I fell under the spell of the French language and style; marveled at the men and women navigating narrow cobblestone streets, the ubiquitous skinny baguettes tucked under the arm. The men wore scarves casually flung around the neck, and young women wore high leather boots with mini skirts in summer.
There were countless revelations. They shopped in outdoor markets. Who knew that a head of garlic could be violet, cheese, runny, or that one could brew tea from herbs that grew wild in one’s garden? I came to love the relaxed pace of life – the hours spent in cafés along the Cour Mirabeau, a wide boulevard flanked by century-old plane trees, while students on mopeds sped by blowing kisses. Church bells chimed, marking the hour, a holiday or a wedding.
Did I mention there was a man? That too was unplanned. He was my painting teacher and lived at the Chateau Noir, a 19th century ruin of a house on the outskirts of town, where Cezanne had once kept a studio overlooking Mt. Sainte Victoire. He asked to paint my portrait. Summer became fall.
The period was the early 1980’s’; pre-Peter Mayle novels, pre-internet and cell phone, pre-Starbucks, pre-globalization. Communication with the States was through a handwritten letter or a rare international phone call.
I considered myself to be a proper Jewish girl, raised in a politically liberal, culturally Jewish, religiously conservative family. Growing up, I attended Hebrew School, my brother was bar mitzvah-ed in Jerusalem, my parents, ardent Zionists, were committed fundraisers for UJA and HIAS. While not kosher, we observed the major holidays and attended the occasional Shabbat service. My parents had little tolerance for secular Jews who celebrated Christmas.
At college and later in France, my sense of Jewish identity never waned, yet, away from home and with no connection to a Jewish community, I had little opportunity to partake in holiday celebrations. France is a predominantly Catholic country and although I was aware of a few prominent French Jews, ( Simone Veil, Bernard Henri-Levi, Jack Lang) I personally knew only one elderly Jewish Frenchwoman, Mme Noel, who’d recounted chilling stories about her wartime experiences as a Jew in France but had herself later married a non-Jew and assimilated. My boyfriend wasn’t Jewish nor were my friends. There was a small Orthodox synagogue in Aix, but the members were primarily Sephardic, North African Jews, and my 22-year-old self, lacked the courage to introduce myself into their congregation. After almost a year in France, I’d never attended a synagogue and had only observed Yom Kippur alone, quietly fasting. Far from the familiar NYC Jewish diaspora, my Judaism had become a private affair.
In spring of that first year, during one of our rare phone calls, my parents inquired about Passover, encouraging me to find a Seder to attend. I didn’t want to disappoint them and began to feel guilty that I’d been so negligent. I truly wanted to celebrate Passover, but with whom?
I’d been teaching in an English school with fellow American and British ex-pats. A few days after my parents’ conversation, while waiting for the office copy machine, I noticed a woman, Susan, whom I’d only previously said hello to, photocopying what appeared to be a Hebrew text. I strained to decipher the pages and identified a Haggadah. Quelle chance!
I swiftly introduced myself and asked if she might be hosting a Seder or knew of one I might attend. After all, weren’t we kindred spirits in a foreign land? She admitted that she was in fact hosting a Seder at her home with visiting guests, but seemed uncomfortable and suggested that we discuss the idea further after classes.
Over coffee at the nearby café, she explained that I’d be welcome to attend her seder, that it was in fact a Passover celebration, but with one caveat; she wasn’t a traditional Jew, rather a “Jew for Jesus”. I was familiar with the term, but aside from it sounding oxymoronic, I had little knowledge of what it entailed. I remembered a day, years earlier, when my mother and I stumbled across a sign-carrying Jews for Jesus group in NYC, and my normally meek and kind mother expressed intense hatred for them. That exposure was my only reference point. But, Susan said that I’d be welcome for Passover, and might find it interesting.
It was my only invitation and with some trepidation, I decided to attend. When I arrived, I found that Susan had assembled a group of friends, all traveling Americans, who explained that although born Jewish, they believed Jesus Christ to be their savior, the Jewish messiah.
I scanned the Haggadah, which seemed mostly straightforward, mostly traditional. There was a typical Seder plate, we recited the four questions, ate parsley in saltwater, matzoh, charoset and bitter herbs, dipped our pinkies in red wine, reciting the 10 plagues. In fact, the only discernible oddity seemed to be the addition of Christ’s name alongside God, sprinkled throughout the blessings. I navigated the text artfully, skipping over any mention of his name. The group made no attempt to proselytize me and seemed to go out of their way to make me feel welcome. I didn’t challenge their beliefs, although there were moments when I struggled to suppress laughter. How absurd was my presence in this context!
I never became more curious about Jews for Jesus. Today, with access to the internet, I’d have been able to locate a nearby Chabad and like-minded Jews. In retrospect, I think how desperate for some sense of religious belonging and commonality, however tenuous, I must have felt.
I’d been to French Christmas and Easter dinners, and even attended a beautiful Christmas Eve Mass in a historic Roman church. And, while I wholly appreciated the pageantry of the night, complete with flowing velvet robes, frankincense, and candlelight, I remained keenly aware of my observer status.
When my parents later inquired about Passover, I recounted the evening; the group of friends gathered around the dinner table, the familiar blessings, the singing of Had Gad Yah, the conversation. I only omitted the one very strange aspect to the night. Maybe, I wanted to shield my parents from distress or hoped to persuade myself that I could be a Jew in a Non-Jewish place.
The French culture resonated with me deeply on many levels and Aix felt very much like home. I had wonderful friends and was immersed in a close-knit artistic community. It was the religious issue which made me feel apart, and which I’d eventually have to confront, particularly as the years passed and I considered starting a family. How would I manage to raise Jewish children and cultivate in them a proud Jewish identity while steeped in Christian culture?
But that Spring, France was still a new adventure, and I chose not to dwell on the challenges. The food, the art, the language, all beckoned. The future could wait.