Nov 09

Last weekend I went to Grenoble with the UEJF (Union des Etudiants Juifs de France), aka the French Jewish student union. Every year they have a national convention (in a different location each year) where they discuss issues relevant to the French-Jewish community. That and there’s also lots of socializing, Shabbat meals, and parties. So when my friend told me about the trip, I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet new people and seriously practice my French.

As it turned out, said friend was not going, so I would be going on this trip without knowing a single person. Luckily this didn’t turn out to be a problem. Many people were in the same boat, and there was even another American girl there!

We all met up to take a bus (the ride was 8 hours) from Place St. Georges in the 9th arrondissement. Almost immediately I met someone who knew a whole bunch of people who’d gone to my high school. I still can’t get over how hilarious that was. Jewish geography! I shouldn’t even be surprised by it anymore.

We stopped a couple of times at gas stations and by the time we got to our 5 am stop those of us who were awake were drifting out of the bus like zombies. After that I fell asleep for a bit and when I woke up I looked out the window and saw fog, and emerging from the fog… mountains… The Alps! It was my first time ever seeing them and since everyone else was still asleep I decided to mark the occasion by listening to Sigur Ros, AKA the Official Soundtrack of Nature. (I know. I know. Let me be.)

We were dropped off at the Grenoble City Hall for breakfast (coffee, orange juice and pain au chocolat!) where we chatted for a bit before sitting down for some welcome speeches from the President of the UEJF, the President of the Grenoble chapter of the UEJF, and other city officials.

Then, we were off to La Bastille, a mountaintop viewpoint. We took tiny cable cars all the way up for a spectacular view…

Eventually we went to the hotel, which was lovely (I swear, if you knew relatively how little I paid… I’m still amazed. Let me tell you, I learned the French word for subsidy that weekend. It’s subvention.) The other American girl (from California) and I were roommates!  I’ll be honest, as happy as I was to get a chance to practice my French for most of the day, it was really nice to have someone to speak English with when I got too tired.

Lest you think we were tired from barely sleeping the night before… that night, we went to a club called Vertigo and hung out there until 2:30… and then my roommate and I stayed up talking until 4:30 or so.

At around 9 am we got a wake up call. We pulled ourselves out of our warm comfy bed and stumbled groggily to breakfast and to the morning panels, which were actually quite interesting. The first was about Jewish life in Grenoble, and the second was about the recent scandal concerning anti-semitic tweets on Twitter. The UEJF successfully campaigned to get those tweets removed, and the panelists, who were lawyers and journalists (one writes for the French Slate mag) argued about freedom of speech and what that entails. In Europe the concept of absolute freedom of speech does not really exist. Take, for example, those tweets. As repugnant as they were, I don’t think anyone in the U.S. would have succeeded in getting them taken down. You know, First Amendment and all. But in Europe there are provisions for hate speech that allow for this kind of control.

We went back to the hotel to get ready for Shabbat. We sat around and talked and drank coffee and ate croissants like the sophisticates we were (um) and then we went to the local synagogue for Friday night prayers. It was a Sephardic shul (most Jews in France are Sephardic, meaning their families come mostly from North African and Middle Eastern countries), so it was a tiny bit different from what I was used to. But on the other hand I did go to a majority-Sephardic Jewish high school, so… not really. 🙂

After dinner there was a discussion circle about what it means to be Jewish in France. That was actually really fascinating because it made me realize how difficult it can be to be an observant Jew in a country that has a growing problem with anti-Semitism and at the same time a very strong culture of secularism.

As Jews, and especially as students, we’re very coddled in New York. Just a very basic example: public schools have off for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. And sure, it’s difficult to catch up on missed classes for the other holidays, but professors are usually understanding and there are legal provisions to make sure students aren’t penalized (I actually couldn’t find anything concrete about this online but it’s been in every syllabus I’ve ever gotten at BC). In New York, I don’t know of anyone who wanted to wear a kippah but felt uncomfortable doing so. The same goes for wearing a Star of David necklace or whatever. But here there’s a real fear of displaying your Jewish-ness, and it’s not unwarranted. Anti-semitism has always been a problem in Europe (read a history book), and even now, especially now, it’s on the rise throughout Europe– and especially in France. For example (rough translation here):

Girl 1: (points to Girl 2’s Star of David necklace) Do you always wear that?

Girl 2: No of course not! But when I do I always cover it up with my scarf. I’d be way too scared to go on the metro otherwise.

Basically the discussion group turned into a pretty heated argument between two viewpoints– on one side, the view that they should be proud to be Jews and not try to hide it, no matter the consequences. And on the other side, the view that they’re first citizens of France and then Jews, and they should try to conform to French standards as much as possible, especially because of the threat of anti-Semitic attacks. I can’t say I have an opinion. Like I said, as a Jew growing up in New York, I have no idea what it’s like to live in a place where you don’t feel particularly safe about your religion. All I know is, it’s not ideal. In Antwerp, most of my mom’s childhood friends’ kids, who are my age, moved to Israel the minute they graduated high school. There just isn’t much a future for them there. Paris is a bigger city, with the largest Jewish population in Europe, so I have to assume it’s a little different, but still. It’s depressing to think about, especially given… you know, the entirety of Jewish history, and my family’s own history with the Holocaust, and I’m getting off topic now so-rry.

On the walk home I met the only other student there from Paris 3! She’s doing her master’s in film. She and I were the only ones from Paris 3, and as it turned out there wasn’t even a section of the UEJF at our school. I thought about it and realized that our school offers degrees in… what? Literature, foreign languages, cinema, theatre, communications, art… and, par contre, almost everyone I met that weekend is studying law, medicine, dentistry, or engineering. Just an observation for you there. Wink.

Anyway. Back at the hotel the discussions were continuing in people’s rooms. We wandered from room to room and I was so tired at that point I felt like I was in some kind of experimental surrealist film. You know, with the different rooms and stuff… no? Okay. (Sidenote. I didn’t know how to describe this properly so I decided to put some keywords into Google and see what I came up with as a reference point. I googled “wandering from room to room in a surrealist film” and my first result was the Wikipedia entry for David Lynch’s “Inland Empire”. I laughed for about a minute straight. Oh my god. I watched Inland Empire with a friend a few nights before I left for Paris, in the dead of night, and it was one of the creepiest, most inexplicable films I’ve ever seen. Amazing, though. My experience was… not a thing like that film, I’m happy to say. Still surreal though. Okay I tried.)

The next night we had the UEJF gala dinner! Everyone got all dressed up and we were taken by bus to the Stade des Alpes, which is a huge sports stadium. The party was in what seemed like the VIP section, where we had a view from the top over the whole stadium. It was so incredibly cool.

We danced to Jewish music first, drank and ate hors d’oeuvres, ate dinner, danced some more to clubby Top 40 style music, hung out in the stadium… now that I think about it, it could have easily been a bar mitzvah, format-wise… this was until, again, 4:30 ish. To close out the night we all sang HaTikvah (the Israeli national anthem), arm in arm. That was very reminiscent of high school, actually, but what a different context can do… 🙂

We headed home the next day. Everyone was exhausted but happy. We exchanged numbers and facebookies and all the rest. I’m so glad I went, overall it was really a fantastic experience. Plus, I probably spoke more French that weekend than I had in my entire time in Paris put together. It was really, really difficult, actually, but I think I got by okay. People told me my French was good. Of course there was the unspoken “…for an American!” but that’s okay. I am definitely improving, y’know? Yeah. Yeah!

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Gabrielle in Paris