You never forget your firsts, which may explain my affection for the scene of my debut into Parisian life. Although my heart is firmly planted on the Left Bank, the Marais never ceases to delight. Like Paris itself, it is a place of contrasts and contradictions. It’s incredibly up to date, and yet a promenade along its narrow, sinuous streets is a step into another time, another place.
For centuries, the Marais has witnessed the ebb and flow of its Jewish population. In the Middle Ages, a flourishing community known as “la Juiverie” (the Jewry) was served by purveyors of kosher groceries, synagogues and cemeteries. Once a wealthy quarter, when the seat of power moved from the Louvre to Versailles, those who could follow did so, and the neighborhood declined. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in the Marais. It would take years, but the course was set for revitalization.
The newcomers prayed in shtiebels (small prayer rooms) located at the back of stores or in homes. In 1913, construction of a synagogue was commissioned by Agoudas Hakehilos (Union of the communities), an association of nine Orthodox Jewish congregations primarily of Russian and Polish origin. The synagogue would be built on a narrow parcel of land (5 meters wide by 23 meters from front to back) located at 10, rue Pavée (it was one of the first in the quarter to be paved). Its official name is Agoudas Hakehilos, but most know it as “synagogue de la rue Pavée.”
They engaged the architect Hector Guimard. It would be one of his last Parisian projects and the only building in his oeuvre destined for a religious purpose. The master of Art Nouveau may have seemed a curious choice, and yet it was fitting. For these new Parisians, the new structure would be an affirmation of their tradition, expressed in the esthetic vocabulary of their adopted homeland.
The best architecture is informed by the characteristics of its site and its intended use. On a site that precluded lateral expansion, Guimard built toward the heavens. An armature of reinforced concrete clad in blocks of cut white stone rises to a height of 12 meters, and tall, narrow windows and fine pilasters underline its verticality. The concave central façade suggests an open book, crowned by the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Stripped of much of the ornamentation we associate with earlier Art Nouveau, its calm simplicity announces the restraint of 1920’s style.
A synagogue is a house of assembly, a house of study and, of course, a house of prayer. The building serves each of these functions. A library and study rooms are situated up front. and the sanctuary at the back. Here, too, the volumes are vertical. Two stories of mezzanines frame the center, where light enters through a series of skylights and a large bay window at the rear.
Inside, Guimard occupied himself with the ensemble of decorative elements and furnishings. Lighting is provided by lamps, candelabra and sconces of his design. The undulating backrests of the benches repeat the movement of the façade, their décor a reprise of its ornamentation. Vegetal motifs adorn the cast iron guard rails, and similar motifs, sculpted in staff, are found on the walls and ceilings.
The synagogue was built entirely with private funds. It was consecrated on 7 June 1914, although it had been in use since the end of 1913. It has been a witness to the history of the quarter for nearly 100 years.
War came. Hector Guimard, whose wife was American and Jewish, moved to New York, never to return. In the fall of 1941, under the Occupation of Paris, anti-Semitic collaborators of the Nazi regime dynamited Agoudas Hakehilos synagogue, along with six other synagogues across the city. It was the evening of Yom Kippur.
Of course, World War II ended, and the synagogue on rue Pavée was restored. On 4 June 1989, it was designated a monument historique (a national heritage site). Above the front portal, a Star of David has been added. Today it is an active, vibrant congregation, a center of Orthodox Jewish activity in the Marais. Like European Jewry, it rose from the ashes and continues.
The synagogue will be open to the public during the Journées de Patrimoine on 14 and 15 September 2013. Take the Métro and exit at Saint Paul, cross rue de Rivoli and take rue Pavée to the synagogue on your right.
By now, you may be thinking of grabbing a bite to eat. Don’t be put off by its humble exterior. L’As du Fallafel (34, rue des Rosiers) serves what has been called the best falafel this side of Israel. Eat inside or get it to go. Just a few doors down at number 14, is the Boulangerie Murciano, home of what I consider the definitive poppy seed strudel. Pick up some drinks, and you have the makings of a picnic. One of the prettiest parks in Paris, and one of the best for people-watching, is the nearby Place des Vosges. Enjoy!
(Photo credits: Synagogue, Greudin; restaurant, MauchoEagle; Place des Vosges, Jane del Monte)