It’s not what you’re thinking.
I’ve been exploring the back streets of my neighborhood. This being France, that means a lot of houses of worship (for a very interesting reason, in this very secular country–another time, perhaps), and this being Paris, they are quite diverse. When you think France, you think Gothic, but the other day, I visited an Art Deco church down the street from my house. (Turns out Art Deco comes from France–who knew? The name is short for arts décoratifs.) On Saturday morning, I went to services at a shul (synagogue) a few blocks from my apartment. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but I like to sit in a synagogue every once in a while and be surrounded by the murmur of one of the languages of my childhood, and I find it interesting to see the varieties of Judaism in different countries.
France has tremendous importance in the intellectual history of Judaism. This is due to the work of the medieval scholar Rashi. He lived from 1040-1105 in Troyes, in the Champagne region of France, and is thought to have made his living as a vintner (wine maker).
Rashi’s importance comes from the set of commentaries that he wrote on the Bible and the Talmud, a 62-book set of volumes that is one of the central texts of Judaism. His commentaries are clear and insightful. They always serve to clarify, but also often form the basis of complex interpretations by later scholars. In a traditional Jewish context, it would be strange to study either the Bible or the Talmud without consulting Rashi’s commentary–if you have a traditional religious education, you start with him as soon as you start studying the Bible in grade school, and continue with him until you die. Rashi’s commentaries sometimes incorporate translations into Old French from a time when that language was not written very often, so they are one of the sources that scholars of Old French have for the pronunciation and lexicon of that language. As an American kid, you just kinda gloss over those, but from my perspective as an adult and a linguist, I realize how precious they are.
So, yes–I went to services the other day. The congregation that I went to is associated with what’s called the Conservative movement, which, despite the name, is the progressive movement in Judaism. The people were about the same as what you would find in a typical Conservative shul in the United States–mostly white, a couple blacks; the main difference was that in the US, there would have been some Chinese girls, while here in France, there were quite a few North Africans.
A common courtesy in a shul is to offer a visitor an aliya–the honor of saying a blessing during the reading of the Torah (bible), and I was offered one. More on this later.
A prominent feature of the Conservative movement is a strong commitment to gender equality, and the Torah readers included a little old French lady who was so tiny that she had to be helped up on a stool to be able to reach the upper part of the scroll. She was helped up politely, and then her pronunciation while reading was corrected just as diligently as that of the men. (Torah scrolls are written without vowels, and two people on either side of the lectern follow along during the reading in regular books that do have vowels in order to make sure that there are no pronunciation errors.)
So, back to the worst thing about being Jewish: the worst thing about being Jewish is that sometimes you have to stand up and sing in public. No karaoke, no musical instruments accompanying you–it’s just you and your voice, and I truly can’t sing. Assuming no genocides, the Jewish male has three trials in his life. Number one: eight days after birth, he gets circumcised. Number three: at his wedding, he has to stomp on, and break, a glass, with everyone watching and without slicing a tendon. Number two: in the middle, at the age of 13 (12 for girls in those communities in which girls do this), he has his bar mitzvah, which means that he has to stand up in front of everyone and chant and sing. (Totally different tonal systems, and you have to do both.)
Now, one of the problems with visiting congregations other than your own is this: the tunes are different. I sound different from most Jews to begin with, since when I read Hebrew I have a Yiddish accent, while most Jews today read Hebrew with a Middle Eastern accent, and that is definitely the case in France, where there is a very heavy North African presence in the Jewish community. (In turn, about 10% of Israelis speak French, again due to the large number of North Africans there. I think it’s the third-most-studied foreign language in Israeli schools, after English and Arabic. See Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s The story of French for the numbers.) You can fake the tune OK in a different congregation if you’re lost in the crowd and you know the words already, but if you have to stand up and sing then you stand out, and that was exactly what I had to do when I said the blessing during the bible reading–stand up in front of the congregation and sing alone. So, what to do about the different tunes? I couldn’t possibly fake the French one, so I knew that I had to do the American one. And, in case I haven’t been clear about this: I can’t sing a note, and I hate to do it in public. Happily, my long and pathetic history of losing judo matches has made me comfortable with looking like an idiot in front of crowds, so I went up to the lectern, gave my name and my father’s name when asked (easy in French), and got ready to do my thing. I fixed my eyes firmly on the siddur (prayer book) so that I wouldn’t see all the pretty French girls and get any more nervous than I already was, and belted it out–in my heavily Yiddish-accented Hebrew, and with the American tune.
“You’re American?”, asked the guy doing the reading–in English. Bien sûr, I answered. “I could hear it,” he said. Oh, well.
Zipf’s Law comes up in a house of worship as much as it does anywhere else. Consequently, here are some of the words that I had to look up later:
- l’office (masculine noun): religious service.
- Moïse: Moses.
- le cercueil: coffin, casket. (Pronunciation from WordReference.com: [sɛʀkœj].) The sermon was a long analysis of the significance of the close conjunction in the Torah reading of two occurrences of the Hebrew word aron with its two different meanings: ark, and coffin. Oddly, the French word also refers to some kind of beverage made by just dumping a bunch of different kinds of booze together.