There was symbolic significance to the timing of the “spiritual journey” undertaken by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman and Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer rebbe, in France, between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections in that country. The two drove all over France, from north to south, this week, at a time when the Jewish citizens, along with all the other citizens of the republic, have to choose between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. Most of them will apparently vote for Sarkozy but, at the same time, in the shadow of the shake-up occurring in their country – and also in the shadow of what is happening in Israel – many of them were occupied with completely different choices. If France is busy with its national identity and with the identification of Frenchmen with their country, a large number of its Jews are going back to their “tribe” – returning to Jewish tradition and to a glatt-kosher existence.
And here’s where it gets really “Rabbi Jacob”-esque:
Two police motorcycles, their lights flashing, pushed forward at high speed as they passed through red lights and opened up the way for the rabbis’ convoy last Sunday, which was trying in vain to get to the meeting on time. Hundreds of men and a handful of women were already waiting for them at the Pekudat Elazar synagogue. The two VIPs were on a very tight schedule – a meeting with ultra-Orthodox rabbis at the synagogue and, immediately after that, an hour during which they would dispense personal blessings to the general public – that is, the men in that sector.
And here’s where it gets interesting:
Some 60,000-70,000 Jews live in Marseille, France’s southern port city, and about 90 percent of them immigrated there from the countries of North Africa. “The Israeli definitions of religious or non-religious do not exist here,” says Rabbi Shmuel Hatuel, the deputy chief rabbi of the city, who is an ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian follower of Mizrahi descent. “The term ‘secular’ does not exist. Nor do the terms ‘Ashkenazi’ and ‘Sephardi’ exist or ‘ba’alei teshuva’ [newly religious], for whom the ultra-Orthodox in Israel have established separate institutions. The entire concept of categorization into sectors is not comprehensible to the Jews of Marseille. When there is tension in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox here care also, and when the situation is difficult here, as it has been in the past few years, everyone converges together around their Jewishness, and it is unimportant to them what color skullcap the rabbi wears.”
The solidarity that Hatuel describes is connected with the general malaise felt by the Jews of France, which stems from the feeling, on the one hand, that their country has abandoned Israel to such an extent that it questions the country’s very right to existence; and on the other, that time after time, France fails to protect them from anti-Semitic attacks in the street and at synagogues and cemeteries. Every such attack, such as the one last week in Marseille in which unknown assailants drew a swastika on the body of a young Jewish woman – gives rise to a wave of fears and lessens Jews’ feeling of attachment to France.
This feeling, needless to say, also has an effect on the community’s voting patterns. “The left is dangerous,” explained Moshe Yitzhak Ostreicher, an ultra-Orthodox man who teaches Judaism in Marseille. “The left is capable of bringing in another million Arabs to this country. But any way you look at it, the situation in France is not getting better. The only reason, in my opinion, for voting for the right is that in this way the Jews will have a few more years during which it will be tolerable to live here.”
“A few more years”? How optimistic. What can be made of voting patters of a community on the verge of leaving? And as for laicite, it appears radical Islam is not the only enemy. According to 93-year-old Rabbi Steinman, “education for women must be kept to ‘the minimum of the minimum.'” If French Jews are to fight assimilation, they must begin “refraining from participating in anything that smacks of being French.” The rabbi is also against modern orthodoxy, as well as Jews’ learning trades.
But back to the whole leaving thing- where do the rabbis stand on Israel?
“So long as the Jews live and exist here, everything must be done to ensure they remain Jewish,” Rabbi Ohana said. “It is not my aim to get the Jews to immigrate to Israel, but only to strengthen Judaism here. The secondary effect is that whoever is strengthened eventually does want to immigrate to Israel, but the aim of maintaining the spark of Judaism is far more important than the aim of getting people to emigrate to Israel. We also do not want to discriminate against those who remain here.”
[…] [T]he central gathering of the two rabbis in Marseille was held this week on the same day – and at exactly the same hour – as an “aliyah [immigration] fair” organized by the Jewish Agency in another part of the city. Last year, on Israel’s Independence Day, only one third of those invited showed up at the central event organized by the consulate; the remainder participated instead in a gala event organized that evening by the Mikdash Institute, a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox body.
This goes to show that Israeli politics has penetrated all the way to Marseille. Nonetheless the ultra-Orthodox teacher Moshe Yitzhak Ostreicher says that “anti-Zionism is not my flag. A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces is like a brother to me. In a class I attended two weeks ago, people asked whether it was permitted for them to shave the beard they had grown during the days of counting the Omer [between Passover and Shavuot, when religious men refrain from shaving] on Independence Day. I said I was not in favor of this, but that it was not a big deal. In any event, our aims here are not political, but rather to save people from assimilation.”