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