By Michelle Huberman
Ever wondered why there has been abundance of kosher restaurants in Golders Green? It’s because of the French Jews.
Believed to number between 10-20,000, this young, affluent and fashionable Sephardi community is turning London into their 21st arrondissement.
When they started trickling over here some 10 or 12 years ago for the highly paid City banking jobs, they would return home on Friday afternoons on the Eurostar for Shabbat with their families. But anti-semitism has dramatically risen in France and they are not rushing to return there.
The young singles are now marrying and starting families here. Their long-term goal is mostly aliyah, but in the meantime they will be educating their children here at Jewish schools.
The community is tight knit and very cliquey – they mostly socialise amongst themselves. Most live in the West End, St John’s Wood, Belsize Park and West Hampstead.
They have absolute horreur of living in the banlieues (suburbs), which in their minds starts at the junction of the Hendon Way and Finchley Road.
Golders Green is known as the Quartier Noir (because of the black hats) and until recently was only a destination for food and kosher restaurants.
But as they are discovering, Golders Green and Hendon are not Seine St Denis, and more recently they have started moving to that side of town. Especially when they start families.
The shops have taken note and Yarden stocks Tunisian kosher specialties like merguez, briques and jars of the sauce for making p’kailla (at a price to give a Tunisian grandmother a heart attack).
Religious life is central to this observant community. They have their own synagogue – Anshei Shalom – above the main St John’s Wood synagogue in Grove Road, under the leadership of rabbi Fihma, and they regularly bring prominent rabbis over from France for their weekly shiurim. In Hendon, Porat Yosef, the Moroccan synagogue, regularly welcomes French newcomers to their service.
Many years ago I was part of their parents’ community in Paris. I lived there through the 1980’s. It was a total culture change from my Hampstead Garden Suburb upbringing and I often felt that I was living in North Africa rather than France.
I worked in the bustle of the Sentier (the fashion district) where entrepreneurial Jewish immigrants from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria mixed happily with Muslims from the same countries.
These were the good times – when the Jews had expressed support for the Arab immigrants and the campaign “Touche Pas A Mon Pote – Do Not Touch My Buddy”.
I look back affectionately at how I was adopted by the matriarchs of both the Jewish and Muslim communities and found myself loving their culture and picking up Arab slang as well as French.
That Sephardi community had an amazing energy and worked hard to re-establish themselves in their new country – having left North Africa in the 50’s and early 60’s when France granted those countries independence.
My generation who had left as kids had good memories of their childhoods, but the older generation remembered the times before the French arrived when there was persecution of the Jews.
The communities from those three countries all had different experiences of departure, but one thing was clear, even when they were living well in Morocco, Jews felt insecure without French protection. Algerian Jews had French citizenship and most of the 140,000 strong community moved to France.
The Tunisian and Moroccan communities (100, 000 and 250,000 respectively) underwent an utter breakup of families. Those that had the money went to France and Canada whilst the others went to Israel and faced harsh conditions.
Many didn’t stick the tough life in Israel and left later to join family in France and Canada who were faring better.
They were not warmly received by the established French Ashkenazi community – many of them survivors from the Holocaust – who saw them as loud and brash and just a little too Jewish.
The Ashkenazim had learnt to hide their Judaism – no outward signs nor mezuzot on the doors. After all – these had marked them out for deportation. But the Sephardim were the opposite: deeply religious and proud Zionists.
Spurred on by the Lubavitcher movement, they were going to revive and transform the French Jewish community. With their large families they soon swelled the 180,000 – strong postwar community to 600,000.
As much as the Jewish establishment didn’t warm to them, the younger generation did. For most Ashkenazi families, either your children married out or into a Sephardi family.
Like so many immigrant communities before them, they were determined to better themselves and make sure their children had a good education. But as they prospered, few purchased property in the city, preferring to rent their homes.
They had experienced losing property in North Africa and still lived with the mentality of the ready-packed suitcase. The exception was a holiday home: families saved for an apartment in Juan-les-Pins where the whole community went en masse for the summer vacation.
But in the mid 90’s something changed.
The second generation Maghrebi Muslims who lived in the banlieues started identifying themselves with the Palestinians.
They labelled as Zionists their Jewish neighbours and turned their anger on them. France was no longer a comfortable place for the community.
Their choice for vacations changed from Juan-les-Pins to Netanya. Most already had family in Israel and realised it was their future.
Israel was where they would invest their money. Breadwinners sent their wives and children to live in Israel but would still run their businesses in France, choosing to commute for weekends – the Boeing aliya.
In Israel they have made their impact : thousands of French tourists spend the summer months there. I once again hear derogatory adjectives used against them: loud and brash and maybe a little too Jewish. But this entrepreneurial and educated aliyah is actually the biggest gift to Israel.
In London, will the French be our gift too – and help reverse the tide of our shrinking community?
Michelle Huberman is the Creative Director of Harif and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Feujs is a French slang for the Jews – a term used by themselves.