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Jews of Europe: Don’t Make Waves

By ReligionJanuary, 2014May 22nd, 20246 min read

There is an old joke about a Jew who died and was condemned to hell, but in an act of mercy was given a choice of three alternatives. Behind the first door, he saw flames shooting forth and thousands of people screaming in pain amidst the fire. He opened the second door and there was a huge crowd slaving away at a large rock-pile, being whipped as they hammered the large boulders. Behind the third door, he saw a large tranquil lake, and immediately chose that option.

In an instant, he found himself with thousands of others, up to his chin in a vile, watery substance. The others were chanting “Don’t make waves, don’t make waves!”

My recent visit to Paris (after a few years) and Istanbul (for the first time) was an eye-opener in terms of how the local Jewish community deals with the changing environment in their home countries.

We stayed in the 4th district in Paris, just a short walk from the ‘pletzel’ – what used to be the very Jewish area of Rue de Rosiers. But the street is a far cry from its heyday, with just a handful of kosher stores, and has been subsumed into the broader Marais district rather than maintaining its distinctive Jewish flavor. There are only a small number of visibly Jewish people – mostly Charedim.

The advice I received from the outset was that I not wear a kippa in public in both Paris and Istanbul, so I walked around everywhere in a baseball cap, eventually buying a decent-looking kasket from a fantastic hat-stand near our hotel.

After a serious bout of shopping in the middle of town, we went for lunch at Izaaki (having done the touristy things on a previous visit, this one was about shopping and eating). My wife wasn’t confident in my navigation ability, nor as to whether the place was of a suitable standard of kashrut, but as we walked in we were reassuringly greeted by the sight of men in kippot at a handful of tables. And as we sat down to lunch, we started to notice the ritual: cap replaced with kippa upon entry into the restaurant, and the reverse before leaving. We discussed this with the couple seated next to us at another restaurant – the outstanding Darjeeling (where we couldn’t get a table until 10.30pm). “We have all become baseball players,” he remarked with a sigh.

For the Jews, France seems headed in just one direction, and it’s not a good one. There are approximately 500,000 Jews in France (nearly 60% of them in Paris), which by any standards is a significant Jewish population, and one with a long and proud history. But do the math: the Muslim population of France is estimated at 10-12 percent – around 7 million out of 65 million, and growing at a much faster rate than the general population. This is already making lives uncomfortable for Jews, and the climate is unlikely to become any friendlier.

While France’s position as a secular, socialist democracy is not in dispute (and indeed will continue to be a source of conflict with the growing Muslim population), Turkey is another story entirely. In between learning how to correctly pronounce Atatürk and Erdoğan, it became clear that the latter is in the process of undoing all the good work of the former.

The 23,000 Jews of Turkey, most of whom live in Istanbul, have already come to grips with living in a Muslim country. The few remaining synagogues are discreetly situated in small side-streets with minimal signage, and heavy security. If you are a stranger, you will not be let in. Period. No matter how visibly Jewish you look (after removing your baseball cap). We were assisted by the generous hospitality of some friends – parents of a family who immigrated to Australia in search of a better life for their children. And so after handing in our passports and going through the metal detector, we were allowed to visit.

Amazingly, the services on a lazy Monday morning were very well attended – easily 60 men, young and old. I was told that it is full for Shabbat services. Each of the seats had a hard-hat underneath – a safety feature adopted following the bombing of a synagogue some years ago. Inside, the men were in talit and tefillin, the Rabbi and Chazan in robes reminiscent of a Greek Orthodox church. But outside, they easily melded into their surroundings. In these parts, the custom is to place the mezuzah on the inside of the door.

We went through the markets visiting all the good places to shop, and in one store we were bargaining with the owner, and I commented to my wife in Hebrew indicating the price I wanted to pay. Our host did all the talking in Turkish, after which the owner remarked to me “shesh me’ot” (six hundred), confirming the price. “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” I thought.

Many of the younger members of the community have moved on – to Israel, the U.S., and in the case of our friends Australia – but a small number remain. They stay for the comforts and traditions of home; most are well-off financially and enjoy a standard of living that would not be accessible to them in other countries. Despite where Turkey is headed politically, they do not feel there is an imperative to leave or impending disaster for the Jews. Instead, they have made adjustments to their lifestyle and are not conspicuous in their Judaism, and that seems to work.

Having grown up in Australia where freedom of religion and freedom of expression are taken for granted, I appreciate what I have even more. Back home, I can choose to make waves or not to make waves. But I have a choice.

Following a visit, David Werdiger reflects on changes in society in France and Turkey that make things uncomfortable for Jews, and how they are adapting to a new reality.

This was originally posted at [Algemeiner].

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