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Workers of the world, unite!

I finally feel plugged into the Paris Jewish community – meeting people and attending events will do that for you.

One of the most fascinating people I met at the Shalom | Paix | Salam picnic I attended on Sunday was Lise Amiel-Gutmann, a journalist for Judaiques FM, one of Paris’s four Jewish radio stations.

When Gutmann invited me to visit the facilities of Centre Medem, the secular socialist Jewish cultural center where she teaches Yiddish, saying yes was a no-brainer.

The center occupies the second floor of a dusty courtyard complex near the Republique metro station in Paris’s third arrondissement, which also houses the northern part of Le Marais – the city’s historically Jewish neighborhood.

Gutmann spoke proudly about the center’s goals and programs as she gave me a tour of the small space. The facility hosts a Yiddish-language choir, and Yiddish cooking lessons are held monthly.

About 80 students a year take part in the center’s Yiddish courses, and Medem is adding Hebrew courses this year in response to popular demand, Gutmann said.

Medem is not the only Yiddish center in Paris, but it is unique for its commitment to socialism and left-wing politics.
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The center is affiliated with Le Cercle Amical – the French branch of the historic pro-labor group Workmen’s Circle. Lining the walls are photos of socialist icons and artifacts from the movement – like a copy of the socialist newspaper Undzer Shtime, whose archives Medem digitized last year.

Gutmann told me the center’s volunteers consider themselves “inheritors of the legacy of the Bund,” the historic secular Jewish labor movement.

Though most of the volunteers I met today were middle-aged, the center’s Yiddish and French library does include a children’s section, and Medem works closely with Club Laique de L’Enfance Juive – a secular pro-labor summer camp located about three hours from Paris in the Burgundy region.

I’m hoping to visit the camp this weekend and get a sense of what would draw about 100 eight- to 16-year-olds from all over France to devote themselves to socialism – and also discover how CLEJ has been able to stay strong and financially viable when many similar facilities in France have been forced to close. 

As an American, that’s what interested me most about Medem – the idea of socialism as a badge of honor, not a dirty word tossed at your political opponents.

“Here, it’s the place to be Jewish and socialist,” former Medem president Jean Tama told me. 

This weekend, I’m hoping to find out exactly what that means in modern France.

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