From Paris, A Travel Misguide

The Synagogue Agoudas Hakehilos of Marais presents a concealed spectacle. The Haredi swoop down, black jackets flapping, into this Art Nouveau fortress with the same pogrom-fleeing gait as in Brooklyn. I enter with Miriam, Jewess in blue jeans. Whoever it is that runs things, a stooped-over man with a graying beard and unwashed dark suit, greets us with hesitation and clenched jaw. I put out my hand and he pulls his away. His hands are wet, he says. He asks me where I am from and I answer, From Brooklyn, where else? A ringing phone saves him and he announces he must answer and flees into his dusty office. Miriam and I stand as tense strangers, traces of pork flowing through our blood. We stand muttering, pretending to admire the lobby. A few minutes later he returns with a half-ass historical brochure and tells me that I can look in the sanctuary if I like and that Miriam can look from the balcony.

I slip into the sanctuary like an emotional thief and snap a series of photos of its elegant and sad personality. Depressed, stubborn, the sanctuary presents a modest stage for the resistance of Torah. Miriam remains in the lobby. I urge her from the door to come and take a peek. Finally, she relents. She sticks her head in but can’t quite relax and neither can I. Though having shared the same fate as the religious during the Holocaust, we have no actual connection. We are strangers and they fear us. Outside again, I photograph a mezuzah completely sunken into the concrete doorway of an adjacent Jewish building. We speculate this was done to prevent it from being torn off by passing anti-Semites. Still, a black-hatted Jew exits the building and it is me to whom he throws his fiery hateful eyes.

I ask a Jew on the street where we might find additional synagogues. He is nice and slightly effervescent but speaks no English. He refers me to one who feigns explanation, up this block and down that one and to the right. His instructions are false and laden with intentional confusion.

Yiddish Paris maintains its schismatic quotidian. A handful of Jewish shops disintegrate among the perfumeries and couture showcases. Jewish deli meats sit elegantly in the windows like French cheeses—a Jewish bookstore offers books in clean spare symmetry. Drifting among the falafel-gobbling tourists, the Jews perform the Diasporic ritual of exclusive anxiety. They offer no center, but are the point of origin I am always passing through.

About the author

Adam Shechter is from Unbrooklyn, the imperceptible imperialist brownstone aesthetic of 1989, Prospect Park West benches by Carroll Street. He is also the editor…

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Issue 06 · August 2009

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