Salt print of Adolphe Crémieux, December 1856, by Nadar (1820-1910), from the J. Paul Getty Museum. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
While Jerusalem’s French connection thankfully lacks the violence and crime of the 1971 movie by the same name, both the film and real-life “French” Jerusalem have one thing in common: both expose us to off-the-beaten-track sites. Take a look at what you’ll find in Jerusalem.
The Israel Museum (11 Ruppin Blvd.) has amazingly reassembled an original 18th-century French salon called the Rothschild Room. (All that’s missing is the fancily dressed smart-set listening to a book or music recital.) It also has an impressive collection of French impressionist and post- impressionist painters, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas,
Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as works by earlier French artists such as François Boucher.
Speaking of paintings, 120 years ago, Count Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat painted Crusader-related images on the wall of what is today known as Jerusalem’s French Hospice, a non-denominational facility for the terminally ill. Painted in fresco-style, they were recently uncovered during a routine repair.
First built some 130 years ago as St. Louis Hospital – after the same King Louis IX who was responsible for broadening the Inquisition and burning Talmuds – it stands at 2 Shivtei Yisrael St. Around the corner from the hospice is the Romain Gary French Institute of Jerusalem, which promotes French culture by means of French-language courses, a French-language library and a media and entertainment space.
Romain Gary was a Second World War pilot, French diplomat and filmmaker, but was best known for his prolific writing. He won literary prizes using various pen names. Born to Jewish parents, his mother had him baptized a Catholic. Oddly, he had a large menorah at the foot of his bed when he shot himself dead.
Jerusalem’s Ratisbonne Monastery – built in the late 1880s, in Rehavia, 26 Shmuel HaNagid St. – is named after two French Jewish brothers who converted to Catholicism and made it their mission to have Jewish children follow in their “way.” Just before Israel declared statehood, 60 children from Kfar Etzion were safely evacuated to the monastery before the kibbutz fell. Most of the kibbutz defenders, however, were killed in the fighting. During the period in which the Jordanians blocked Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus, the Ratisbonne Monastery served as the school’s law faculty.
Today, the monastery is an international theological school for those studying for the Catholic priesthood.
Several Jerusalem streets are named after French personalities who were either themselves Jewish or had connections to Jews. Centrally located Emile Botta Street is named after the French consul in Jerusalem during the Ottoman rule. The 90-year-old Pontifical Biblical Institute stands on this street. This facility has been in the news lately, as an Egyptian mummy belonging to the institute is currently on exhibit at the Israel Museum.
Emile Zola Street in the German Colony honors the outspoken journalist who defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence. In a Jan. 13, 1898, letter (J’accuse!) to the French president, Zola publicly charged the French government and army with suppressing the true story behind Dreyfus’ arrest. Zola himself paid a high price for his bravery; he fled to Britain to avoid prison, only to die there suddenly and suspiciously from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Located near Emile Zola Street is Adolphe Crémieux Street. Crémieux was a Jewish lawyer, statesman, staunch defender of human rights (both of Jews and slaves) and the founder, in 1860, of the Alliance Israélite Universelle; four years later, he served as its president. Unfortunately, the Alliance vocational school no longer stands, but you can still see approximately where the gate was on Jaffa Road, in front of the site’s successor, the Clal Building.
Crémieux did much to better the conditions of the Jews in France. In 1827, he advocated the repeal of the Oath More Judaico, a piece of stigmatizing legislation left over from pre-revolutionary France. Crémieux apparently brought about the abolition of the oath when he defended Rabbi Lazard Isidor. The rabbi – who went on to become France’s chief rabbi – had refused to take the antisemitic oath and was charged with contempt of court. Crémieux got him acquitted. On March 3, 1846, the French Supreme Court finally declared the oath illegal.
Crémieux was likewise involved in defending Saratov (Russia) Jews facing charges of blood libel. For his instrumental assistance in bringing about the end to slavery in the French colonies, Crémieux was nicknamed the “French Abraham Lincoln.”
In recent years, Crémieux Street drew significant attention when police investigated former prime minister Ehud Olmert for the suggested favorable terms he received on the purchase of a home on this street, in exchange for help rendered to the contractor who sold it to him. The National Fraud Unit ultimately advised that there was not enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges against Olmert in the “Crémieux Street affair.”
Frederic Chopin Street is named for the well-known, Polish-born, French composer and pianist. Probably not coincidentally, this Talbiya street is the site of the Jerusalem Centre for the Performing Arts. Six halls serve as regular venues for music and dance concerts, dramatic performances and films.
Located in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Estori Haparhi Street is named after the first topographer of the land of Israel. Haparhi’s family lived in Provence, but was expelled from France, along with the rest of the medieval Jewish population. Following this expulsion, he made aliyah and frequently preached the necessity of settling in the Holy Land. While making his living as a doctor, he wrote a book citing the biblical and halachic borders of Israel. He claimed that the Arabic names of numerous towns and villages reflected their Jewish textual names.
Speaking of medieval France, the Jerusalem municipality named three Mekor Baruch neighborhood streets after medieval Jewish scholars, Rashi and his two grandsons, the Rashbam and Rabenu Tam.
Neve Yaakov’s Gamzon Street recognizes the French resistance work of Robert Gamzon. In wartorn France, he set up an underground for issuing false identities to children and young adults. With these papers, they were able to escape France. Gamzon went on to fight in Israel’s War of Independence and to do research at the Weizmann Institute.
Talpiot’s Marie-Pierre Koenig Street commemorates the bravery and leadership of the French general who headed the Free France forces in the Second World War and took part in the D-Day landing. During the war, Koenig let members of the Jewish Brigade fly the blue and white flag, in defiance of British orders banning such action. Even after becoming the French minister of defence, Koenig remained an advocate of the new state of Israel.
For a general understanding of how the Holocaust affected French Jewry – including the critical assistance provided by French Jewish underground workers – plan a physical, or at least a virtual, visit to Yad Vashem (yadvashem.org). France’s recognition of Jewish defence was short-lived, however. Following the Six Day War, France embargoed its Mirage fighter jet. This forced Israel to develop the Kfir jet, and a street named HaKfir reflects Israel’s decision to go blue and white.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.