February 10, 2023

A return to Club J: A winter in the French Alps with Israelis - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

The African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided some 35 million years ago to form the 12,000-kilometer-long mountain range called the Alps.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reputedly said, “When I shall stand before God, the Eternal One will ask me: ‘Did you see my Alps?’”

I find myself for the second time in my life in the French Alps, 2,200 meters high, drinking a hot cocktail with Chartreuse and chocolate at a café with a spellbinding view of this heavenly creation.

My husband and I have taken the cable car up 500 meters from the exquisite town of Fontcouverte-la-Toussuire. Picture postcards have nothing on this ski area called Les Sybelles. And for those so inclined, it’s ski heaven.

We’re past skiing age, but we are accompanying our son, daughter-in-law and their four children on their winter vacation. By the end of the week, even the three-year-old is skiing.
She was an infant when we were here three years ago. That’s when we first heard that a new disease was discovered among skiers at a nearby French ski village. The word “coronavirus” was still new on our tongues.

Back then, I came down with a nasty cough and cold, and couldn’t understand why everyone was raving about the French cuisine. It was flavorless to me, and I poured mustard dressing over my plate. Was it coronavirus? By the time we had antibody tests available in Jerusalem, it was too late to tell. At the beginning, we knew so little. Whatever it was, thank God I recovered. I’ll never know.

By March of 2020 we were in a lockdown, of course. My husband and I wondered if we’d ever travel again.

But here we are. There’s an extra level of thankfulness for everything we do now as life moves closer to normal.

We’re staying at a modest hotel called Club J. Several floors were remodeled while it remained closed during the pandemic, but it’s basically the same. The couture in the row of nearby shops is French. The cuisine is (kosher) French. But this week, the lingua franca in this French hotel is Hebrew. Almost all the hundred plus guests have come from Israel, although many speak French. When we were last here, there were more Jewish families with at least one foot in France. When the owner, the ever-ebullient Stephane Mamou, whose Hebrew is patchy, gives his welcome speech in French, a Jerusalem ophthalmologist steps up to translate for non-francophone Israelis.

This sage crowd of Israelis have done their homework and know that French and Swiss children don’t have their winter vacation this week. The hotel and slopes aren’t crowded. So they’ve taken their own children and grandchildren out of school to experience European skiing. The snow is fresh powder, and the skies are bright azure.

Most of the Israelis are two-career, middle-class, religiously observant families with a passion for skiing or snowboarding that they want to pass on to the next generation. There were so many families from Binyamina and Petah Tikva that they hired buses for the two-hour ride from Geneva Airport up the mountains. Daily packages arrive at Club J for guests who have ordered from Amazon France.

HAVE I mentioned that J (pronounced “gee” in French) in Club J stands for juif [Jewish]?
Yes, here in France in 2023, dozens of Jewish children – from toddlers to teens – are on the slopes wearing bright orange identifying ski bibs announcing that they are taking skiing lessons from the Club J team of instructors.

If I found this astounding in 2020, when reports said that 90% of Jewish students in France, the world’s third-largest Jewish community, reported experiencing antisemitic abuse, it’s even more impressive in 2023, when statistics show that antisemitism in France is worse.

Club J manager Paris-born Nathalie Mamou shrugs. Nothing has changed, she says. It might be new in America, but there has always been antisemitism in France. In Paris, yes, but not in this picturesque village in the Alps, where she and her husband have been running Club J for more than 30 years.

Jews have long had a fondness for the Alps, with a history of significant Jewish climbers and skiers before World War II. Jewish merchants are even credited with popularizing lederhosen, which would later become the attire of their Nazi tormentors. In World War II, there were French Alpine villagers among those who took in Jews and obscured their presence. Other Jews sought escape routes via the Alpine mountain passes.

Ariele Nachmias, an educator from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, who has come to ski with her five children, tells me she felt perfectly comfortable speaking Hebrew in the local shops, with her husband and sons wearing kippot. Like most areas during WW II, this one was mixed with supporters and reporters of the Jews; but because there were only 3,000 Gestapo in France, mountain hiding places often eluded them, says Nachmias. She points out a stone memorial to the resistance, which used mountain plateaus in this area for parachute drops. In Europe, Jewish history is always with us, even on a mountaintop vacation.

AS SHABBAT approaches, just like the guests at hotels in Israel, the Israelis pool talents to shape Shabbat prayer. The result is a stirring blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi tunes.

Stephane Mamou speaks about how the mountain missed the beauty of Shabbat when the Jewish outpost was closed for the pandemic.

Shabbat rest takes on an added meaning for the skiers – particularly the youngsters – who have been taking lessons all week and now trade the heavy gear for Shabbat attire.

And when the haftarah from Judges is read – “…harim nazlu mipnei Hashem” (mountains melted in the presence of the Lord) – we all had a new appreciation for the mountains, too.