Notre Dame in Yiddish

Nick Underwood

The World’s Fair in 1937 was a grand event that attracted millions of visitors. It was also a cultural coup for Yiddish culture because that World’s Fair housed the Modern Jewish Culture Pavilion: a pavilion dedicated to the history of Yiddish culture. As a result, there was a deep connection between Paris in 1937 and Yiddish speakers in France and even Europe more broadly. All across Europe, that summer and fall, Yiddish newspapers turned their attention to Paris and the Fair.

In 1937, there were around 160,000 Yiddish speaking Jews in Paris, including residents and tourists. Naye prese wanted Yiddish speakers who lived in Paris as well as those traveling to the capital from the provinces to have a book that would help them navigate the city. So they created Pariz: yidish hant-bukh veg vayzer un firer, a guidebook published to coincide with the Fair.

The introduction to the guidebook reads: “Thousands of Jews live in Paris. Thousands of others have come to the largest capital in the world for the World’s Fair.” Yet the book appeared to have been geared equally towards Yiddish-speaking Jews living in and visiting Paris. The guidebook served as a crash course in modern French republican history for Yiddish immigrants. It highlighted several public plazas such as the Arc de Triomphe, Bastille, Place de la Concorde, Place de la République, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame. In almost every case, the book presented a particular location with a photograph and description. It also included a detailed history of Paris. The guidebook sought to make Jewish immigrants in Paris more familiar with their new home.

In the section of the guidebook dedicated to the many Parisian public spaces—the ones many of us have walked through and around while on holiday or going to work—a standout is the section on Notre Dame. In about three simple paragraphs, the entry covers many layers of French history and highlights the importance Notre Dame has for both residents and visitors to France. That this guidebook was published, edited, and written by prominent Yiddish communists in 1930s France makes it stand out as well, highlighting the resonance that this religious icon has had and has for several different communities.

Specifically, about Notre Dame, the guidebook reads:

Found at a place where, since the end of the third century, one could have found a church.

In 1163, Maurice de Sully began to build Notre Dame. It was completed in 1242. In 1431, Notre Dame was the sight of the coronation of Henry the IVth of England as King of France.

During the [French] Revolution, it was dedicated to the Cult of Reason (November 1793). [It also hosted] the crowning of Napoleon (1804), and his marriage to Marie Louise (1810) was celebrated in Notre Dame. In 1914, a bomb dropped by a German plane hit the cathedral.

Notre Dame—along with the churches in Chartres, Amiens, and Bruges—is of the most beautiful in France.

As the description explains, there has been a church in the spot where Notre Dame sits for over fifteen centuries (technically the first church was built there in the 4th century (not counting the earlier Roman structures), but we will give the editors some leeway. In fact, some of their other dates here are slightly off, too). We are also reminded of the role the cathedral played during the Revolution. We are even also told that the cathedral withstood a bombing. The hit was not a direct hit, but the church did suffer some damage. And in 1937—during a summer that featured the now iconic faceoff between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in World’s Fair pavilion form, as the Nazi German and Soviet Union pavilions were provocatively placed directly opposite from each other—surviving an attack from the Germans took on renewed symbolic meaning, both for the French Republic and for European Jewish culture.

When the guidebook was written, Notre Dame was a symbol of permanence in a time of monumental modernization and change. The guidebook editors, welcoming Yiddish speakers to the World’s Fair—an event celebrating the latest in modern innovation—nevertheless oriented their readers toward that remarkable legacy. But everything changes, and nothing lasts forever. It would only be a handful of years after the guidebook was published that the idea of a Yiddish guidebook to Paris would appear absurd as the majority of the world’s Yiddish speaking population was devastated. And just last week, on April 15, 2019, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I sat, watching on the news channel France 24 on my iPad, as Notre Dame burned. As a historian, I should know that nothing is eternal, everything changes, but the enormity of that truth always has the power to strike me anew.

Underwood, Nick. “Notre Dame in Yiddish.” In geveb, May 2019:
Underwood, Nick. “Notre Dame in Yiddish.” In geveb (May 2019): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Nick Underwood

Nick Underwood is assistant professor of history and holds the Berger-Neilson Chair in Judaic Studies at the College of Idaho.