Letter From Paris

The email arrived inviting me to present a paper, this past March, on American Jewish feminism at the enticingly named seminar Femmes et Judaisme dans la societe contemporaine (Women and Judaism in Contemporary Society) to be held in Paris at the Musee d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme. This jewel of a museum was under construction the last time I was in Paris and its dynamic director, Laurence Sigal, is a close friend. Clearly, I had to go.

I was met at Laurence’s home by her 10-year old daughter, Faustine, who presented me with a hand-wrought map to the Hotel de Ville and instructions to take the number 38 bus, which should be named: “The bus to remind you how beautiful Paris is.” Walking into the stunningly restored Musee in the Marais, the visitor enters a place which will remind her at every corner that being a Jew in France is different. Seeing the striking statue of Dreyfus in the courtyard and an exhibition entitled “To be Jewish in Paris in 1938.” I knew I was in another world of experience and learning.

At the session launching the conference on Saturday night, Simone Weil—among the best-known women in France, former Minister of State, President of the European Parliament and assimilated Jew—gave the opening presentation, attributing many of her values to her Jewish upbringing. (I wondered, though: Why was a man chairing the opening panel?)

Sunday morning’s panel on Women in Synagogues and Rabbinic Courts featured Liliane Vana, grand-daughter of a famous Yemenite rabbi. She is self-taught, learned, quotes sources in Hebrew and rabbinic opinions with total ease. I found myself wishing only that her progressive and highly intellectual discussion of what is law and what is custom would guide Orthodoxy today.

The film “Trembling Before G-d” sparked a discussion challenging the apparent need to have a separate gay Jewish community, “and isn’t that just a New York phenomenon?” Suddenly, a portable microphone was in my hand, and in front of a packed house, I began, in French, to explain the filmmaker’s perspective on gays in an Orthodox community and how these struggles are not at all unique to New York.

I felt compelled to respond to two lesbians, one in her 20s and one in her 60s, who seemed to think that the film was about uptight gays and lesbians in New York who didn’t know that they could be openly Jewish and gay, “like we are in Paris.” These women somehow had missed that the film is about pain, alienation and marginalization from the Orthodox Jewish community that gays and lesbians experience—regardless of the country they live in.

My little explanation on this matter was only part of the learning, which cut both ways. Some of the lessons: Women in France got the vote only after World War II, and there are still few women in Parliament today. France, now with the largest Jewish population in Europe—700,000—has only one ordained female rabbi. Reform (termed “Liberal” in Europe) Pauline Bebe, who studied for ordination in London. There is only one woman’s Talmud study group in France. At only one synagogue in Paris, Conservative, a girl can be called to the Torah to become a Bat Mitzvah. There is one Jewish GLBT organization in Paris, Beth Flaverim. Despite its gains, brain, and feminist energy, the conference did suggest that, like Jacques Brel, patriarchy is alive and well and living in Paris.