Saving le Marais and Saving Paris
Jews have held a presence in France since the middle ages and it is a presence that has both evolved and adapted as time has changed the landscape of France and the world alike. Like the Jewish community that resides there, the Marais quarter of Paris has been through a seemingly parallel history itself. Paris's Jewish neighbourhood known as "Pletzl", located within le Marais quarter, has been transformed through time, and while le Marais booms with gentrification today, the Jewish community which still calls the area home struggles to keep a Jewish cultural presence afloat and Jewish traditions alive as fewer and fewer traditionally Jewish markets, as well as homeowners, have been able to keep up with the escalating real estate costs in relation to le Marais as a tourist "must see" and a local shopping haven.
France's history of Jewish conflict dates back hundreds of years. 600 years ago Jews were expelled from Paris and found themselves settling in le Marais, the then outskirts of the city. 600 years later, there are more than 600,000 Jews live in France, with 320 communities spread across France giving the country the largest Jewish population in Europe. There are 375,000 Jewish people living in Paris today, with other large Jewish communities in, Marseilles (70,000), Lyons (25,000), Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg. The area known today as le Marais was first incorporated into the city of Paris during the early part of the 17th century when King Henry IV commissioned Place des Vosges. Originally built as a place to house a silk factory in order to boost France's economy and keep its exports competitive, however, the area was soon made into bourgeois housing for talented craftsman and artists. Neighbourhoods everywhere in every generation change over time and the Marais is one of Paris's best examples of the transformations which can take place through a series of events, both good and bad. During the French Industrial Revolution le Marais was once again home to working class citizens, yet despite a small Jewish presence within le Pletzl neighbourhood dating back to the middle ages, the area consisting of Rue Pavée, Rue des Rosiers, Rue Ferdinand Duval, Rue des Écouffes, Rue des Hospitalières-Saint-Gervais, and Rue Vieille du Temple was not titled "le Pletzl" until the end of the 19th century as Jews flooded into France from other parts of Europe.
During World War II le Marais was forced into ghettoization and Paris's oldest neighbourhood became to the site of enormous roundups of Jewish peoples to be trained off to concentration camps and killed. Vel' d'Hiv Roundup was one of several police raids aimed at diminishing the Jewish Population in occupied France. After being held at the Vélodrome l'Hiver, the victims were sent to Auschwitz.
Despite a devastating loss of 25% of Paris's Jewish population during the war, just a mere 25 years later and the Jewish population of Paris had tripled in numbers and today France stands as the country with Europe's largest Jewish population with roughly 600,000 Jews living in France today. As France was the first European nation to grant citizenship to Jews, the country's Jewish community began to grow as programs in Eastern Europe were forcing Jews abroad due to their second rate social status. Not knowing where to find home in Paris, many Jewish refugees landed in Paris's then poor neighbourhood of le Marais. By the 1950s le Marais was beginning to reach slum status and the city of Paris had plans to demolish the historic quarter. However, before the city could follow through, in 1962 in order to raise public awareness of what exactly would be destroyed amongst the ruins, Michel Raude created a summer-long cultural festival set up in the very buildings in danger of demolition. The festival was a huge success and led to the creation of the Malraux Law, which still today establishes le Marais as a "safeguarded sector" in the city of Paris.
Despite a return of the Jewish community at large into the city of Paris and France overall, France's Jewish community had been altered since prewar Paris. Prior to WWII, the Pletzl was dominantly Ashkenazi Jews, however, a large portion of France's formally largely Ashkenazi Jewish community were exterminated during Nazi occupation and during the 1960s Sephardic Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey joined the Pletzl's community in Paris's Marais.
Although a Jewish presence had already long been established in France, with the influx in Sephardic Jews came a new Jewish culture to Paris. Upon arrival, the new Sephardic Jewish population attached themselves to the already established Pletzl Jewish neighbourhood despite the blatant differences of the Jewish cultures. Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey added a new aspect to Jewish culture in Paris and to the Pletzl's overall appeal. The Crif's Jean Pierre Allali has stated that, " today there is a sharing between outlets that remain Ashkenazi, and those run by people who come from Northern Africa or Turkey… they have introduced a new dimension, selling falafel and Tunisian sandwiches'". Of course, the "new" Jewish presence brings more than simply food, it brings depth and individuality to Paris's Jewish influence.
While the religion of Judaism has placed peoples from various corners of the earth into an area of a mere few winding roads in Paris, the atmosphere of the Marais has been made into that of a culturally plural society. France has a longstanding relationship with immigration, but even in the US where daily life itself is considered to be a melting pot, it is often forgotten that there exists more than one "type" of Jewish culture. Paris's Pletzl neighbourhood shows how a seemingly "same" group of individuals goes far deeper than what appears to be on the surface. Paris's Jewish quarter is not just a place where one can run into a stampede of Hasidic Jews on a Saturday afternoon and feel a bit of momentary "otherness", but rather it is a place where very unique and separate cultures can come together under one uniting roof, and that in itself is a melting pot.
Rue des Rosiers is the heart of le Pletzl and today it is home to many of the only remaining Jewish shops, markets, and restaurants is Paris, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic. In the past, Rue des Rosiers has been home to all things Kosher, however, now with the cobblestone footpaths and expensive real estate, Rue des Rosiers is less noticeably Europe's oldest Jewish quarter and more noticeably Paris's chicest stomping grounds. Le Marais has been featured in countless travel magazines, websites, TV shows, blogs, websites and anything else one can imagine. This is no doubt just as much a result of Paris's decision to keep the neighbourhood's historic architecture as it has to do with Rue des Rosiers's world famous falafel restaurants and Kosher markets. The preserved architecture of le Marais and the traditional Jewish cuisine has literally catered to the Marais's rise as not merely a tourist stop-off, but the Marais as one of Paris's trendiest neighbourhoods to eat in, live in, shop in, and stroll in. Factors such as trendy boutiques (including American labels), as well as the Pomidou center have created a village of winding roads lined with commerce intended to guide the eye of the western tourist. In today's society it is no secret that gay communities have a radar for neighbourhoods on the verge on gentrification, and Paris is no exception to this growing urban trend. With gay bars throughout the Marais, including two at the end of Rue des Rosiers, the area is officially marked as new and trendy, despite the same areas titanic past.
Due to le Marais's trendy status, the vibrant Jewish community has suffered and it has as made clear by Jean Pierre Allali that, ""[Parisian Jews} have practically lost 80 percent of [their] identity in the Marais…Apart from the museums, the very few businesses here are the only thing left to tell the Jewish story". With rise in real estate costs and the clear opportunity for tourist catered boutiques, thanks to the historically significant architecture, the Marais is losing the very people who lived its history. And, apart from the architecture, the Jewish community is what keeps le Marais historically significant and enjoyable today. With the 1960s addition of Sephardic Jews into the Pletzl's community, le Marais has only continued to flourish into an even more vibrant escape from Paris's dive in western modernity. "It's not a replacement of one thing by another but it works in parallel - like in countries where two lifestyles live side by side in complete harmony", and in this respect le Marais and specifically le Pletzl is a model for French Society.
Jews have long held a place in French society and as seen during the 1960s with the arrival of Sephardic Jews to Paris, it does not seem to matter the differences in the various Jewish cultures, but rather it is what the various societies have in common which unites them--Judaism. While the French Republic would hope to integrate Paris's Jewish community with other unique communities within Paris and France, it seems clear the people of the Pletzl neighbourhood are on to something. As a result of the strict Hasidic Jewish wardrobe, it seems clear even from first judgement that the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are real, however, the Pletzl community has chosen to focus on what they have in common rather than what separates them. And, as for the things which do separate the two Jewish communities, they have incorporated the differences into one another's lives in order to create a new "little place" where Jewish means Kosher bread from Sasha Finkelstajn's and a falafel from L'As Du Fallafal, both on Rue des Rosiers.
There is no denying the importance le Marais holds as a place today, but even when the place was resembling a slum, people like Michel Raude were able to see the significance and history of the place and with Raude's dedication le Marais is not just preserved and still going through continuous restoration, le Marais is not a giant museum that is inhabited in order to stand still in time, but rather le Marias is a home to many, many people who change and alter and shape the community everyday, and was only made possible because someone saw the history and the opportunity and knew it was worth fighting for.