How French Jews are reviving Tel Aviv synagogues

Jewish immigrants to Israel from France are reviving Tel Aviv synagogues and their parents’ North African traditions. Long but interesting piece in Haaretz by Noa Amiel Lavie:

French renaissance: The restored Zion Synagogue in Neve Tsedek, Tel Aviv. (Photo: Moti Milrod)

(Dr. Yitzhak) Dahan ( from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan) adds, the young French person who lives and works in Tel Aviv needs a community base like he needs air to breathe. “Just like the average worshipper at Synagogue des Tournelles in Paris, who even though he is traditional, makes an effort to go [after services] by car to Place de la Bastille to socialize with the Jews who came from Oran and Constantine and speak his ‘language’ a little. I am talking about more than the purely linguistic level: I mean the language of culture [i.e., tradition and rituals from North Africa]. And when they come here, they bring their communalism.”

A particularly interesting phenomenon is apparent among French immigrants whose roots lie in North Africa. According to Dahan, the immigrants of the 1950s and ‘60s were pressured not only to leave the world of religion, but also to abandon their North African heritage. But those who are arriving today from France now are restoring the heritage of North Africa – of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

A case in point is a French-speaking synagogue of Tunisians that was reopened half a year ago in a rear top-floor apartment at 155 Ben Yehuda Street. The Chemama family, who were looking for a venue to uphold their Tunisian customs, made contact with the person in charge, and started to hold Shabbat services in the synagogue. There is also a lesson in reading the Torah once a week. According to the family, the building has existed for 100 years.

It’s plain in the post-service kiddush on Shabbat that this is a small, family-based synagogue. Possibly it’s the simple curtain that separates the men’s and women’s sections, or the straw hats worn by the older women. A boutique synagogue. After the kiddush, everyone makes sure that I eat something. Those who don’t eat, drink (boha, a traditional Tunisian arak), and those who don’t drink, sweep the floor. I notice two brothers, the only native-born Israelis here, originally from Herzliya, for whom this is the first Shabbat service in the synagogue. They look pleased. We observe the French immigrants from the side. “There is a very good atmosphere of tradition and lovely people,” the two agree.

Jeremy Chemama, 24, tells me that he is the cantor who led the service on the Selihot evening I attended at Yehezkel Synagogue. I feel like a member of the guild. “We opened this place because we were looking for something that’s more in the direction of the French community. We know how the French love to go to synagogue, they are people who love religion and are close to it,” he explains. “In France, synagogue is a social thing, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

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