A winter in the French Alps with French olim
By Barbara Sofer
February 14, 2020
The lingua franca in the dining room 17,000 feet above sea level is French. Hebrew is a close second.
A Zionist high.
I find myself in the French Alps, in the exquisite town of Fontcouverte-la-Toussuire. Picture postcards have nothing on this. And for those so inclined, it's ski heaven. My husband and I are accompanying our son, daughter-in-law and their four children, including a baby, on their winter vacation.
The language is French. The couture in the shops is French. The cuisine is French. But when the hotelier goes from table to table to ask where the guests are from, they all name towns in Israel. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Givat Shmuel, Holon. The largest and the most boisterous delegation says Netanya, although it turns out that for some at the table Netanya is a future wish. Each Israeli table exhibits local pride when introduced.
Except for the grand-mamas and grand-papas who have arrived from Paris and Geneva to be with their Israeli families, our fellow-travelers are for the most part French Jews who have moved to Israel over the last decade. Because of their French connections, they know well the school calendar year in France, and have all chosen to take their children for a family ski vacation the week before the French schools break for February vacation. One couple had spent their honeymoon here while they were still living in France. Now Israelis, they're back with four children.
With a slight sense of guilt for revealing its name because our French-Israeli brethren may want to hold on to their secret hideaway, I now tell you that the hotel is called Club J.
J stands for juif. Jew.
Yes, here in France in 2020, tens of children - from kindergarteners to teens - are headed out to ski slopes six days a week sporting bright orange identifying ski bibs announcing that they are taking skiing lessons from the Club J team of instructors.
No Jewish stars or outlines of Jerusalem decorate the logo. Still, J is J.
Not to mention that when the ski helmets come off, numerous kippot can be seen on Club J'ers shopping in the boutiques.
DESPITE EVERYTHING I've read or heard about the situation of Jews in Europe, and France in particular, no one seems concerned about looking Jewish or speaking Hebrew in public. The French ski instructors, professional and compassionate, catch on right away to the junior skiers non-French names: Matan, Eliana, Ariel.
I understand that everyone is on vacation, that they've come to ski, not to engage in politics. Still, the relaxed atmosphere is a surprise and a reminder not to believe everything you read. The reports say that nearly 90% of Jewish students in France, the world's third largest Jewish community, report experiencing antisemitic abuse. In 2018, antisemitic acts reportedly rose by more than 70%.
Standing in the dessert line at the Club J food buffet with its chocolate eclairs and crème brule, I ask the grandparents who still live in France about antisemitism. The question is always greeted with a look of surprise and the same reply: C'est ne pas Paris. This isn't Paris."
In Paris and other big cities, they admit, there is a problem. Not here.
One grandfather I speak with at length is indeed from Paris. He assures me that he's not worried about the future. He already has an apartment in Israel where he and his wife visit every few months. A retired teacher in an ORT school, he says they have prepared their children for the future with a Zionist upbringing. He gestures with pride to the group of ebullient immigrants - his own children included - filling the dining room. "They've moved to Israel not out of fear but out of Zionism," he says. "We gave our children good Jewish education. They took part in Bnei Akiva. We took many family trips. They fell in love with Israel. That's the future. We recognize it and we're happy about it. Along with the negative, we see this as a positive moment in Jewish history."
The French olim who have returned to Club J for vacation are already different from their contemporaries who are still living in France, says Nahtalie Mamou, who opened Club J together with her husband, the ebullient Stephane, three decades ago. That's not only because they ask for chopped tomato-cucumbers salads and eggs with their breakfast croissants and brioche.
"They have larger families than the Parisian Jews do," says Mamou, "They party less. Next week when the Parisians arrive, the lounge will be filled with late-night dancing and entertainment that the Parisians like. The new Israelis go to bed earlier so they get up early and eke out the maximum time on the slopes."
And, she says, there are lots more of them than when she and Stephane opened Club J. 50,000 French Jews have moved to Israel in the last two decades. Absorbed in the workforce - education, hi-tech, business - they are affluent enough to take a ski vacation with their children back in the Alps. That, and the ubiquity of low-cost flights, has made a big difference, too.
The Mamous also spend half the year in Israel now. Two of their children live in Tel Aviv. Both she and Stephane are Tunisian Jews whose parents were born in Italy. She laughs.
"That's how it is with Jews; we've always been on the move."
On Friday afternoon, the ski equipment has been returned to the rental shops, replaced by white shirts and Shabbat dresses. French wine and hallot are on each table. Time to celebrate. Among the unusual dishes is one called tfina pkalia, a mix of spinach and beans, from the Tunisian Jewish kitchen. But the Shabbat songs are familiar. The one that resonates loudest among all the guests is the one that recognizes the challenges of transitions, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's gesher tzar meod.
The whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid.
Crossing bridges feels like the right metaphor here with the Zionist francophones high in the Alps.