“Bonjour, gut morgn” is the typical greeting at La Maison de la Culture Yiddish Bibliothèque Medem in Paris (MCY).
Studying through Smith College’s Junior Year in Paris, I had the privilege to immerse myself in both Yiddish and French. While any time spent in Paris feels too short, the program ended suddenly due to COVID-19.
Even though I left earlier than anticipated, studying abroad allowed me to experience the strength and vibrancy of the Parisian Jewish community. I was most happy when learning about Jewish culture in French or French culture in Yiddish.
At MCY, I attended classes, lectures, and concerts and often helped teach the children’s cultural program. I also spoke Yiddish in London, Stockholm and Antwerp. Most notably, I participated in “Yiddish Marathon” over winter break, where Yiddish speakers of all ages and backgrounds gathered at a hotel in Greece to speak only Yiddish for one week.
In Paris, French Jews welcomed me to Shabbat dinners and Jewish text study groups and even a Tu B’Shevat park clean-up. It wasn’t easy to be an outsider, but I worked hard to integrate myself, and made wonderful friends. The vast majority of Parisian Jews today are Sephardic, and I loved experiencing Sephardic traditions for the first time.
My wonderful host mom Bella was born in Morocco, and her first language was Judeo-Spanish. She cooked delicious cookies for Jewish holidays and let me try on her family’s hundred-plus year old, traditional Sephardic wedding dress.
My proudest moment during my study abroad experience was at the Moishe House Paris République, which hosts events for young Jews. Hazzan Jeremy Stein of my shul, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, sent me a recording of him chanting the chapter, and I practiced it for weeks. I also put together the perfect Purim costume to honor French and American culture: the Statue of Liberty.
Finally, Purim arrived. Several of my friends and Bella attended the gathering and heard me chant. I beamed when people congratulated me. I laughed when they told me they had never heard chanting like mine with my Ashkenazi trope and American accent. Coincidentally, another Megillah reader also dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. The more, the merrier, I thought.
A few days later, I was told I had to go home. I cried while saying goodbye to friends, but I knew I wanted to be with my family as the situation escalated. I am grateful to be back in Milwaukee. This is a difficult time, and I am deeply concerned for our community members’ mental and physical health.
We cannot be together in person, but we need to support each other, now more than ever. I am heartened by the explosion of virtual Jewish events. Using technology to attend classes and discussion groups and services is new and unfamiliar for me, but I am optimistic about it.
I have experienced the challenges of finding new Jewish communities for myself, and the rewarding results. And I feel like all my hard work has paid off when I log on virtually to community events happening around the world and greet people with either “bonjour,” “gut morgn,” or both.