Friday, October 30th, 2015

A Different Sort of Synagogue

This past September was only the second time in my life that I had been to shul on Yom Kippur. The first was when my father took me to synagogue in the Bronx in New York City when I was about seven years old. Although we were not religious my father thought it important that I have at least some acquaintance with the ritual associated with what is perhaps the most important of all Jewish holidays—the Day of Atonement, the day when you close the book on your deeds of the past year and prepare yourself to start afresh.

I remember little of that occasion which took place almost seventy years ago, but while I was in Paris this year, my friend, Pepo, invited me to join him in shul for the end of the Yom Kippur services. As it turned out it was a Yom Kippur like nothing I could have imagined and one that I will never forget.

For starters, the shul was not a synagogue but a gymnasium on the rue Japy near the Place Voltaire. The Gymnase Japy was being used because there is not enough space in the few existing neighborhood synagogues to accommodate all of the Jews who live in the 11th arrondissement and want to attend Yom Kippur services.

As we approached the gymnasium, a soldier carrying an assault rifle stood aside to let us through. When we opened the door we were a greeted by a beehive of activity and a cacophony of sound. A number of davening men, wearing tallitot and yarmulkes stood on a raised platform at the center of the basketball court. Other men and young boys who were seated on folding chairs placed around the platform were similarly engaged, while still others strolled about, occasionally stopping to chat with one another. In the balcony surrounding the court, sat the women and children. Some were observing the activity taking place below while others conversed as they kept an eye on the children who were playing in the stands.

As the sun set, the women and children made their way downstairs. Families assembled and the men spread their arms holding the tallitot aloft to so that the members of their families could gather underneath. And then there was the long blast of the shofar signifying the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

People began to move towards the exits to start on their way home no doubt looking forward to ending of their 25 hour-long fast. But Pepo and I lingered outside and contemplated the plaque on the wall of the gymnasium on which was written, “To the memory of the boys and girls of the 11th arrondissement who were assembled here between the 20th of august, 1941 and the 16 of July, 1942 before being taken to the extermination camp of Auschwitz because they were Jewish.”

The irony of the Yom Kippur service taking place in a public space that had once been used as a holding cell for Jewish children before they were sent to their deaths, did not elude us. We stood there in silence. The sky clouded over. A gentle rain began to fall and we turned and walked in silence along the Boulevard Voltaire.

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