Around the Jewish World Some in Paris Say New City Plan Dooms the Jewish Marais District
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Around the Jewish World Some in Paris Say New City Plan Dooms the Jewish Marais District

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It all comes down to an argument about a sidewalk, but for the chopped-herring and cheesecake sellers on Paris’ famous Rue des Rosiers, it is nothing less than the destruction of Jewish heritage.

Here, in the heart of Le Marais, the capital’s historic Jewish neighborhood, shopkeepers and residents are gearing up for an intense fight with the city council.

They claim that plans by the mayor of Paris’s fourth district, Dominique Bertinotti, to close the street to vehicular traffic on Sunday afternoons are just the tip of an iceberg that ultimately will turn the entire area into a pedestrian promenade.

Such a plan, the shopkeepers say, will destroy the Jewish character of the neighborhood, killing off the little Jewish shops and making one of the world’s most famous Jewish neighborhoods, with its narrow streets and picturesque storefronts, into little more than a theme park.

Michel Kalifa, a kosher butcher with a shop in one of the side streets just off Rue des Rosiers, goes so far as to accuse the mayor of deliberately trying to destroy the Jewish heritage of the Marais quarter, more commonly known by its Yiddish nickname, the Pletzl.

“Maybe the mayor wants to mark out her territory, but she’s going to eliminate all traces of the area’s Jewish identity,” Kalifa said.

The Pletzl, which retains an Old World look, was the destination for thousands of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms at the end of the 19th century.

Many simply arrived at Paris’ Gare de l’Est railway station, handed the taxi driver a note with the word “Pletzl” written on it and then restarted their lives, creating a vibrant Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in the heart of Paris.

While still something of a shtetl, the Marais district is changing. Today, the neighborhood has both hip clothing stores and kosher butcher shops, and some areas have become quite popular among the capital’s growing gay community.

Following the council’s decision in June to start construction on the already very narrow sidewalk on the Rue des Rosiers, Kalifa set up an association of shopkeepers and residents to fight Bertinotti.

Last week, banners protesting the traffic changes began appearing in the neighborhood. Some simply called for the preservation of “village life” in the neighborhood. Others went farther.

“No to the destruction of Jewish memory,” read one banner.

The council says the traffic changes come on the heels of numerous complaints about the general state of the trendy neighborhood.

“We’re always getting complaints about cars parked on the sidewalks, the state of the property in the area and trash left on the streets,” Aymeric Bojuy, director of the mayor’s office, told JTA.

The plans also have the support of the neighborhood’s younger set, who say they hope the Sunday traffic closures will give them greater access when the area is at its most crowded.

Olivier Benais, who works at the Rue Pave Yeshiva, just off the Rue des Rosiers, said he understands the fears of the shopkeepers and some older residents, but said the council’s plans are “a good idea” overall.

“It’s impossible here on Sunday afternoons and there will be less noise if the road is closed off,” he said. “But I’m young and I don’t have the connection that some of the Ashkenazim have to the area.”

For the council, the issue is simple one of extending sidewalks, changing some of the one-way streets in the area and instituting the Sunday closures.

Opponents charge that the council is spending the money on the renovations as the first step of a plan to eventually turn the area into a trendy pedestrian promenade with outdoor cafes and art galleries. The traditional Jewish shops that mark the Pletzl’s streets will be forced out, and the neighborhood’s centuries-old Jewish character will fade, they say.

Bojuy called the claim preposterous.

“We want to extend a sidewalk and temporarily close off traffic on Sunday afternoons,” he said. He said the mayor is aware of the special character of the Pletzl, and said it is “scandalous” to accuse the mayor of wanting to change that.

Up to 9,000 Jews lived in the Marais district until World War II, when many were shipped out under the Vichy regime. Today, Marais is a mecca for Jewish tourists who come here for nostalgia and a taste of chopped liver they remember from childhood.

For decades, Florence Finkelstajn’s family has owned one of the best known Jewish shops in the area, selling apple strudel and cheesecake to generations of Jews. She says tourists come to her family’s store for more than just food.

“People want to eat their roots,” she said. “Second-generation Jews come here to rediscover their roots because today it’s still here, while there’s nothing left in Poland. We are here to preserve this culture.”

Finkelstajn is a strong supporter of the shopkeepers association opposing the traffic changes. She says barring cars from the area on Sundays would hurt her strongest business day.

Still quintessentially Jewish, the area fills up on Fridays, Sundays and around the Jewish holidays with Parisian Jewish shoppers who no longer live in the area.

Hence, the widespread support from the area’s non-food stores for the butchers, grocery stores and patisseries.

“It’s all here because this is a food street. If the food shops go, everything goes,” one shopkeeper said.

Some residents are concerned not about the promenade’s commercial impact, but about its potential for increasing Sunday crowds.

“You just have to look at Les Halles” — a pedestrian area not far from the Marais district — “to see what might happen,” local resident David Darmon said. “The place is going to fill up with drug addicts and winos.”

Meanwhile, Jews from elsewhere in France are beginning to pay attention to the spat.

The Sukkot edition of France’s leading Jewish weekly, Actualite Juive, devoted the first five pages of its coverage to the subject, under the headline, “Rue des Rosiers: The Last Straw.”

In response, the council promptly posted notices in the area detailing its plans and firmly denying any designs to build a full-scale pedestrian promenade.

The council also widely advertised a public meeting on the subject, to be held at the end of the month.

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