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Thriving in France

The oldest Jewish building in Europe is in Rouen, France, a Romanesque stone structure, now underground, with Hebrew inscriptions reading "May the Torah reign forever" and "This house is supreme," dating back more than 1,000 years. Actually, Jews have lived in the south of France since at least the 1st century, brought by the Romans as slaves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jews prospered after the French Revolution, which gave them truly equal citizenship for the first time anywhere in Europe. Their emancipation in 1791 was the signal for ghettos to crumble all over the Continent. The endless list of famous French Jews includes three prime ministers, painters Pissaro and Soutine, writers Proust and Ionesco and French members of the Rothschild family, which bankrolled the French railway network (just as English Rothschilds had earlier helped to finance Wellington's armies against Napoleon).

Meeting the Jewish community is quite easy in France. Two thirds of French Jewry survived the Holocaust and a recent influx of Jews from Arab lands has swelled the Jewish population to 700,000 (it ranks fifth in the world after that of the U.S., Israel, Russia and Ukraine). Active congregations, as well as historic sites, can be found in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Brittany, Normandy and elsewhere.

Half of all French Jews live in Paris. Still in service is the lavish Temple Victoire, where members of the Rothschild family worshipped and whose rabbis still wear Napoleonic-era costume. Fans of Art Nouveau should check out the Agoudas Hakehilos synagogue at 10 rue Pavee, designed by the architect of the fanciful Metro entrances, Hector Guimard. A move is imminent for the Jewish Art Museum (Le Musée d'Art Juif), housing modern works by Chagall, Mane-Katz, Benn, Lipchitz and others.

It will close at its current location near Sacre Coeur in January, to reopen in September of next year in a fine 17th-century mansion in the Marais, the historic Jewish quarter of Paris. To underscore the vitality of Paris's Jewish community, it should be noted that there are more than 100 kosher restaurants.

So go to that section of the Marais long known as the Pletzel (the Yiddish derivative of "petite place"). You might try Chez Goldenberg on the rue de Rosiers, a popular spot for spicy kosher-style cooking.

The busy talk is of food, of politics, of art, of things to come. And every evening the klezmer violins play with happy élan.