Experience Jewish History and Culture in Paris' Marais District

Experience Jewish History and Culture in Paris' Marais District

There’s absolutely no denying it—Paris is full of history. From its first settlers between 9800 BC and 7500 BC, to the Roman occupation between 52 BC and 508, to its role as a commercial and religious center in the Middle Ages, to storming of the Bastille in 1789, to the bombings endured during the two World Wars, the city has experienced some massive events in its time. These events are well-known to the general public, but there’s another side of the story that’s often ignored by history books—Paris’ Jewish history. The city’s Marais neighborhood, which straddles the 3rd and 4th districts, has long been associated with Jewish people. Although this area is rapidly gentrifying, it still offers many opportunities to learn about Jewish history and culture in Paris.

Plunge into history

Former Goldenberg restaurant

Historical accounts note that Jews have lived in Paris since Roman occupation of the city. Larger numbers arrived in the 10th and 12th centuries. Although they were charged higher taxes and repeatedly evicted from the city, they persisted and eventually founded an area called Pletzl (Yiddish word meaning little place) in the city’s 4th district. This area is now part of the Marais. Before WWII, Pletzl was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, but 75% of the population was killed in Nazi concentration camps. The population has also endured a bombing of their synagogue in 1941 and an anti-semitic shooting in a restaurant in 1982 that left six dead and 22 wounded.

Throughout the Marais, especially in the 4th district near Rue Pavée (Paved Road) and Rue des Rosiers (Rosebush Road), you will see plaques on buildings that commemorate those who were killed because of their Jewish faith. One of the most striking memorials is the Goldenberg restaurant where the 1982 terrorist attack happened. Although the restaurant is no longer in operation, having been replaced by a clothing store, the awnings have been conserved so as to pay homage to the dead.

Tour the Shoah Memorial

Exterior of the Shoah Memorial

This incredibly-detailed, free museum is a necessary stop to understand Jewish history not just in Paris, but throughout France. Particularly striking features include Le Mur des Noms (The Wall of Names), where the names of 76,000 French Jews deported to Nazi camps are inscribed. The goal of this exhibit is to preserve their memory in a permanent fashion. There is also a documentation center, which serves to organize and categorize historical documents associated with the Holocaust. Exhibition rooms rich in photographs, historical objects, and multimedia serve to describe the history of French Jews during the Holocaust. Finally, there is a crypt in the form of a Star of David, which serves as a collective grave for all the Jews who died in concentration camps.

Experience Jewish culture through the various shops

Temple bookstore

Although climbing rent prices have forced most small, Jewish-owned businesses out of the neighborhood, there are still some quality businesses. There is the Librarie du Temple (Temple Bookstore) selling books, music, and homegoods by Jewish creators and Diasporama, a store selling artwork and gifts. Even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll learn about many important aspects of Jewish culture including traditions and holidays.

Eat some of the best food in Paris

Florence Kahn bakery

That’s right, some of Paris’ best food comes from the various Kosher butchers, bakeries, and delis in the Marais district. You might be overwhelmed by the number of options, but fear not, whatever you choose will be delicious. If you’re looking for a snack, head to Florence Kahn bakery and pastry shop for a bagel or a strudel. For lunch, choose either the Yiddish deli Sacha Finkelsztajn (sandwiches loaded with hummus, cheese, and fish) or brave the line at L’As du Fallafel. At dinner, no place is better than Chez Hanna, where you can mix and match various Jewish dishes such as latkes, stuffed grape leaves, and pita bread to make a personalized plate.

A new view on the city

The next time you’re in Paris, why not skip the traditional sites and view a side of the city you haven’t seen before? A visit to the Jewish quarter in the Marais is a great way to explore Paris through a new lens. The easiest way to reach this neighborhood is by taking subway line 1 and getting off at stop Saint Paul. Keep in mind that almost all stores and restaurants are closed on Saturday for Shabbat.

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Audrey is a 25-year-old American living in South Korea and teaching English. She lived in Paris for two years as a French language student and au pair. During that time she also mastered the art...Read more

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