I almost bought a Christmas tree this year. I’m surrounded by them at every turn. And I’m not talking about the ones decorated in squares and parks and grand public boulevards like the Champs Elysees. I’m talking about the vendors and fleuristes who line the streets with trees big and small, waiting for you to walk by and snatch one up with intentions of decorating it late into the night with Bing Crosby on Spotify and a roaring fire crackling away.
Of course, you see them every year in New York, too, but something about seeing them here in Paris made me want one of my very own. I like Bing Crosby, after all. Roaring fires, too.
This isn’t a new desire. I wanted a Christmas tree when I was a kid, too. I also wanted to decorate our house with lights, but Mom wasn’t having it. We are Jews, after all. Despite my plea to use white and blue lights to represent our very own fete of the season, she still stood her ground. (Meanwhile, I Skyped with my mom the other day and out of the corner of my eye caught white twinkle lights on one of my father’s plants outside on the deck!)
Eventually, the fascination faded. In fact, there were a few years where I even began to resent all the hullabaloo and Christma-fication of our culture during the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve: the wreaths, the jingle bells, the red bows, the fa-la-la-la-la in every Zara, Bloomies and Duane Reade.
Then I moved to Paris and it was all fa-la-la-la-la-la-lovely.
“It’d be like having a plant,” I texted Jen over WhatsApp.
“A plant is different from a Xmas tree,” she wrote back. “I understand the temptation, but you’re a Jew.”
Did my Mom call you? I wondered.
I continued to eye my options wherever I went, but as the weeks went by, it seemed sillier and sillier to get a tree.
Well, now Christmas is only two weeks away, I’d say to myself. Silly to have a tree for just two weeks.
And then, Well, now it’s next week…
And then, next thing I knew, Hanoucca had arrived! At long last, now I could spend time giggling about yet another way to spell the 8-day Jewish holiday, along with how to celebrate it. (And yes, I thought about just calling it a “Hanoucca Bush.”)
Alas, here are the 8 ways in which I honored the Festival of Lights in the City of Light…sans greenery.
1. I Bought a Menorah.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t come prepared. I had to pack conservatively, OK? So on my mother’s suggestion, I went down to the Marais where there are a ton of Judaica shops. I went in and out of several to find the perfect menorah. (Because that’s how I roll. I do not stop until I find The One.) Sadly, I’d seen all the options two years ago in Israel. It seemed silly to spend money on something that wasn’t made, or at least designed, here in Paris.
“But you will have bought it in Paris,” texted my Mom on WhatsApp, as I continued to walk in and out of shops.
So I bought a practical, moderately priced “travel” menorah that’s easy to pack because it sort of looks like one of those fancy electronic cigarettes, but in “blunt-size.” I even lit it with my family one night over Skype!
2. I Ate a Falafel After Buying a Menorah.
This isn’t necessarily Hanoucca related, but chickpea balls are fried in oil, so… since I was in the Marais, which is home to the famous L’As du Fallafel that I tried for the first time a few years ago, I decided to get myself the best stuffed pita ever. That is, if I could keep myself upright. Just as I was walking away from the window with my ginormous falafel stuffed with the most crispy fried chickpea balls, gooey eggplant and spicy tahini one could ask for, I nearly ended up on my bum. I saved my sandwich, but did a pretty good job of losing my humility—and one ball. It was enough of a slip to cause onlookers to gasp and come to my rescue. My cheeks flushed, I assured them I was alright. Then a lovely British woman pulled a piece of shredded cabbage from my hair and pointed out tahini dripping down my handbag and on the sleeve of my coat. To make it even worse, the cute French-Israeli guy who sold me the falafel came rushing over insisting that he replace the ball I lost. It. Was. Mortifying.
3. I Bought Sufganiyot.
Continuing the trend of eating all good things fried in oil, I stopped into what looked like a very old Jewish bakery for some sufganiyot, aka jelly donuts, aka beigmets. I bought one and also got some rugalech (“croissants au chocolat” as they’re known here). After the aforementioned debacle, I waited until I got home to taste them. Verdict? Not nearly as good as New York’s Breads Bakery or the Doughnut Plant.
4. I Went to Temple.
This was an odd move for me, because I don’t even go to temple at home on Hanoucca. (Does anyone, really?) But, alas, I’m in a foreign city and don’t know many people, let alone Jewish people, so off to shul I went. Funnily enough, I actually found out about this service and synagogue thanks to good ‘ole Tinder. While the lad from Liverpool who app-chatted me wasn’t my b’shert, I appreciated the tip. Not only was the temple a stone’s throw from my apartment, but it was absolutely beautiful: vaulted ceilings, candelabras, antique wooden benches—the works.
While the entire service was led in French (with some Hebrew here and there) I enjoyed just getting to observe the rituals of a modern-day shul in Paris. Some were quite similar to what I’ve experienced before, namely the men and women sitting in separate sections and the ladies gabbing and shushing each other as if they were the new cast of Gossip Girl: Paris. While others were quite different like, for example, the fact that during the service, a man with a pilgrim-looking hat came around with a basket for donations and the no-phones-in-shul memo was clearly lost in the mail.
The best part, though, was when the Grand Rebbe Haim Korsia showed up. Who knew France had such as a thing as a Grand Rebbe? Ironically, the “grand” man of the hour is tres petit. Still, he had such a presence that I finally broke my silence and asked the woman next to me what all the fuss was about. She gave me the spiel—about how there’s an institution (the “Consistoire”) filled with members from various notable Jewish communities that is responsible for electing the Chief Rabbi. Despite his giving a sermon in French, I caught a few words—mostly about light and happiness—and found it very moving.
5. I Attended a Family Meal in a Real Parisian Home.
Thanks to some very good friends of my family who themselves have relatives in France, I received an invite to attend their family’s Hanoucca gathering. I had not met any of them before, but because of the referral, I knew I’d be in good hands. And was I ever! Not only was I greeted with open arms (and several double kisses) but I even got a few presents! What’s more, we lit candles, sang my favorite holiday tune Maoz Tzur, and enjoyed a delicious homemade meal of chicken tagine. While the personalities were new, the language quite was different and the latkes were MIA, it was a family fete like any other with a brother and a sister and in-laws and grandchildren and the lovely, elder cousin who doesn’t want any help getting up from the couch, mercibeaucoup. Even after four hours of shmoozing, the good ‘ole Jewish goodbye was in full effect.
6. I Made Latkes.
I couldn’t go 8 days without potato pancakes! In recent years, during what’s become an annual gathering that I host for my nearest and dearest, I started to really get into the groove of frying up pretty dang good latkes. While there isn’t much to them in terms of ingredients, without a food processor, they require a lot of arm strength for all that peeling and grating. Plus, it’s a super messy endeavor. Flour here, egg yolk there—not to mention the stank that’ll leave your hair smelling like onions for days. In the past, I got by with a little help from my friends—both in the grating, frying, eating and cleaning department.
Sadly, this year it was just me, which was a bummer because I think I made my best latkes ever avec thyme (leftover from my market shop) and a bonus sweet potato!
7. I Witnessed a Chabad Parade.
It may not have actually been Chabad, but their actions were very ‘Religious Rebel Rouser’ a la the internationally known Hasidic group. Car after car after car whizzed by on Boulevard Haussmann with giant menorahs on the their roofs and loud music blaring from their stereos. They even had police escorts. I caught it by happenstance on Night Four while walking home from the movies and couldn’t help by pause for a giggle and some photos.
8. I Wrapped Presents.
Since gift-giving wasn’t in the equation this year, I decided to do the next best thing: gift wrapping! Nothing says thoughtful quite like getting crafty. Who doesn’t love them some ribbon and bows? What’s more, this was for charity. I joined an expat organization called InterNations and while clicking through their upcoming events, I came upon one looking for volunteers to wrap presents. It didn’t give much more information other than a name and an address, but I signed up anyway. Before choosing my preferred date and time, I clicked around on some of the other InterNations members who had signed up and came across a very handsome British pilot. He had signed up for Monday at 3.
I can do Monday at 3, I said to myself.
Oh, don’t judge me. My original intentions were altruistic and selfless. I love to wrap and I love to give, but can’t I maybe get a little somethin’ too?
Turns out, not while playing Elf.
Despite turning up in my cutest, casual, cadeau-wrapping attire, Pilot Guy was a no-show. What’s more, I had to put on a red T-shirt that totally clashed with the maroon pants I had on.
Call me shallow, but I’m in Paris! In public! Plus, it turned out this “volunteering,” while technically for a organization that helps doctors learn how to be clowns (no joke—it’s kinda awesome!), took place in the basement of Darty, which is essentially France’s Best Buy.
While it wasn’t quite as gratifying as actually making and handing out hot soup to someone who’s clearly in need, the money that the occasional person put in the tin does go to a great cause. So I spent four and a half hours wrapping everything from irons and iPads to hair dryers, speakers, vacuums, sewing machines and Nintendo DS’s. I even wrapped a gift card. Plus, I got to practice my French in the process. For example, I learned how to say: Do you have a receipt? This was a very important question that I only wish someone had instructed me to ask the moment I got there and started wrapping. There’s now a 10-percent chance someone may have gotten a free iPad. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Bonnes fetes tout le monde!