Passover in Paris

How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

Well, on this Passover, I ate hard balls and stale matzoh, whereas on all other Passovers, the balls were soft and the matzoh crunchy.

End of blog, story over. Next year in Jerusalem!

I kid, of course. We all know the Passover story takes WAY longer to get through, and this one was actually quite lovely, so here goes.

For my first Passover in Paris, I attended not one, not two, but three vastly different seders, during which I was able to test my own knowledge of the holiday (my favorite, by the way) by comparing and contrasting how the French retell and celebrate the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt versus how we do so back in the U.S. 

For Night One, I attended my first real Parisian seder at a real Parisian home. I’ve known this family since moving to Paris, thanks to good friends back in the States. They invited me over for Hanukkah shortly after I moved to Paris in 2014 (no latkes, but amazing couscous and Moroccan chicken) and I’ve become friendly with both the matriarch, a woman in her 70s who I occasionally see art exhibits with, and her son and his husband who I occasionally dine at super delicious restaurants with.

Upon arriving, I was asked if I wanted “quelque chose a boire” (something to drink). My mind immediately went to alcohol. This is a holiday after all—and a family gathering, no less. Plus, PARIS! But as she listed off the options—a bevy of juices, water (with and without bubbles) and, after a long pause during which I hadn’t yet said anything, whisky—I realized wine was perhaps being reserved for the table. I went for water with bubbles, secretly baffled as to what city I was in.

When we moved to the dining room, I was sat in between the two guys where an English version of the Haggadah lay on my plate. While I was thankful and appreciative of this gesture, I was also really looking forward to seeing how much I could understand in French. After all, I know the story of Pesach—or Paque, as it’s called here. How hard could it be?

That said, I remained terrified as to whether I’d be asked to read aloud from the Haggadah. At my family seders, and others I’d attended in the States, we retell the story of Passover by taking turns reciting passages aloud (usually in English). The thought of exposing my poor French skills like this seemed equivalent to running naked through the subway during rush hour—despite knowing all the commuters.

Thankfully, they pinned most of the French readings on the poor 11-year-old tween and her 8-year-old cousin. Usually, the children are just asked to do the four questions. But not in this maison! I felt bad for the 11-year-old as the tone in her voice was all “I SO do not want to be doing this!” which only angered her mother and grandmother even more as she read insanely fast, skipping over punctuation marks. I almost offered to read aloud in French just so that I could make her feel more adequate about her own language skills since mine are likely more elementary, but I got the sense there was a lesson being taught so I just sat quiet and tried to follow along. Despite the speed reading, doing so was actually easy. It appeared I knew more French words than I thought—and recognized enough of the story and Hebrew —to pass the Pesach test.

The first new custom I came across was when everyone dramatically leaned on their left elbow while drinking one of the four cups of wine, rather than just back in their seat. Then, while I do think someone broke the middle matzoh (Afikomen), no one hid it for the kids so I assumed there’d be no bargaining for gifts as was always the case in our family. (One year our grandfather gave us a trip to Disney Land, which my parents later informed us was only the actual tickets to the park—not the whole “trip.” They had to fund the rest, to their own dismay.)

Instead of horseradish to represent the bitter herbs, there were celery leaves, and the charoset was more jam-y than nutty, composed mostly of figs and dates—sans apples, wine or walnuts.

Then came the balls. They weren’t bad, by any means. It’s just that they were not quite small enough to fit in your mouth in one bite, but also not big enough to try and cut without risking a “slippery-little-sucker” Pretty Woman moment and it going flying across the room. I managed, thankfully, without taking anyone’s eye out.

We didn’t finish the second half of the seder after the meal, which happens a lot in the U.S. (be it because everyone’s too drunk, in a food coma or just plain-old over it), but we did have the most delicious almond paste macaron-like cookies for dessert. Ten points for France! 

I knew I’d want Matzoh Brie for breakfast the next morning, and wasn’t sure I’d be sent home with a box of matzoh as is the case in the Lieberman household (along with those oddly delicious kosher chocolate lollipops from Bartons), so I had picked up a box earlier that day in preparation. There was only one kind to choose from, and without knowing much from brands anyway I figured it’d do the trick.

Enter Exhibit B, the stale matzoh. Even after soaking it in water, frying it in oil and drenching it with syrup, it was still a bit cardboard-y.

I was disappointed, but hopeful there’d be some cracklin’ matzoh at Saturday night’s seder, which was a whopping €99 to attend. This one was being thrown by Paris’ most posh conservative Jewish synagogue in the fancy 16th arrondissement. I put on my heels and red lipstick for this one, having requested a seat at “le tableau jeune”—the young table—to maximize my chances of meeting interesting people. (Read: smart, sexy, successful, funny French Jewish men with good hair and a hefty amount of frequent flier miles.)

Before I could even make it indoors, I was stopped by a security guard after snapping a photo of the building and the Mercedes Benz cars parked out front. He covertly revealed his orange security arm badge and then proceeded to give me the third degree. He asked me my age, what shul I attend in New York, what I do for a living, where I live in Paris, what shuls I’ve attended here, etc. At first, I was annoyed as to why I was being questioned while others weren’t. When I asked him about this, he replied, “We don’t know you.” Then I was all, “Fair enough, shalom, merci and another 10 points for France!”

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Salons Hoche catering hall in the 16th arrondissement

Once he finally allowed me in, I realized I’d be second-sedering it in the French version of every suburban catering hall in Long Island: high ceilings, chairs covered in fabric with bows, chandeliers with unlit candles, rose petals. The shmaltz factor was at an all-time high—but with a side of chic. It was awesome.

To my delight, I actually knew someone at my table: a lovely single lady I’d met at another synagogue event the year prior. I sat in between her and this guy Olivier who was with another guy, causing me to question whose team they played for during the entire first half of the seder. The rest of “le tableau jeune” consisted of two female friends who looked to be in their 40s, a single guy who looked to be in his 30s and a random (but adorable) elderly couple who clearly didn’t get the memo.

Overall, this was a huge affair with at least 150 people sat among several round tables, each with their own individual seder plates. The rabbi and other participants sat at an oval table in the center of the room, where they passed around a microphone to lead the seder. It was a joyful evening filled with lots of Hebrew (more so than French) and really awful catering food. There were also more hard balls! I guess they like ’em al dente here in Paris.

The evening was long and short on wine. (Again!) With 8-10 people per table, one white and one red was not going to cut it. Aside from the fact that we paid a pretty penny for this evening, we’re supposed to drink four glasses—each! It’s a good thing I’m pretty confident in how to ask for another bottle of wine in French.

Still, with or without a buzz there was a great energy in the room. We sang mostly all the songs: Chad Gadya, Who Knows One?, etc. but Elijah was notably—and ironically, missing. By the end, though, white napkins were being waved in the air before we all stood and sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

Upon leaving, I locked eyes with a fine looking “mec” (guy), but stupidly kept on walking because I have no game. Had I turned around and introduced myself, I may have avoided seeing an older drunk man stumble out of the building and unzip his fly to take a piss on a side street before entering the metro. Stay classy, Monsieur. (Don’t be too alarmed. This actually happens quite often in Paris.)

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The next day, I started to debate whether I could sit through yet another multi-hour affair. (It’s no wonder two seders are usually the limit!) But I had committed to attending a third and final seder with a friend at the Maayan Center in the hip and trendy 11th arrondissement. The rabbi there is Pauline Bebe of the Communauté Juive Libérale, and also the first female rabbi in France, so I didn’t want to miss what would likely be a festive, laid-back evening of cool vibes and vegetarian proportions. I chose my outfit carefully once again, this time going with patterned pants, a leather top, denim blazer and my new white Adidas Stan Smiths. I was keenly aware that this would likely be more of a “Downtown Brooklyn” crowd, as opposed to last night’s Upper West Side crew. 

Unfortunately, my ensemble wouldn’t matter as my friend Cole and I were sat at the Leftovers Table. You know the one I mean. The one at weddings or bar mitzvahs where they put all the people they don’t know what to do with and just hope they get along. We had a lone, grey-haired woman with a giant mole who was definitely winning the one-sided starting contest she was having with Cole; a single gay guy from Georgia, a blind woman and a handful of other random folks, most of which were all very lovely and helped make the evening unforgettable and quite funny in a We’re-All-In-This-Together sort of way. 

Then I caught sight of the colored markers on the table and knew things were really about to get kooky. I love a holiday where arts n crafts are involved! We used them to draw on take-away boxes that each person was encouraged to use for food—either to give away or keep for ourselves. (I took matzoh to replace the stale box I had at home.)

Other alternative activities included writing a haiku to interpret our own meaning of the seder, as well as performances by a woman dressed as Elsa from Frozen singing “Let Us Go” (in French) and various other pop-culture mash-ups, done both in French and English. (The Haggadah was actually in French, English and Hebrew—holla!)

They also did the Left Elbow Lean during the Kiddush, and when the self-anointed head of each table presented the seder plate (as is customary to do in the beginning), they went around and blessed each person individually by hovering it over our heads like a space craft.

No balls—soft or hard—were served at this meal, but kids did come looking for the Afikomen, the all-veggie dishes were quite delicious and there was (FINALLY!) plenty of wine to go around…and around and around. In fact, by the time we left, Cole was making out with the mole woman and I turned the gay Georgian straight.

Just kidding. 

It was, however, definitely the most entertaining of all three seders, while still being representative of the holiday and its general meaning.

Overall, each evening had its own merits and left me with memories I know I’ll recall wherever I celebrate next year—be it Jerusalem, Paris, or back in Oceanside, New York, where I know I can expect some super fluffy balls and crunchy matzoh. Oh and wine. Lots of wine.

One thought on “Passover in Paris

  1. Interesting…..Ma’ayan is who created/ran/orchestrated the ‘woman’s’ Seders from a few years back! And the music was from Debbie Friedman,

Whaddaya think?