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Hiding One’s Jewishness (or Muslimness) in a French World

NOLA in Tel Aviv

Uber black car driverUber Black car driver

All last week in Nice, I was with my old time friend from New Orleans who has lived in Israel now for 29 years. She, like the rest of us growing up together in the Jewish community, was (and still is) a Zionist. She naturally ended up married to an Israeli. Her three children were born in New Orleans, but they are truly Israelis with the entrepreneurial and pioneer spirit. One is a farm animal specialist living on a “mochav” (a type of cooperative agricultural community of individual farms), another is a proprietor of NOLA, a popular American-style café/bakery in Tel Aviv and the youngest is studying law. It’s like the picture-perfect made-for-TV Israeli family that American Jews dream of for their own children.

She never thought for one second about speaking openly and not-so-quietly on the streets and in public about Israel and her life there. A couple of times I found myself cringing a bit, wondering how many anti-semitic ears were listening to what she was saying, while she was uttering words like “Hebrew,” “shekels,” “Yiddish,” “Netanyahu” or just translating words she heard in French to Hebrew words she understood. When we rode in an Uber, which more often than not is chauffeured by a young Muslim, she thought nothing of talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wanted to kick her as a sign to zip it up, but thought better of making an issue of it at all.

Then, I thought about why I was paranoid and what that really meant. In an article in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, about the Paris neighborhood of Belleville, “From Yiddish-speaking butchers to caviar delis,” Dov Alfon writes that “Maybe they [African and Arab immigrants] vanished [from Belleville] because they became Uber drivers. The great majority of employees in that revolutionary transportation service are of Arab origin – drivers who could not pass the licensing exams or meet the minimal requirements for getting a taxi permit in France. ‘If we aren’t allowed to work for Uber, what will we do in this country?’ my driver of the cab asked me. We both know the answer, so we both say nothing.”

It’s true what he says, that since the terrorist attacks, the Arabs are hiding their Arab/Muslimness. They don’t want to be associated by default with the fanatics and radicalized few who are destroying the ‘good life’ for everyone else. This is also true about Uber being one of the few ways a young Arab man (or woman) can earn a living in France thanks to unspoken racism on the part of the French.

This was true of the Jews who found themselves discriminated against in America (and elsewhere) and anglicized their names to disguise their ethnicity. “Leeds,” my ex-husband’s name, was his father’s invention having been born with a recognizably Jewish name sounding somewhat similar. Those who are “M.O.T.” (Members of the Tribe) know that when you see a name such as Leeds, or Loveman, or Greenberg that these are Jewish names in disguise.

Many years ago, a man named Sterling Austin called me for business reasons who commented that he expected to speak to a British man, but was surprised to find an American woman on the other end of the line. “Your name is so British,” he said.

“Yes, well Leeds used to be Leibstein!” I responded, to which he said, “Yes, but Austin used to be Waxman!” We discovered at that moment that we were both products of anti-semitic sentiment and had a good laugh over it.

In France I haven’t found the Jews to hide so much from their religious and cultural backgrounds, although their first names are usually very French while attached to their Jewish last names. France is the third largest Jewish population in the world after the U.S. and Israel with about 500,000 in the community. The history of Jews in France dates back to Roman times. In the Middle Ages, they were expelled by the French kings to Germany, but the French Revolution allowed a come-back. They contributed extensively to French culture.

You may recognize such illustrious Jewish French citizens (from, to name just a few:

  * Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) military officer  
  * Anouk Aimée (1932–) actress
  * Bernard-Henri Lévy (1948–) Algerian-born philosopher
  * Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) Danish West Indies-born painter (half Jewish), widely considered the father of Impressionism
  * Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) Belarusian-born painter
  * Charlotte Gainsbourg (1971–) actress, singer (half Jewish), Daughter of Serge Gainsbourg
  * Christian Boltanski (1944–) photographer, sculptor and installation artist (half Jewish)
  * Claude Cahun (1894–1954) photographer
  * Dominique Strauss-Kahn (1949–) Finance minister, 1997-9, President of the International Monetary Fund 2007-11
  * Jack Lang (1939–) Tunisian-born Minister of Culture (1981–1986, 1988–1993) and Minister of Education (1992–1993, 2000–2002)
  * Jean-François Copé, President of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Group in the French National Assembly
  * Léon Blum (1872–1950) Prime Minister 1936-7, 1938, 1946-7
  * Marcel Proust (1871–1922) writer (half Jewish)
  * Max Jacob (1876–1944) poet
  * Nissim de Camondo (1892–1917) pilot in World War I
  * Roman Polanski (1933–) Film director, screenwriter, actor (three fourth Jewish
  * Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) world-famous stage actress (half Jewish)
  * Serge Gainsbourg (1928–1991) singer-songwriter, actor, film director, writer. Father of Charlotte Gainsbourg
  * Simone Signoret (1921–1985) German-born actress (half Jewish)
  * Simone Veil (1927–) Health minister, 1974-6; legalized abortion, President of the European Parliament 1979-82
  * Willy Ronis (1910–2009) photographer

Jews Leaving France

Mon bon ChienMon bon Chien

Hat Sternstein  and Talya RasnerHat Sternstein and Talya Rasner

According to a recent report on CNN by Oren Liebermann (coincidentally my mother’s maiden name), “Au revoir and shalom: Jews leave France in record numbers,” the number of Jews leaving France has “doubled — and doubled again — in the past five years.” Britain is seeing an exodus, as well, but not near the numbers.

The violence against Jews in France is only a part of the reason. Like my own cringing when my friend was openly speaking about Jewish-related topics to potentially anti-semitic ears, a large majority of Jews in France feel the same way — that they avoid identifying themselves as Jewish “at least some of the time.” When I see Jews wearing their “kippot” (skullcaps), I often think how brave they are. Recently there was a Twitter campaign calling on all of France to wear Kippot!

Personally I contend that the exodus of the Jews from France is largely economic and has more to do with free enterprise than the excuse of anti-semitism. You may remember the story of Hat Sternstein? She was the American-born proprietor of “Mon Bon Chien” here in Paris, a ‘gourmet pet bakery,’ before the French government wouldn’t renew her license and French visa. She subsequently moved to Israel. In 2011 when attending my friend’s son’s wedding on his mochav, I introduced her to the daughter who was at the time opening the American-style café/bakery and looking for a baker.

Hat quickly became more than the baker at “NOLA” — she became part of their family and helped the café/bakery achieve a huge success. She sadly died suddenly just over a year ago — causes still unknown. Last week in Nice with my old friend, we spoke often of Hat and how she blossomed when she left France for Israel…in her professional life. She felt free to do what she did best and realize her true potential. I suspect this is true for many others who have left France, not just the Jews…to places where they can find jobs and do business and prosper easier than in France.

We who live here in France and enjoy the lifestyle in spite of the challenges, watch the U.S. elections with intense interest and wonder what will happen if the ‘wrong’ candidate gets elected. Will we see an exodus of all kinds of Americans to France and other points outside the U.S. as a result — Jews, Arabs, Gays and whomever?

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - with kathy Rasner in Nice

Adrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group

(Adrian with Kathy Rasner in Nice)

Respond to Adrian




P.S. Don’t miss “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Parler Paris Après Midi, next Tuesday, March 8. I
have never spoken at my own event in all the years of its existence! This is your chance to learn how I got here, how I survived and prospered and how what I learned can benefit you! Details at Parler Paris Après Midi


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