to be, has still played a leading role in recent American Jewish life. Far from living in a community that bears at least the trappings of religious commitment and concern, the prevailing tone in Belleville is skeptical.

Finally, Mme. Roland finds evidence that almost all of the younger generation is abandoning Belleville. Not only is the economic basis of the community slipping away, but the secular Yiddish culture which the older generation cherishes is crumbling and has little attraction to the young. If the present tide of change continues, this islet of Yiddish-speaking craftsmen in Belleville will inevitably be overrun. One is doubly grateful to Mme. Roland, therefore, for having studied it with such painstaking care.

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