French Jewish History, 1650-1914

The Republic's liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity.

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Flourishing Jewish Life

Few--if any--countries boasted such a record, and in such a climate Jews flourished. A large Jewish middle class quickly developed, and many had extraordinary careers in everything from banking (the Rothschilds, for example) to the theater (the actress Rachel), from academia (Emile Durkheim) to opera (Fromental Halév). A Jewish lawyer, Adolphe Crémieux, made his name in the 1830s defending liberal causes and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1842, where he was a major political player. After the 1848 Revolution, Crémieux was named to the committee that ran France's provisional government and served as Minister of Justice; in 1870-1 after the collapse of the Second Empire, he sat again in a provisional government as Minister of Justice.

Beginning in 1881, a new force in French-Jewish life began: immigration, primarily from Russia but also from the entire Mediterranean basin. America was always most Jews' destination of choice, but the Yiddish phrase Leben vi got in Frankraych (to live like God in France) makes it clear that few were disappointed to immigrate to France. Thousands ended up in Paris, where large numbers packed into the Marais Saint-Paul neighborhood, which became known as the "Pletzl" (little square). With them came Leftist radicalism, union activism, Zionism, and Yiddish culture in all its forms.

When the First World War broke out, French Jews, immigrants and natives alike, enthusiastically rallied to their beloved flag. Aging Alfred Dreyfus reported for duty in 1914 and served for the entire length of the war, as did his sons. Two of his nephews died on the front.

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Michael Shurkin received a Ph.D. from Yale in 2000 in French and Jewish history and wrote his dissertation on state intervention in Alsatian and Algerian Jewish communities in the 19th century. He lives in Washington, DC.