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Tennis shoes at Yom Kippur services in the Jewish Quarter

Last Friday my friend and I toured the Memorial du la Deportation on the eastern tip of Ile de la Cite. The small, stark memorial honors the 200,000 French Jews, resistance fighters, and forced laborers who died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Containers of dirt and ashes from each of the camps line the memorial’s walls. It’s a place that inspires silence and reflection, quite a contrast to the festive, noisy park just above.

Researchers have found that it was mostly the French police, not the Nazi occupiers, who rounded up and persecuted the French Jews. In 1995, Jacque Chirac became the first French president to acknowledge France’s complicity in the genocide.

After experiencing the memorial, we walked to the old Jewish Quarter in central Paris’s Marais quarter. My friend needed a substantial meal before services since she would be fasting until sundown the next day, so we stopped to have a vegetarian and a “Texas” pizza (with a chili topping) at one of the few restaurants serving anything besides wine and beer before 7 PM.

The Quarter was created 900 years ago in the area around Rue des Rosiers. Many of the original groceriess, bakeries, and hammams (bath houses) have been turned into trendy shops, and the area struggles to retain its Jewish identity. According to my Rough Guide to Paris, “. . . for a long time local flats were kept empty, not for property speculation but to try to stem the middle-class invasion.”

We arrived at the orthodox temple and passed through its large wooden doors. We had brought shawls and were wearing tennis shoes: shawls because we assumed we’d be required to cover our heads, and tennis shoes because Jews don’t wear leather products on Yom Kippur.

According to Rabbi Aron Moss at, “… leather shoes are a symbol. They represent the work we humans are supposed to achieve in this world. We do this work every day of the year, except one. One day a year we withdraw from the physical world and retreat into a world of pure soul. That day is Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we resemble angels. We do not eat or drink, and we do no physical work. We escape for a day to a spiritual haven. And we don’t wear leather shoes. We are not taming any animals today. “

We made our way to the upper balcony to sit with the women and young boys who had not yet had their Bar Mitzvahs. The men were below on the main floor singing and chanting. The cantor had a gorgeous, soaring voice with all the appropriate throaty curlicues, caressing the Hebrew words in an earthy arhythmic flow.

One older woman wore a lace cap and another young women wore a striped fabric wrapped around her hair, but otherwise none of the women–young or old–were covering their heads. Quite a few, we noticed, were wearing tennis shoes.

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