Get to know the other Bayonne
Of course, as we planned our trip to Bayonne, we were subjected to the expected jokes. If youre already in New Jersey, why Bayonne? Why not Newark or Trenton, playgrounds of the Western world?
But we didnt just land in Bayonne, that beautiful city in the Aquitaine region of southwest France. We got there in pleasant stages. First came the delicious flight to Paris with Air France and our upgrade to its splendid First Class section.
After exploring Paris Jewish sites for five days, we boarded the swift TGV train to Bayonne to spend a Shabbat weekend with the Jewish community.
Bayonne is a picturesque port city near the Spanish border, in Basque country. Here, in the 1500s, after the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews found a safe haven in the Saint Esprit quarter, where the imposing synagogue, built in the mid-19th century, stands. From there it was a five-minute walk through the narrow lanes of a charming old area to the Hotel Ibis, where our knowledgeable guide, Andy Fischer, waited to take us on a two-hour walking tour of the Jewish sites.
Nearby was the bridge to the Old Town, with its lovely shopping area, car-less streets, grand 13th-century cathedral, and many restaurants, including Cazenave, the venerable chocolate shop and café famous for its signature hot cocoa topped with a two-inch domed froth.
Bayonne has long had Jewish connections. Among the many contributions of the early Jewish settlers called the Portuguese by the locals was the introduction of the cocoa bean and chocolate manufacture, making Bayonne the chocolate capital of France. Today, of the 150 Jewish families who live in and around Bayonne, only 10 are direct descendants of the original Portuguese Jews who came nearly 500 years ago.
The lively Friday night services were led by the young hazan and acting rabbi, Meir Kenafo, who also teaches 10 children in the Sunday school.
About two dozen men were at services Friday night and Saturday morning, in a grand building that can hold more than 200 worshipers. Next to a pillar to the left of the bima was a feature rarely seen in a synagogue: a small spiral wooden staircase leading to the pulpit box. But because it resembles a church furnishing, it is no longer used today.
As elsewhere in France, Bayonnes Jewish community now comprises immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia Jews who have energized Jewish life in France since their arrival in the 1960s.
The memorable weekend we spent in Bayonne coincided with the communitys monthly hosting of a Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch. In a reception room, a dozen men and women sat at a long, festive table singing zemirot and enjoying the home-cooked, Moroccan-flavored meal. Their friendly interaction demonstrated that this is a close-knit community; they appreciated my brief remarks in French expressing my thanks for their warm welcome.
Bayonne has one kosher meat and grocery store that carries wines and Israeli products. It is run by Albert, a good-humored former Israeli known to everyone as Bebert. Besides assisting the hazan with the services, he helps prepare the Shabbat meals.
One of the men the Jewish community is most proud of is its native son Rene Cassin (1887-1976), the eminent French statesman, jurist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN adopted in 1948. The family of the noted Prime Minister of France, Pierre Mendes-France, claim roots in their Sephardi ancestry to Bayonne.
At the synagogue office we met a couple, the Delgados, who trace their ancestry back to the original Portuguese settlers. They showed us the extraordinary proclamation issued in Bayonne on April 1, 1933 only two months after Hitlers rise to power in Germany wherein the municipality publicly protested anti-Semitism and racism, the only such official manifesto in all of France.
One of the most heartwarming stories we heard was told by a tall, blue-eyed Basque who had been invited to meet us.
My grandmother had a farm and mill right near the border and secretly helped Jews cross to safety, he said. Running by our property was a stream on the other side of which was Spain. I remember my mother telling me she was about 12 in 1943 that when she would come home from school and see two socks hanging in the front window, it was a sign that she had to go play at a friends house. Of course, it meant that Jews were hiding there and my grandmother didnt want to compromise their safety with the presence of a gregarious little girl.
The Basques on both sides of the border helped Jews during World War II. Bayonnes Basque Museum, devoted to the culture and arts of this ancient and fiercely independent people, hid the synagogues Torah scrolls from the Germans and returned them after liberation. In two of their rooms, the museum also displays Jewish religious items and documents pertaining to the history of Jews in Bayonne.
Because of its access to the sea, the entire Atlantic coast of western France was under German control. When the Germans came, some Jews went into hiding; others fled, having received advance warning. We heard about those terrible times from Madame Pinede, an agile 80-year-old survivor of the Holocaust who still lives in the spacious apartment her family has dwelled in for more than 200 years. Her father was a freemason working as a translator for the German army. He befriended some fellow freemason soldiers who told him about a forthcoming raid and he was able to alert the community. However, Bayonnes altruistic and courageous rabbi, Ernest Ginsburger, who spoke out against the Germans, was deported.
To make your travel in France more enjoyable and cheaper and to be tempted, as we were, to explore nearby Spain, before you leave the United States, get the France n Spain Rail Pass, which lets you travel without waiting on long ticket lines; call 888-382-7245. Also, visit Rail Europe for special rates and low fares.
The latest of Curt Leviants six critically acclaimed novels is the two-novella collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet and Weekend in Mustara, which was a finalist for the Hadassah Literary Prize. Erika Pfeifer Leviant writes about Jewish art and travel.
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