Flowers in French Synagogue



This small synagogue is located in The Pletzl, the Jewish quarter in the fourth arrondissement of Paris. I visited it with my colleagues and some students last Friday.

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Unusual Parisian School





This small school is located in The Pletzl, the Jewish quarter in the fourth arrondissement of Paris. It was founded in 1844 by the city of Paris when it became clear that it was necessary to set up a secular school to cater for the numerous Jewish children who lived in the district.

The École élémentaire des Hospitalières-Saint-Gervais had several unusual features:
– although it was a secular school, it received some funds from the Central Consistory, the institution set up by Napoleon I to administer Jewish worship in France, but religious education was forbidden within the building.
– unlike other French schools, it was closed on Saturdays and Sundays, instead of Thursdays and Sundays, as was the case in all other French state schools.
– it used the Monitorial System of education
– the school was organized for Jewish children but not all students were Jewish.




Tonight I am feeling a little dejected. The meeting with the chief school administrator was not successful. The whole set up was meant to impress us and show who was in charge: five men in three-piece suits and one woman who were sitting on one side of an oval table, people who believe they are so important they feel they can check their Iphones all the time – apparently the concept of a secretary who steps in when some kind of director is needed urgently is now alien to the local school board.

The chief school administrator had said that he would see no more than five people therefore there were three teachers from my school, a parent and a union member. We had rehearsed beforehand and each of us had arguments to put forward depending on what we would be told.

We had figures as well as more humane arguments. The chief school administrator and his advisors refuted some points, agreed on others but basically we were repeatedly told that, even if they understood and shared our worries, they did not have the budget to keep three deans.

I am not sure what I had expected but I hoped things would be more open: I was probably too naive. Now I clearly need time to digest the failure and am glad we are going to Paris tomorrow.

Busy Busy



I would have liked to post more in the past few days, including one post on what it is like to teach about Jews in Medieval England, but this has proved to be impossible owing to recent developments on the work front.

At present our school has three deans – people who are in charge of student discipline. Two of them work full time and the other one works part time. There are 1,200 students in our high school and we have some boarders.

Due to cuts in education, we are losing one dean. We got the news only a few days ago and immediately decided to send a petition to the local school authorities. As this did not work, we were on strike on Monday, contacted the parents’ representatives for support and the press for publicity.

We got a few articles in the local newspapers and there was a short announcement in a radio bulletin. We have the full support of the parents who have sent letters to the school board explaining why it would be fatal for the school to lose a dean.

The chief school administrator has accepted to receive a small delegation this afternoon to hear what we have to say and I have been asked to be part of the group. This is both an honor and a daunting responsibility: the running of the school and a job are at stake. We need to find powerful arguments while showing that we are responsible and reliable educators who are acting for the benefits of the school.

On Thursday we we are going to Paris to the Jewish museum (the MAHJ) and the Shoah Memorial. This is part of our project on Jews in Medieval Europe in France, Germany and England. In the morning we will walk round the old Jewish district and visit a synagogue. In the afternoon, one group will visit the Jewish museum with an emphasis on the Middle-Ages while the other group will have a workshop on blood libels in Medieval France.

Some posts will probably follow on both topics.

The Mysteries of Teenagehood



A couple of years ago when my students created a Facebook profile, they usually did not bother about privacy and it was usually possible to see their photos and read or write on their walls.

Fast forward two years and numerous articles about the dangers of revealing too much about oneself, their FB accounts have become as tight as the CIA data. Until something a little unusual comes up.

Last night I created a FB profile for the language exchange we have with a high school in Sweden and invited them to join. Since I had noticed that communication via email was difficult with our students I created this persona to share thrilling announcements about payment deadlines, health cards, meetings, … I wrote them an email to let them know about this FB profile, stressing that if they did not want to share their data with Echange Franco-suédois they would need to alter their privacy settings.

Within 20 hours 17 students out 25 have asked to be Echange Franco-suédois‘s friend and it seems none of them have changed their settings thus allowing me and my two colleagues to share the exciting news they or they friends post on FB. Go figure.

When Words Fail Us

The terrifying news of the past few days have left me speechless. Thousands of people have probably died in Japan, hundreds of thousands are left homeless and a nuclear disaster might still happen. Meanwhile Qaddafi is regaining territory, killing his people and crushing the revolution while the world is watching. In Itamar, a three-month old baby, two children and their parents have been murdered in their sleep.

I reckon that sometimes it is better to remain silent, at least here on this blog. However if we cannot talk, we can act. A number of organizations offer their expertise to help these people. Here is a list of suggestions:

Zaka has sent rescue units to Japan. You can send donations to American friends of Zaka or other branches in the UK, France and Israel.

– You can also donate to the Orthodox Union Earthquake Emergency Fund or to their Victims of Terrorism Fund.

The AWJS will not intervene in Japan but has a list of links to other Jewish organizations, receives donations for other causes and has educational resources for lay and religious educators.

Do not hesitate to suggest other organizations and links in your comments.

Rye Focaccia



• 25g fresh yeast
• 700ml cold water
• 1tbs honey
• 4tbs olive oil
• 2tsp salt
• 500g rye flour
• 500g plain wheat flour
• 1tbs coarse sea salt
• salt and pepper

To make the focaccia, dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the honey, half of the olive oil and then 2 teaspoons of salt and stir again. Mix in both flours to form a very wet dough, then stir well with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes or, if you are using an electric mixer, let it run for 5 minutes. Scrape the dough out into a container, cover it and leave in the refrigerator until the next day.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees C. Line a 30x40cm baking tray with baking paper. Take the dough and press it into the tray as evenly as possible, then press ‘dimples’ in the surface. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with the coarse sea salt.

Bake the focaccia for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 200 degrees C (Gas 6) and continue baking for another 20 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Great for homemade fish burgers or open sandwiches.

This recipe comes The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann.

From Paris to Antwerp



I recently interviewed a friend who was born and bred in France and has moved to the Jewish community of Antwerp. The interview was conducted in French and translated by the owner of this blog. Thanks to SuperRaizy for proofreading it.

– Can you introduce yourself briefly?
I am 32 years old, have been married for almost 3 years and have a one-year old daughter.

– Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?
We live in Antwerp, right in the heart of the Jewish district. Leaving Paris for Antwerp seemed quite obvious for two reasons. First, my then future wife had been living there for three years and I was dissatisfied with the level of observance in Paris. Besides, I could not imagine asking my wife to move to Paris where life is so different from anything she had known in either Antwerp or in Amsterdam where she had grown up.

– What do you like best about living in Antwerp?
When you go to Antwerp for the first time you are struck by a number of things. First, the omnipresence of Jewish life; here every day life and Jewish life are synonymous. There is no place for religion as a hobby. Being religious is as natural and as vital as breathing.
Another striking element is the convenience. Hechsherim (religious certifications) are serious and one needn’t question their validity. It is not necessary to check them out. You can buy practically all Kosher certified products.
In addition, there is a wide variety of Jewish communities. Almost all Jewish movements exist here, with a strong emphasis on Orthodoxy – from Modern Orthodox to the strictest of Chassidim.
Finally, Antwerp has a vibrant Jewish community. Unlike other communities in Europe (Paris or Amsterdam for instance), the trauma of the Second World War did not shake the foundations of the “edifice”. Here there is no memorial to a lost world; life is steeped in the present.
In my opinion the strongest proof of the everlasting quality of the Jewish people is to hear children speaking Yiddish as a mother tongue right here in Europe, as if nothing had happened 60 years ago.

– Do you identify yourself as a Chassid?
I studied at a yeshiva in Paris (Yeshivat Yad Mordechai) whose Rosh Yeshiva was a strict Litvak, so I was rather prejudiced against Chassidism. Yet even before I was married I decided to wear a lange rekel (a long coat) and since my daughter’s birth I have been wearing a shtreimel. Then I discovered traditional Chassidic writers and what this movement had meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe. My overall vision of life gradually evolved as I witnessed how Chassidim live their faith in a festive atmosphere, which is joyous without ever being “light”.

– What Chasidic group do you associate with?
Last December I officially became a Makhnovka Chassid. It is a tiny group that has members in Antwerp, New York, London and Bnei Brak where the present rebbe lives. It is an old dynasty which originated in the village of Makhnovka (the former Komsomolske) in Southern Ukraine. Progressively it established ties with other Chassidic groups, particularly Belz, to which the present rebbe is linked via his mother. We have shared the same minhagim as Belz for quite a while now.

– Why did you choose this particular group?
I had been attending the Makhnovka shul in Antwerp for two years when I decided to go and visit the rebbe. I had the time to see if their minhagim and their point of view were for me. The visit to the rebbe in December confirmed what I had been feeling for two years.
Becoming a rebbe-chassid implies accepting him as a guide in all the momentous decisions of one’s life. You consider him to be the person who is able, through his insights into the “secrets” of the Torah and his knowledge of the sacred texts to perceive more truths than the rest of us. At the birth of our next child, im yirtsa Hashem, we’ll ask for his advice on what to name the baby.