An Unconventional Yom Kippur Celebration in a Paris Hotel

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For the fourth year in a row, a group of Jews ignored the many synagogues in the area for some decidedly more hamish services

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To say the least, it is strange to go to Paris and celebrate with fasting and self-denial. But that was not the strangest of my experiences this Yom Kippur.

I had an invitation to speak in Paris after the Columbus Day weekend. Why not go early?, I reasoned. Celebrate Yom Kippur in France and enjoy a few days in the lovely city.

I had located a conservative synagogue that seemed inviting over email and not too far a walk from the hotel.

I checked into Le Grand Hotel, part of the Intercontinental chain located on a full city block adjacent to the Paris Opera. Even if not the fanciest Paris hotel, it is certainly opulent, with gold framed pictures, velvet couches, a table full of orchids at the entrance, and rich woods everywhere.

At about 6:00 p.m. on Friday, I prepared to leave for the synagogue with my tallit bag under my arm packed with an English high holiday prayer book and a book of divrei torahs from my old synagogue to read while the sermon was being given in French.

As I was about to leave the hotel lobby, I noticed one of the many electronic conference boards announcing the rooms in which meetings were occurring. Only one entry appeared on the screen:

Office
Yom Kippour
Salon Lulli

I asked the concierge where Salon Lulli was. "Up the stairs to the left." As I approached the grand staircase, I could see a slight male figure going up the stairs ahead of me with an "I T'bas" on his yarmulke. I followed him. Inside, the Lulli conference room was set up just like any other conference room in classroom style, with short and narrow white-clothed tables and deep blue velvet chairs. The only difference was a tall black divider separating the room, and a huge box in the front propped up on a chair and covered in a white cloth.

A man greeted the male figure and me. I asked him what was going on. He noticed my tallit bag and said they were having Yom Kippur services in about an hour.

"What?" I asked, a bit confused. "Yom Kippur services in the Intercontinental Hotel?"

"Yes," the man, who I now noticed was dressed in a black suit with a clean white shirt and had a black beard, said.

"Yom Kippur services?" I stammered again.

"Yes. There are many Jews in the area and they need a place to pray."

"What about the other synagogues in the area?" I had walked around and noticed within a 15-minute walk the main Paris synagogue as well as several other smaller ones. "How is this service different?"

"They are the official ones. This service is more hamish," he said.

I was still confused, and had told the people at the other synagogue that I was coming. I thanked him and left for the synagogue I had arranged to attend.

After a 45-minute walk that passed under the Eiffel Tower, I arrived on Rue George Bernard Shaw. A furtive man was guarding the door at No, 8. Seeing my tallit bag, he let me in. But my name was not on the list that the lady checking the people with cards had. Finally, a man speaking the Queen's English and excellent French intervened and said I could stay for Kol Nidre, as it was about to start, but tomorrow I would have to go to the auxiliary high holidays location a few blocks away. And during Kol Nidre I might have to move seats if someone claimed the seat I took as their own.

The services were recognizable: Conservative egalitarian with a male and a female rabbi sharing the service, community members coming up to the bimah to read passages from the prayer book in French. But the place lack solemnity. Congregants were coming in late, leaving early, and did not seem to have much feeling for the day.

The next morning, I decided to go to Salon Lulli. Hamish it was. Men in black suits, white shirts -- this being France the white shirts fit tightly to their bodies, and had a distinct designer aura -- and plenty of hats instead of yarmulkes. The only color in the room besides my bluish yarmulke and tallit were gym shoes and Crocs. One pair yellow, another green, another blue. The women stayed in the back and the children darted back and forth through the black mahitz.

It was a typical Chabad service: Utter chaos. Out-of-tune singing. Table pounding to the repetitive songs. A young boy going up to the front to show he knew his stuff by singing the Ashrei in a loud musical voice. People mumbling at various places in the service and talking during prayers. Total religious, spiritual mayhem. The only exception was during the silent Amidah, when all really was silent.

Between portions of the service, tired men lay down on a row of chairs all lined up; the 20- and 30-year-olds sat around a table trading stories. And then the auction. This is Yom Kippur, what auction? The auction of the various honors -- lifting the torah, aliyot, opening and closing the ark. I could understand enough French that each honor went for a few hundred, even a few thousand euros.

All of this crazy chaos and singing and table pounding in an ornate room In a fancy hotel overlooking one of the priciest shopping streets in Paris. What could the Frenchman walking below think of the strange language, off-key, unharmonized singing, rhythmic pounding coming from the open windows above his head?

After the shofar blasted, I learned that this was the fourth year there was a Yom Kippur service in the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel in Paris. Moreover, for the last two years there has been a weekly Shabbat minyan in the same room in the hotel. Oh, and the hotel manager is Jewish and gives the Chabadnicks a good price on the room. After all, there is not that much demand for conference rooms in Paris hotels on Saturday mornings. And he gets the kitchen to cook kosher food, at least for the break fast. Strange things happen when you fast for a day in Paris -- especially if it is to repent your sins.

Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr.

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Presented by

Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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