On the Trail of Jewish History in France
We had to make a last-minute decision to hold yesterday’s “Après-Midi” on Zoom instead of live. Our presenter, Toni Kamins, had been sick and tested Covid-19 positive, so she couldn’t be there in person, anyway. Then, people I was working with in Nice last week got sick and tested positive, making it unclear that I would be able to attend. So, it looked like the risk was too great to hold our monthly event in person at the Café de la Mairie, like we normally do. There is nothing normal these days.
For about 5€ I purchased a home antigen test at a local pharmacy and fortunately had a negative reading. The tests aren’t all that accurate with Omicron, but I have nothing else to go by, other than I feel perfectly fine and intend to stay that way. I believe that my “constitution” is too tough and no Omicron is going to get me, regardless of exposure, although I’d still rather be safe than sorry. The main reason for changing yesterday’s Après-Midi was more about the exposure it would cause to everyone attending and we were simply not willing to take that risk.
People who know me know that “fear” is not part of my vocabulary. I fear nothing, as it’s of no value to live in fear of any kind. Everything I do is based on a risk assessment and that’s how the best decisions are made. That’s one way to take the fear out of any situation. First ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen” and then determine the odds of that happening. Yes, it’s a gambler’s way of playing one’s cards, but if you do play based on the odds, you’re likely to win more often than lose.
Learning how to manage fear came from the teachings of Eckhart Tolle. Even though I’ve been to two of his lectures, I have tickets to attend another in Los Angeles on January 23rd. Why this event is not listed on his official website, I don’t understand, but I will tell you that there are very few tickets left to be had—he always fills every seat, and rightfully so. Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now,” is recommended reading to all of my clients! It changed and empowered my life and I believe it can change and empower theirs, too.
But I digress. Toni was game for making the change, first, from speaking live at the Café de la Mairie to making the presentation on Zoom to the rest of us at the café, to going the Zoom route entirely and changing the time to 6 p.m. so that west coast people could easily tune in. I posted a sign at the café to warn those who came because they hadn’t seen our announcement, hoping not too many people will have made that mistake. A few did, but understood.
At 6 p.m. we welcomed more than 50 people to our Zoom session to discuss On the Trail of Jewish History in France. Toni Kamins is a veteran journalist who has covered dozens of different subjects for magazines and newspapers. Born and raised in New York City, she went to graduate school in Paris back in the 1970s. After visiting France for long and short periods for decades, she is finally happy to call Paris home, having moved here during Covid-19 confinement—not an easy transition.
Toni has always had a passion for history in general and Jewish history in particular. She has published numerous articles on many of its aspects. In the late 1990’s she decided to combine this with her love of travel, and in 2001, her Complete Jewish Guide to France and Complete Jewish Guide to Britain and Ireland were published by St. Martin’s Press. Today she has moved on to writing about other subjects—US health-care policy and senior citizen issues–among others, but Jewish history and its visible legacy in Europe are still very close to her heart and she continues to write about both.
Toni first took us all the way back to when Jews were first thought to be living in France—in Paris, Provence, Occitanie and Alsace Loraine. The Jews were treated differently depending on who was in power at the time, but Napoleon liberated the Jews as part of the French Revolution by overriding old laws restricting Jews to reside in ghettos, as well as lifting laws that limited Jews’ rights to property, worship, and certain occupations. Her account of the history was fascinating, emphasizing that France has the third largest Jewish community after Israel and the United States.
At the rue Juiverie in Pézenas in the Southwest of France, there is sign written in several languages that says, “The Ghetto: it is difficult to say precisely when the Jewish community settled in Pézenas. They are first mentioned in archives dated 1298. They are said to have agreed to pay 25 sols annually for tal lage (taxes) and another 25 sols to have their own butcher. The community probably disappeared in 1394 when Jews were definitively expelled from France. The Knight Poncet, first historian of Pézenas, saw the old ‘mikveh’ (Jewish ritual bath) in the tower of ‘Sire Messe’ (at the end of the cul de sac) in the 18th-century.
We knew to expect the question of antisemitism in France, to which Toni was able to comment: the answer is yes, there is antisemitism in France, as there is everywhere in the world. And there is the question of anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. Most of the participants were able to talk about their own personal experiences in France, which did not include any antisemitic experiences, but one woman was so offended by antisemitic jokes told by her French friends that she held yet another point of view, and a very strong one. No one could blame her for being negatively affected by that experience, but we couldn’t relate to it.
For me, I have never had an antisemitic experience in France and am always surprised how many Jews fill service roles that would be beneath their stature in the U.S.—my plumber, my locksmith and shoe repair guy, my optician, etc., are all Jewish and do the best jobs of anyone. It’s also true that the percentage of Jewish expats in France is far greater than their numbers in the U.S. and that I believe I know more Jews here than I ever knew in the U.S. including Los Angeles. Another observance of mine is how the French Jews have not changed their names to be more “French,” like American Jews have anglicized their names to be more easily accepted into society and business.
“Leeds,” for example (my ex-husband’s name), was at one time Liebstein. His father changed it for this reason, to fit in. I once discovered that there are 4,307 people in the U.S. with the last name Leeds and it’s statistically the 8214th most popular last name. I can tell you that every “Leeds” was a Liebstein, Lieberman, Liebowitz, etc. who anglicized it at some point! The French Jews didn’t have the same need to disguise their Jewishness and left their names as they were.
I digress again. The point is that the dialog from Toni and the discussion that ensued was particularly interesting and enlightening. And the good news is that we recorded the session, so if you want to enjoy it, you can, right from your own home or wherever you are. Simply click here to see and hear the entire two hour Après-Midi. And for next month, stay tuned as we hope to return to the Café for our usual live presentation!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®