For the first Friday evening in a long time, I went to pray at my synagogue. It is an hour’s metro ride from my place in Paris. It has a security vestibule: when you enter you have to wait for one door to close before opening the next one. I made the mistake of sitting beside the door next to the security office. During the whole service, I heard noises from the walkie-talkies in my left year.
The room was packed, we sang some Psalms, a song from the Kippur War, and a Barbara song called Göttingen. Yes, it is that kind of synagogue. At the end, the community director said: “Every activity continues as normal, as you can see tonight we have the police outside until we finish the kiddush, and tomorrow there will be the police AND the army outside. But we also need more donations as we need to upgrade the security resources. We also provide free therapy sessions for families and children, which can cost a lot.”
When I left, a security guard took the yarmulke from some guy’s head in the security vestibule: “You shouldn’t wear it outside the synagogue.”
I am not telling you all that to commiserate. Quite frankly, I am so used to it I don’t mind: the security staff and the vestibule, all of this were there when I celebrated my bat mitzvah more than 15 years ago. Each Sunday for Talmud Torah, my father couldn’t just drop me at the synagogue, because cars were not allowed to wait in front of the door. He had to park a couple hundred meters away from it, which was less complicated than now in Paris. The army and the police are a new addition though, from the last terrorist attacks in 2015, and now with the threats of the Hamas. I wouldn’t have noticed and remembered all of this, but my anxiety being what it is right now, I get to notice things. However, I record them here because I am not sure other people, non-Jewish people I mean, realize what it can look like to pray in a synagogue in the 21st century.
I also see it more now that I am married to a catholic man. I remember the first time I went to mass with my husband, in Saint-Louis des Français in Rome. The French church hosts three masterpieces by Carravagio, we thought it would be a beautiful experience to go on a Sunday morning, pray in Rome, and then see the paintings. When we arrived the priest very politely said “No tourist, a mass is going to start.” We said we were there for the mass, he opened the old wooden door, and that’s it I guess. I shook the hand of a nun and said “La Paix du Christ”. The Carravagios were well worth a mass and my awkwardness.
Saint Louis is also known as Louis IX, a just and very pious king, a saint really, but for French Jews, he is also known as the guy who publicly burned carts and carts of manuscripts of the Talmud. His church is nice though, built by Pope Clement VII, a known protector of the Jews from the Inquisition.
Next time you go pray and you only have to open a squeaky wooden door, I hope you take it as a blessing. Recently we went to Amsterdam, also with my husband, and we visited the Our Lord in the Attic Museum, a clandestine Catholic church that was hidden in the attic of a rich Catholic merchant’s house. It was built in 1663 because openly practicing any other religion than Protestantism was not allowed, only hidden religious practices were tolerated. The security around synagogues also asks us to be hidden. So many synagogues in Paris have no apparent facades. It’s very likely you passed by one without even noticing it. On the same trip, we visited the Portuguese synagogue: we passed through a metal detector and my bag was checked. It was also built in the 17th century by Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition to a more tolerant country.
There’s a paradox in seeing safety and security in a squeaky wooden door. While soldiers are meant to keep us safe, they remind us how seldom the world has been so for Jews. I’m having trouble knowing how to categorize my thoughts: is it paranoia, or a well-documented realistic fear? I am not, like my family in Israel, living in bomb shelters, under a rain of six thousand rockets. But on Tuesday 17th, a synagogue in Tunisia was set on fire and destroyed. In Berlin, the day after, another one was targeted by Molotov cocktails. Last week in Strasbourg France, a fifteen-year-old teenager was arrested while rubbing a knife against the metal fences surrounding the Great Synagogue de la Paix. In Detroit, a synagogue leader was found fatally stabbed near her home, circumstances unknown.
Am I jealous of my husband, for seeing a clandestine church as something so far removed from his own experience of religion? Not enough to get baptized I guess. I don’t want to give up certain perks, for example, my rabbi makes such good speeches I’ve never met a priest who can match her. On Friday she said she couldn’t sleep at night. The parashah, the weekly Torah portion we read each week, was about the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood. It felt as if we were in our own ark, all packed in a small room, with many doors and many walls protecting us from the outside world. For a moment, I was safely praying. When I left it was raining cats and dogs, and I had forgotten my umbrella.