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Tunisian Jews on the French Riviera:  A Link in the Franco-Jewish Chain

We first met Claudine a Thursday afternoon in October in a kosher butcher shop in Cannes. A kashruth sign in a store window in the old section of town had caught our attention. Although we knew there is a sizable Jewish population on the French Riviera, the Hebrew lettering somehow came as a surprise. It led us to step inside just as Claudine, gathering up her packages, was about to leave.  An impromptu conversation ensued during which she determined who we were and where we were from. “Do you have plans for tomorrow night?” she soon asked. We did not. “Then come to me for dinner.” That turned out to be typical Claudine. You meet Jews away from their home, and you invite them to your home for Shabbat.

The sun was about to set over the Bay of Cannes when we drove up alongside the theater where the vaunted international film festival is held every March. But instead of a glittering cinematic crowd, only Claudine was there, waiting for us, elegant, poised, and possessed of a sultry manner evocative of Marlene Dietrich  She got into her car and bid us follow her to her home in Mandelieu. We thought she said “Mandalay,” and as things turned out, we were not far off for Mandelieu could easily rival the enchanted setting of the Daphne du Maurier novel.

The brief trip to Claudine’s house in the hills above the bay was the closest we’ve ever come to a chase of the sort better suited to a Cannes movie screen, a thrilling series of steep climbs and sharp, edge-of-the-cliff turns at breakneck speed. Finally, hearts in mouth, we sighed in relief as she stopped before a wall which slid open to reveal a driveway nearly perpendicular to the ground below. Below us was the glittering Côte d’Azur, above us the beautiful house Claudine shares with her surgeon husband Marcel.

A small crowd awaited our arrival, long-time friends of Claudine and Marcel. Introductions followed, cocktails were served amidst lively conversation, all in perfectly understandable English. Still we found it difficult to pay attention so distracting was the setting. An attractively furnished, high-ceilinged living room was wide open to the lushly landscaped patio we had walked through moments before to enter the house. It projected from the hillside with heart-stopping drama, the swimming pool at its center a reflection of the brilliant darkening sky.

But by the time we moved into the dining room, we had a sense of the place and of the crowd as well. Like our hosts, all were accomplished professionals or business people, fluent in English, longtime transplants to France from their ancestral homeland: Tunisia, and Jews.

The candelabra was lit, the table set for Shabbat, a glass of wine and a pure white bowl at each table setting. We joined with the others in blessings over the wine and challah, then turned to the dish before us, a bed of couscous at its base. Platters began to be passed around: sautéed eggplant and zucchini, lamb stew, chicken with raisins, spicy meatballs, pieces of garlicy fish, stuffed cabbage, delicious rice preparations. Aromas of middle-eastern spices rose from the bowls. Taking our clues from the others, we took a portion of each offering, adding it to the bed of couscous. And over the flavorful and fragrant dishes, we learned the story of our fellow diners.

Most had lived through the Second World War, one of the guests began. Nevertheless, despite the arduous six-month period when Tunisia was occupied by the Germans, they recalled relatively secure childhoods until the French left in 1956.

“I had a carefree childhood,” our ebullient hostess declared, her mood having suddenly turned serious. “My father was the head of the Jewish community in our city, Sousse. He raised sheep, sheared them, and sent the fleece to the south of France to be processed into wool. We had some Arab friends but from the higher classes, doctors, merchants. But when Tunisia became independent, the Arabs took over all the places and pushed the Jews out.

 “Once the French were gone, every day a guard would come to our home and bring my father down to the City Hall,” she continued. “My poor mother would be so anxious until he came back. She was afraid they would put him in jail. They harassed him with unfounded accusations that Jews were doing this or that, and my father was forced to pay off and pay off.”

A distinguished looking gentleman sitting across from us interjected, “In Tunisia, we lived in a house overlooking the football stadium. One day a Muslim man said to me ‘Can I come to your house to watch the football game?’

“‘I am sorry,’ I told him. ‘It is a private residence. I can’t allow strangers in for such a purpose.’

“‘Never mind,’ he said to me. ‘Next year, you will no longer be here, and I will be living in your house.’

“I don’t know if he was the one who moved into my home,” the gentleman concluded. “But he was correct in one thing. By the next year, we were no longer living there.”

By the next year, he and his wife were in Paris – France and Israel being the major destinations of Tunisia’s emigrating Jews in the period following the nation’s independence. By the mid 1960’s, an ancient community dating back to the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem and enhanced by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal nearly half a millennium before had significantly diminished. “The Jewish community of Tunisia was traumatized,” said Claudine. “In 1948 we numbered 105,000. Today the figure is closer to 1,500.”

“When we left Tunisia, we left our homes and most of our belongings behind.  We were allowed to take very little,” another guest noted. “At the airport, a guard spotted the watch on my wife’s wrist. He demanded she take it off and give it to him. Naturally she obliged.”

“Our parents suffered greatly,” one of Claudine’s friends, a biologist, told us. “They left behind beautiful homes and were thrust into poor little apartments. Also the food was different, and that took some getting used to.

“But for those of us who were young adults, the transition was easier,” she added. “We came with very little in the way of tangible wealth, but we were educated, we had connections and faith in ourselves. After a while, most of us prospered.”

“Also it was the custom for young Tunisian Jews to do their studies in France,” Marcel pointed out. “I, for example, attended medical school in Paris. But like the others, I would return home for the holidays. It was during one summer holiday that I met Claudine.” Soon afterwards, Claudine joined Marcel in Paris. She enrolled in the Sorbonne where she studied Classical Greek. The couple married in 1959 and made their lives in Paris.

Marcel had deep connections to France. His grandfather had taken French citizenship  before the time Tunisia became a French protectorate.  His granduncle fought in the French army during World War I, his father during World War II. The couple easily fit into the French environment; yet they maintained a close connection to the growing community of Tunisian Jews. “We liked to eat in Tunisian-Jewish restaurants, to visit with our Tunisian-Jewish family and friends. We felt very close to everything that reminded us of our lives in Tunisia and still do,” Marcel said.

By 1965, when Claudine’s parents finally left Tunisia, she and Marcel found an apartment for them in Paris. Her sister, however, immigrated to Israel where she still lives with her family. Claudine sees her often. A committed Zionist, she makes frequent extended trips to Israel to work on projects to assist the nation. A particular cause has been the World International Zionist Organization where she served as vice president for many years and founded the prestigious “Le Prix Wizo France” awarded to the author of a book deemed the year’s best work on a Jewish or Israeli subject.

“The ones who never left Tunisia are old and very poor for the most part,” Claudine noted sadly, as we concluded dinner with an array of pastries and dried fruits. “We help them, but they do not want to leave. On the other hand, there are those among us who left in the 1950s and 60s yet still return to Tunisia for holidays.”

Many others, however, including the people around the Shabbat table that October evening, found the south of France a more appealing vacation destination. Marcel and Claudine began renting properties on the French Riviera while their children were young. Later they bought an apartment in a marina near Cannes where they kept their boat.  And eventually, following a pattern not unlike that of Jews from the New York metropolitan area who become smitten with places like Miami Beach or Boca Raton, they built their dream house in Mandelieu.

At the time of our visit, Mandelieu was the couple’s second home. But two years later when we returned to the Côte d’Azur, Marcel had retired from his surgery practice; he and Claudine had sold their property in Paris and resettled permanently down south.

This time, our friends picked us up at the  recently re-opened Palais de la Mediterranée in Nice, the magnificent art deco land-marked hotel and casino overlooking the Bay. Its award winning architect: Olivier Clement Cacoub is one of their own, Marcel noted, a Tunisian Jew.        

Many things about this evening differed from the previous one. It was mid-week, not Shabbat. Instead of Mandelieu, we headed to Mougins, a hilly cobble-stoned town above Cannes whose Provencal light and picturesque vistas have attracted such notables as Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill, Isadora Duncan and Christian Dior. Instead of following Claudine at breakneck speed, we enjoyed a leisurely drive as passengers in the rear of Marcel’s Mercedes. And instead of a memorable home-cooked Tunisian dinner, we feasted on the sublime French Provencal preparations of Chef Alain Gallatore at Le Bistrot de Mougins. During the Cannes Film Festival, this rustic yet elegant bistro is a favored destination of figures from the French cinema, we learned, including the eternally lovely Catherine Deneuve.

But despite such changes, the pleasures of an evening with the Claudine and Marcel picked up from where we had left off. This time our conversation expanded from the specificities of the Tunisian Jewish experience to larger Jewish-related subjects: the situation in Israel, terrorism, the imminent presidential election in the United States, France’s pro-Arab foreign policy (“They claim to be friends of the Israeli people but dislike the Israeli government,” Marcel said), and, of course, the status of Jews in France in the post 9/11 world.

As émigrés to France from newly independent North African countries in the post war period, Claudine and Marcel represent one relatively recent influx of Jews, part of a population that today numbers 600,000, third largest in the world after the United States and Israel, with a range of ethnic backgrounds that bears comparison to these two countries. There are communities in the Alsatian region in eastern France, some of which date back to Roman times, that flourished, were subsequently destroyed and their residents expelled when Jews were suspected of causing the plague, and then were rebuilt after the Revolution when France became the first European nation to grant Jews full citizenship. Today Strasbourg and its surrounding areas  are thriving centers of Jewish life. There are descendents of Sephardic Jews in southwest France whose ancestors, exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th and 16th centuries, found sanctuary in Bayonne. There is a Jewish community in the Champagne region that dates back to the middle ages when Rashi, the renowned Torah and Talmud commentator, lived and taught in Troyes. There are descendents of Eastern  European Jews who came to France during the early decades of the 20th century and survived the war. Anti Semitism was a constant through the epochs, reaching its most brutal expression during the Second World War, via the Vichy collaboration and the notorious roundups by Parisian police, when nearly one third of France’s Jewish population was destroyed. At the same time, there were the many heroic, humane  examples of French Christians who put themselves at risk to save Jewish lives.

An encompassing overview of the Jewish experience in France can be experienced at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Marais, Paris’ historic Jewish section that dates back to the 11th century. It is housed in a 17th century townhouse which by the 1940’s had been converted into apartments whose tenants were largely Eastern European Jewish immigrants. On the wall of a small courtyard in the building, those who were deported and killed by the Nazis are memorialized in a manner akin to death announcements posted on the walls of Eastern European towns: a spare listing of name, birth date and occupation. It is a minimalist artistic gesture of enormous power that even exceeds in emotional impact the museum’s impressive collection of paintings and ritual objects, archives and texts.

In Nice, a very different kind of museum suggests a connection among Jews who have made France their home. On a hilltop not far from our hotel, a lovely park shaded by pine, olive and cypress trees and planted with lavender beds surrounds the simple white stone building that is the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. Here are the most important collections of the artist: stained glass, tapestries, sculptures, sketches, engravings, and seventeen biblically-inspired paintings of scenes from Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs.  

The Russian-Jewish painter of dreams and myths who so ably captured the essence of life’s magic and euphoria lived in Nice for many years. He called France the place where “I was reborn for the second time.” Perhaps the same might be said of Claudine and Marcel, their friends, the larger Jewish Tunisian family of France. All embody the age-old themes of the Jewish diaspora: displacement, resettlement, perseverance, achievement, and ultimately the  difficult balancing act we American Jews practice every day: melding into the larger society while retaining a specific historic identity. For like Chagall, these Jews with deep roots in North Africa managed to find a new home and be re-born in France.

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TRAVEL BYTE: Jay R. Berkovitz Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860 is a scholarly yet eminently readable book that provides valuable insight into the periods preceding, during, and following the French Revolution when Jews were granted full rights of citizenship. Berkovitz illuminates the role ritual played in helping resolve tensions between maintaining a separate identity and becoming part of modern western society in both urban and rural Franco-Jewish communities.

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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