Continue on, my friends, and take heed – a true tale of tefillin and Paris to read. I hope to enlighten and perhaps entertain with this story which takes place near the River Seine.
|Splendid interior of Pavée Synagogue.|
To my knowledge there are only two synagogues that were built in the Art Nouveau style. One, in Subotica, Serbia, we photographed in 2010. The other, on Rue Pavée in Paris’ Marais district, had remained elusive. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, popularly known as the Pavée Synagogue, was designed by none other than Hector Guimard, who was one of the greatest Art Nouveau architects, and certainly one of the most productive. His accomplishments include the iconic Paris Metro station entrances as well as numerous magnificent buildings.
|The Pavée is squeezed into a difficult site.|
Last February, as part of my preparation for an October visit to Paris, I began attempting to obtain permission to photograph the Pavée Synagogue. My initial emails went unanswered. Thinking there might be a language barrier (I’m hopelessly monolingual), I had a French-fluent friend send emails. No answer, nada, zip. It was time to call in some favors. I asked for help from the European Jewish Community organization, which has used many of my synagogue photos in their books and publications. They put me in touch with people in high positions in the Paris Jewish Community. Amazingly, these highly positioned people only led to a highly confusing labyrinth of other contacts which were ultimately time consuming dead ends. I’d never even seen a photo of the interior of the Pavée, and as I became lost in this bureaucratic web spun by masters of evasion, I understood why.
A month before my arrival in Paris I had occasion to visit with a professional videographer who had made arrangements to film a television documentary about the Pavée synagogue. She said that although she had permission, when she arrived at the building with her filming crew, she was denied entrance. It became clear that whatever they were hiding in there, I wasn’t going to get to take pictures of it.
Fast forward nine months to October in Paris. Though I had given up on any possibility of photographing the Pavée, my wife and I ventured to the gemutlich Marais district to enjoy a good Jewish lunch. The narrow streets of the Marais are lined with Jewish restaurants, bookstores, art galleries and purveyors of all things Judaic. Chasidic rabbis roam the streets inviting Jewish tourists to join them in prayer or visit their prayer rooms. I was approached by a red-bearded enthusiastic young rabbi, who invited us to see his prayer room. Through a doorway, along a dark passage, up a narrow staircase and we were there. If this sounds like a setup for a mugging, it wasn’t.
|The Rabbi invited us to see his prayer room.|
The door to the Pavée was locked. As we stood looking at the exterior, the locked door opened to admit a person who evidently was part of the inner cabal. Not one to dally, my wife slipped in behind him and I followed. We were promptly told to leave. Just as promptly, my spouse put on the charm and asked if we could just take a look … we’d come all the way from Oklahoma, after all. Grudgingly, we were allowed to go up to the women’s balcony and take a quick look; under no circumstances were we to enter the main sanctuary.
Upstairs, we saw a stern, bearded, black-garbed rabbi entering a room adjacent to the balcony. I approached him and explained that I had been trying unsuccessfully to arrange photographic permission for nearly 10 months, that my cause was worthy and my objectives noble. He gave me the telephone number of the congregation’s president who, he said, was the only person who could authorize my photographic incursion into their inner sanctum.
When we reached the entrance lobby I dialed the number he had given me. It didn’t work. A cordial Chasid Shamash overheard my frustration. He looked at the number I was dialing and said, “You’ve been given the wrong number. Those guys upstairs do that.” Dialing my mobile phone, in a moment he had me connected to the congregation President. I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who, after a host of obstacles, was finally talking to the Wizard. Overcoming my discouragement, I explained my desire to photographically document the Pavée for posterity. And “Voila!”, as they say in France, he agreed!