Shabbat in Paris might not have the same ooh la la flair as, say, strolling along the Seine with a special someone on a warm summer night. But earlier this summer, I spent my first Friday in Paris with a group of new and interesting friends.
After more than a week on my own in Amsterdam and Brussels, my Parisian excursion was just beginning. Arriving Thursday afternoon via Thalys international train, I had plans to meet my new friend "Celia."
About five months earlier, she and I exchanged e-mail for a few weeks after she contacted me via an online Jewish dating site.
After I booked my itinerary, I contacted Celia. We e-mailed several times, and even talked once on the phone. She said that she was eager to meet me and show me around.
Paris' 375,000 Jews comprise a rather exotic community. Their rich, diverse history — through which French Jews survived massacres, purges, plagues and a Holocaust — coupled with news accounts in recent years about increasing hostilities toward Jews, makes for a fascinating cultural exploration.
But Celia, a professional woman in her late 30s, insisted that news accounts of anti-Semitism and violence were overstated.
"That's not true. I feel very, very safe here," she said.
The Parisian Jewish singles scene also interested me, though Celia warned that Jewish organizations do very little for singles.
"You will be disappointed," she offered. "We don't have anything similar here like you have in the United States."
Celia knew leaders in the Jewish community, including her boss, who was president of a prominent Jewish organization. She supplemented my preliminary research with a name and e-mail address for someone in the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juieves de France (CRIF), an umbrella organization akin to the UJA or JCCA. But my inquiries about events for Jewish singles in Paris went unanswered.
Nevertheless, Celia welcomed me into her social circle, and her friends told me what life is like.
Not an 'Internet Weirdo'
Our first meeting was a Shabbat dinner at her best friend's apartment. She met me at the nearest Metro stop and walked me there. She later said that she was relieved I did not turn out to be "another Internet weirdo."
Our host, Sara, a single dentist in her mid-30s, prepared a delicious kosher feast for eight.
Marcel, a divorced computer engineer in his early 40s, led the prayers and passed around a small Kiddush cup with sweet red wine. Luis, a 30-something MBA from Spain who lived in Luxembourg, twisted the corners of the blue paper napkins to construct makeshift kipot. He also brought his non-Jewish friend, Bette, a stunning Belgian blonde who had never before experienced a Shabbat dinner.
The other women at the table included Sophie, a demure computer-tech personnel staffer in her 30s, and Elena, a fiery Russian dentist who works for a cosmetics company and spent three months last year living with an aunt in New Jersey.
It was an interesting mix of North African Sephardim and Ashkenazi Jews, with a French twist. They were warm, friendly, engaging and interesting.
Sara kept kosher, and the food she brought out was fresh and delicious. The three men wore their makeshift kipot as the group said the blessings.
The dinner incorporated clear Sephardic elements: rice, hummus, lots of vegetables, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot peppers, radishes. The appetizers were so plentiful that I was stunned when Sara emerged from the kitchen with a platter of steaming chicken. Dessert included grapes, cut fruit, candies and a giant bowl of fresh cherries.
As the only American at a table of smart, worldly and inquiring people, the conversation flowed from politics to pop culture to being single and Jewish.
"The Jewish organizations don't do much for single people here," agreed Marcel. "It's too bad because not everyone belongs to a synagogue."
Others nodded along.
"It's not like you have in the U.S.," added Elena. "There were lots of things to meet people in New York."
To accommodate me, everyone spoke English. I don't speak French. Amazingly, most of them spoke four or five languages.
Because of my column, which Celia had told them about, they assumed that I had some sort of expertise in relationships, as well as American pop culture. The questions flowed: "What is it like dating in the states?" "Where do Jewish people meet there?" "Is JDate better in America?" "Have you ever dated a Jewish American Princess?" "Can you explain the Jewish American Princess to us?" "Do you like Woody Allen?" "Which 'Friend' (from the TV sitcom) do you like best?" "Does Dora the Explorer speak French on American television?"
Although I don't know anything about Dora, I tried my best to give them clear explanations.
The after-dinner chatter, fueled by a bottle of scotch, turned a bit more risqué when someone offered to play a game of confession, also with a French twist: We were to reveal our greatest sex story ever.
At first, I thought they were joking, and I was a little reluctant to start sharing stories like this with strangers. They picked me to go first; as the visitor, I did not want to offend.
Even though I tell stories, I'm not quite comfortable with those kind. By going first, I also had no way to gauge how far to take it.
My story involved a situation in college that was more rooted in what could have happened, rather than what actually did. I thought the irony and the tragedy of what could have been might play well with this intimate audience, sort of like an artsy black-and-white film.
Compared to the other stories, well, mine lacked the graphic sex.
Joked Marcel: "This is a typical French Shabbat dinner conversation."
"Yes, even though this is a topic we French talk about, we do not always talk like this on Shabbat," Sara said, as everyone had a good laugh — hopefully, not on my behalf.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit: www.Lrev.com.