by Loren Rhoads
Holding hands inside my coat pocket, Mason and I strolled through the Marais district and enjoyed the watery yellow sunshine. Paris in January was cold. We paused beside a worn brick wall to read the plaque bolted there. Struggling with my imperfect French, I translated the plaque as saying the pockmarks on the wall were bullet holes, left behind when the Nazis shot martyrs.
Our guidebook added that the Nazis and Vichy French dragged 75,000 Jews down this same street on their way to concentration camps.
I was 28 and had no reference for what had happened there, other than a trace of World History in high school. Jews had seemed exotic in the small Michigan farming community where I grew up. Until I met Mason, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t, in some vague way, Christian.
Mason endured his Bar Mitzvah to placate his grandmother. That same grandmother still refused to allow anything of Japanese or German manufacture into her home. She’d disowned Mason for marrying me — without ever meeting me — even though I’d offered to convert. My blood wasn’t Jewish, so our children would not be Jewish. That mattered to her more than her relationship to her only grandson.
Being ostracized was hard for me to understand, harder still to accept. I would never be one of them. Love could not transform me.
It amazed me that Mason loved me enough to cause a rift in his family.
Afterward, to my disappointment, I found that prejudice ran both ways. My Presbyterian mother said that she didn’t care that I was marrying a Jew, but she would have preferred that he at least practiced his religion. My Baptist grandmother sniffed, “At least he isn’t Black,” but raised no objections at the wedding.
I’d grown up so sheltered; I hadn’t seen the prejudice in my own family. Visiting Europe for the first time opened my eyes to the scope of bigotry against the Jews.
Rue des Rosiers, the street we strolled, had served as the main artery of the historic Jewish quarter of Paris. The quarter had been created in the thirteenth century when King Phillipe Auguste “invited” the Jewish merchants living in front of Notre-Dame to move outside the newly built city wall. The name Rosiers referred to the rosebushes that grew against the outside of the wall. I admired people who found beauty, despite their exile from the safety of the city.
After some consultation of the map, Mason led us to Jo Goldenberg’s deli. Paris Access reported that on August 9, 1982, masked gunmen threw a grenade into the deli, then opened fire as people fled. They injured twenty-two customers and killed six. The PLO took credit for the murders. The gunmen remain unknown.
While we were in Paris, the First Gulf War tore apart Iraq. Throughout Paris, armed soldiers guarded the national treasures. Mason and I read the Herald Tribune each day, dreading the news that Iraq had unleashed germ warfare against Israel. Half-convinced that Jews and those who loved them were safe nowhere, I feared entering the deli.
Added to that, I’d only been in one deli in my life: Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which my mother-in-law proclaimed was as good as those she’d grown up with in Brooklyn. In big, dark Zingerman’s, I’d kept to familiar foods like egg salad. I daringly ordered it on pumpernickel, which I’d confused with rye bread. In my defense, I’d had a purely white bread childhood. While I explored knishes and hamentashen and Doctor Brown’s cream soda at Zingerman’s, I remained a Presbyterian-raised girl only a couple of years off the farm. I didn’t know corned beef from pastrami. I just thought I didn’t like it.
Goldenberg’s deli was huge and bright inside. The people behind the counter bustled around in spotless white aprons. Their middle-aged patrons filled string shopping bags with packages handed over the counter wrapped in white paper.
Mason and I nudged each other forward. He wanted me to order, in my fractured French. I wanted him to do it, because I felt like such an outsider.
While he negotiated with the counterman, I wandered around the fringes of the salesroom, looking over the merchandise. I didn’t recognize most of it. What was matzo, or gefilte fish? Nothing had prices that I could see. I chose a bottle of wine that I hoped would be both inexpensive and palatable, a vin table rouge. I slipped it onto the counter as Mason got ready to pay.
“You want this too?” the man behind the counter asked in English.
I nodded, too shy to speak.
Mason and I stopped to eat in the little park behind Notre-Dame. We huddled together on a green bench. The buttery orange late afternoon sunlight gave little warmth. It flared from the stained glass windows of the great cathedral.
Nearby stood the Deportation Memorial, which honors the 200,000 French men and women of all races and religions murdered by the Nazis in World War II. One wall of the memorial is starred with 200,000 backlit crystals: one burning for each life snuffed out. Visiting the memorial the previous day had been the first time I’d encountered the command to “Forgive, but never forget.”
How could you forgive?
How could you live without forgiving?
Mason unwrapped the sandwich and handed half to me. The pastrami piled so high I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to bite it. Instead, I contented myself with nibbling. The pastrami had a marvelous metallic tang beneath its mouthwateringly salty flavor. The caraway seeds in the rye bread burst between my teeth. I laid my head against Mason’s shoulder and swooned, chewing with eyes closed in order to savor. I’d never had a sandwich so delicious.
We ate until we were thirsty, but Mason wasn’t comfortable swigging from the bottle of wine in the park. We decided to cross the Petit Pont back to our hotel in the Latin Quarter.
The Hotel Esmeralda dates from 1640. Huge yellow boulders, mortared together, formed the outside walls. We laughed that such a place would never survive an earthquake. A single steep, narrow stairway wound up from the lobby to the warren of rooms. We saw no such thing as a smoke detector or a fire escape. We found the place charming.
In our little room, I’d been reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I’d read the book as a child, but it came so much more alive for me now, in a hotel named for the Gypsy dancing girl across the river from the cathedral. Still, I’d had to put the book down in a moment of horror when I reached the crones gossiping over the Foundling’s Bed. On viewing the child Quasimodo, one of the women said, “I should guess that it’s a beast, an animal — the offspring of a Jew and a sow — something, at any rate, which is not Christian.”
My God, I thought. How could people have said such a thing, and meant it? I know that fiction does not equal reality, but twentieth-century bigotry had been so much worse than Victor Hugo could have imagined.
That frosty January evening, our small steam-heated room remained chilly. Mason and I snuggled together in our clothes on the soft bed, pulling the blankets up over our knees. We each drank deeply from the bottle of wine, which turned out to be the perfect complement to the sandwich: rich and thick and slightly sweet. It chased the robust flavors of pastrami on rye across my tongue and touched a flush to my cheeks. We rested the wine bottle on the rickety nightstand and held the remainders of the sandwich carefully, so that pastrami did not slip between our fingers.
I thought I was in heaven, even before Mason produced dessert. Generally, I don’t like cheesecake. Mason regarded this, with amused resignation, as a character flaw. I agreed to sample a bite of this cheesecake, only a bite, when he held it toward me on his fork.
Jo Goldenberg’s was like no other cheesecake I’d ever sampled. It melted inside my mouth, exquisitely sweet and creamy. It tasted not too rich, not at all cloying. The texture was just dense enough to be solid, but not gummy like the cheesecake my mom made from a box. The subtle aftertaste of lemon lingered on my tongue.
I found it impossible not to watch as the fork traveled from the dwindling slice in the small white box to Mason’s mouth. He laughed and fed me the final bite.
And then I was in heaven: safe in the arms of the man I loved, cozy and sated in an old hotel in Paris, tasting the trace of sweetness on my husband’s lips.
“Pastrami in Paris” was originally published on Trip Lit in January 2003. It was reprinted in 2014 as part of All You Need is Morbid on Wattpad.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.