A Normandy Landing, With A Sense Of Jewish History


What Normandy boasts in dramatic, windswept coastline and impressive history, it lacks in kosher kitchens.

But as Isaac Massias watched the sun set over Omaha Beach, imagining boats of Allied soldiers landing on D-Day, he knew he had to make this region accessible to the kosher gourmets he guides on Jewish heritage trips with his Gibraltar-based company, YaYa Tours.

“I don’t know how to explain, but it’s a very spiritual feeling there, something very special that I’ve never felt before,” said Massias, who with his  wife Aya will lead a nine-day kosher D-Day tour of the region in June, having convinced a local château kitchen to embrace kashrut for the visitors. “I realized how connected America is to Normandy, and how many Jews fought there. When you see the cemetery with the Magen Davids (Stars of David), it’s really amazing.”

As France and its wartime allies prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary in 2019 of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, a corresponding program of activities and exhibitions is designed for American families to rediscover this craggy region of northern France, and the central role played by Jews there — from medieval times to World War II battles.

Indeed, a millennium of Jewish history awaits in Normandy. Jewish life is still very much present in the region’s biggest cities — Caen, Le Havre and Rouen, whose cathedral façade was famously memorialized by Monet. (The Impressionist painter’s own gardens and studio at Giverny are among the region’s touristic highlights.)

But for many, the most indelible sights in Normandy lie along the shore. At certain points along the English Channel, white cliffs tower in a sheer vertical drop over the Atlantic. Where the Allies came ashore on D-Day, however, the coastline is flat and expansive, offering sweeping views (and strategic sightlines) of sea, sky and sand.

For most of the Allied servicemen — who included more than 4,000 Jews, according to estimates — these beaches represented a first foray onto European soil. And for many, it was also their last: More than 10,000 Allied soldiers died in what was then the largest seaborne invasion in history — a decisive moment in the quest to liberate France, and ultimately Europe, from Nazi oppression.

This summer, France will remember their sacrifice with a varied slate of events: military parades, fireworks displays, concerts, picnics … even re-enactments. A day before the official June 6 remembrance ceremony, 250 men and women will board a U.K. aircraft, fly across the Channel and parachute onto the shores of Normandy, wearing Allied uniforms in tribute.

Many of the permanent D-Day sites have been spiffed up for the additional attention. They include the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux, which has a section on the fate of local Jews, and the Caen Memorial in that city, which will host Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Four Freedoms” series as part of “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” a traveling exhibition on view in from June through October.

A new crop of multimedia exhibitions aims to engage younger visitors, for whom World War II can feel very distant. The Caen Memorial will inaugurate a high-tech wing featuring a 360-degree film experience on Europe’s 20th century; the Utah Beach Museum, right at the spot where Allied men landed, offers an immersive, step-by-step retelling of the D-Day invasion.

It is a story Massias is sure will resonate with his tour-goers — but like local officials, he also hopes Americans will return home with a new appreciation for the richness of French-Jewish culture.

The Gibraltar-born Massias, who cooked professionally in Jerusalem before launching a kosher travel firm, said he found Michelin-starred chefs willing to add a Norman outpost to YaYa’s Mediterranean network of kosher kitchens. For the first time, observant guests will be able to not only take in the sights, but to sample glatt-supervised versions of the fabled cuisine as well.

“We want the chefs to cook what they like to cook, except kosher,” said Massias, who worked closely with his French counterparts. The restrictions of kosher law didn’t faze them, he added; on the contrary, “chefs usually get very excited about doing something new.”

Massias told me he couldn’t resist a gastronomic detour to Bordeaux, on France’s south Atlantic coast, with a stay at the Jewish-owned Intercontinental Hotel and visits to famous wineries with Jewish affiliations, including the Château Mouton Rothschild.

In Rouen, Normandy’s largest city, excavators recently unearthed what is believed to be the oldest Jewish heritage site in all of France — a circa-1100 century yeshiva underneath the Palais de Justice, complete with Hebrew inscriptions on its ancient walls. Known today as the Maison Sublime, the site is currently undergoing restoration and is a point of pride for Rouen’s modern Jewish community.

The Caen synagogue, established in 1962 with funds from overseas Jews, is among the most modern of landmarks in this bustling port city, where Jewish communities flourished in between expulsions throughout the Middle Ages. In a region of lavish castles, the Chateau of Caen stands out in its provenance: it was built by William the Conqueror in 1060, six years before he conquered England.

A voyage through the region reveals the remarkable diversity not only of its landscapes, but also of its towns and cities. Normandy is full of quaint, cobblestoned villages with quirky shops, hidden canals, and the half-timber wooden architecture that lends Northern France its distinctive charm. But it also excels in grandeur, abundant with castles and formal gardens, as well as culinary specialties like Camembert cheese (from the town of the same name) and Calvados, the hard cider popular for desserts.

In Honfleur, amid a harbor full of bobbing boats and colorful façades, you may understand what inspired Victor Hugo to compose odes to the waterfront. Vacationers looking for sandy beaches will find no shortage, but the style-conscious head for Deauville, a chic vintage resort popular with Parisians.

Rouen retains the medieval ambience that so captivated Monet, with Gothic spires and ancient alleyways. It is also the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; monuments to the “Maid of Orleans” are ubiquitous around town.

Even the least superstitious among us may reconsider miracles upon viewing the island rising out of the sea at Mount-Saint-Michel, in the bay of the same name off the Norman coast. Surrounded by ramparts, the tidal island and its abbey have been a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, referred to by some as “the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Mount-Saint-Michel is a popular side trip from Bayeux, site of many significant World War II memorials; the contrast between Bayeux’s sobering, 20th-century landmarks and the otherworldly vision just offshore can be downright jarring. There is nowhere on Earth quite like this pedestrian-only isle, which you can imagine being swallowed up by the ocean like a real-life Brigadoon.

After the beaches at Omaha and Utah, the site of tourists racing across tidal flats toward Mount-Saint-Michel feels oddly evocative. Few coastlines have more history than Normandy, and no matter how old, its stories always feel fresh.