Dispatches

A Different Sort of Synagogue

David Koulack

This past September was only the second time in my life that I had been to shul on Yom Kippur. The first was when my father took me to synagogue in the Bronx in New York City when I was about seven years old. Although we were not religious my father thought it was important that I have at least some acquaintance with the ritual associated with what is perhaps the most important of all Jewish holidays—the Day of Atonement, the day when you close the book on your deeds of the past year and prepare yourself to start afresh.

I remember little of my first visit, which took place almost seventy years ago, but while I was in Paris this year, my friend Pepo invited me to join him in shul for the end of the Yom Kippur services. As it turned out it was a Yom Kippur like nothing I could have imagined and one that I will never forget.

For starters, the shul was not a synagogue but a gymnasium, on the rue Japy near the Place Voltaire. The Gymnase Japy was being used because there is not enough space in the few neighbourhood synagogues to accommodate all of the Jews who live in the eleventh arrondissement and want to attend Yom Kippur services.

As we approached the gymnasium, a soldier carrying an assault rifle moved aside to let us through. Inside was a beehive of activity and a cacophony of sound: a couple of hundred people praying and talking with one another. A number of davening men, wearing yarmulkes and the fringed shawls called tallitot, stood on a raised platform at the centre of the basketball court. Other men and young boys who were seated on folding chairs placed around the platform also prayed and talked. Still others strolled about, occasionally stopping to chat with one another. In the balcony surrounding the court sat several dozen women and children. Some observed the activity taking place below. Others conversed as they kept an eye on the children who were playing in the stands.

At the end of the day, the women and children made their way downstairs. Families assembled and the men spread their arms holding the tallitot aloft so that their families could gather underneath. And then there was the long blast of the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet, signifying the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

People began to move toward the exits to start on their way home, no doubt looking forward to the end of their twenty-five-hour-long fast. Outside, Pepo and I lingered and contemplated the plaque on the wall of the gymnasium, on which was written, “To the memory of the boys and girls and the women and men of the 11th arrondissement who were assembled here between the 2th of August, 1941 and the 16th of July, 1942, before being taken to the extermination camp of Auschwitz because they were Jewish.”

The irony of the Yom Kippur service taking place in a public space that had once been used as a holding cell for Jewish children before they were sent to their deaths did not elude us and for a while we stood there in silence. The sky clouded over. A gentle rain began to fall and we turned and walked along the Boulevard Voltaire.

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