In the Shadow of Notre Dame

That’s kind of an odd thing for a Jewish girl to say because while Notre Dame is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture, it is also a symbol of French Roman Catholicism which has had a very fraught history with the Jewish people.

But in the shadow of Notre Dame, in the heart of medieval Paris, where I have my rituals, there is much for a Jew with a keen sense of French and Jewish history to ponder.

The longstanding beauty of the church — outlasting tragic and peaceful epochs for our people — explains why many Jewish observers of the recent fire there felt a keen mix of emotions, including sadness, for a place with complex, even negative, historical associations.

It’s difficult to imagine, but over a thousand years ago this part of Paris was a place of green fields, vineyards, and unpaved roads that ran down to the Seine’s sandy banks. Right behind the Square Viviani, a tiny sixth-century Jewish community had a synagogue (where a present-day church, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, now stands now stands). A later community lived on nearby rue de la Harpe, and even later rue de la Vielle Juiverie (Old Jewry Street) lay between rue St. Séverin and rue Monsieur le Prince. The Jewish cemetery was nearby.

By the time Notre Dame was completed in the 13th century, houses on the Île de la Cité stood cheek by jowl, and abutted the cathedral’s front doors. Rutted, sewage-filled lanes crisscrossed the terrain. The island’s main road, rue de la Cité was called rue des Juifs, and the Jewish community, now located here and numbering some 100 families, had a synagogue on the site of today’s famous Maché aux Fleurs.

Jewish life in the Middle Ages was no picnic. In France it was punctuated by expulsions, special taxes, property confiscation and myriad terrors and insults. Notre Dame, like other churches and cathedrals in Europe, reflects that. Take the two female statues on either side of the main door – Ecclesia on the left represents the Roman Catholic Church in all her glory, while a disheveled Synagoga on the right represents Judaism— a snake wrapped around her eyes blinds her to the Church’s truth, her crown lies broken at her feet, and the tablets of the law are slipping from her hands. Other, smaller statues are carved into the cathedral’s façade and depict Jews in their mandated pointed hats. 

In the 13th century, the renowned Paris yeshiva was headed by Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph. One of the rabbi’s students, Nicolas Donin, differed with the accepted views of the Torah Sheba’al Peh (oral law) and was banished from the community. Bent on revenge, he converted to Catholicism and drew up charges against the Talmud which he presented to Pope Gregory IX. The Pope ordered all copies seized so they could be examined, but nobody in Europe paid attention, except King Louis IX of France. Compelled under penalty of death to surrender the holy books, France’s rabbis, including Rabbi Yehiel were then forced to defend the Talmud (1240) against Donin’s accusations. This Trial of the Talmud became known as the Disputation of Paris. Not surprisingly, the Talmud was found guilty and some 24 cartloads were burned at the Place de Grève, now Place de la Hôtel-de-Ville on the right bank of the Seine. Such disputations were not unique to France, but France initiated other Talmud burnings in other parts of the country over the next few years.

So traumatic were these events for all of Jewry that they form one of Tisha B’Av’s kinot.  Donin went on to further infamy disseminating blood libel accusations.

Within the Cathedral’s walls, there’s a contemporary example of the ongoing conflict — and relationship — between Christianity and Judaism: a memorial plaque to Cardinal Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005. Born Aaron Lustiger in Paris to Polish Jews, he converted to Catholicism in 1940 at the age of 13. Though accounts differ as to the exact impetus and circumstances of his conversion, what is not in dispute is his mother Gisele’s murder in Auschwitz and his father Charles’ anger about his conversion. He became a priest, was created cardinal in 1983 by Pope John Paul II, and is buried in Notre Dame’s crypt. 

These stories may not be known, but France’s fraught Jewish history in general — the country’s history of anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair, French behavior during the Shoah, and revived prejudice today — explains why Jews tell me they just don’t understand my love for France. At the same time, a dear friend always tells me he doesn’t understand my relationship with my Judaism. And I’m not sure I understand it either. But I think, like many of the best things in life, the answer isn’t simple. Let’s just say I love them both and leave it at that for now.

Toni L. Kamins is a writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, the LA Times, Tablet, the Forward, Haaretz, and many other publications. She is also the author of the Complete Jewish Guide to France and the Complete Jewish Guide to Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press).

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