My proactive Rabbi : David Dahan

Gens, Rencontres

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I must speak to you about him, even if I know that a million words would not suffice. Even this screen seems to be ridiculously small to capture the bubbly personality of my Rabbi, David Dahan. I take a split second to reflect on this….and smile: the first thing that I think of is the smell of the cigarettes that he smokes, frozen, on the pavement in front of the synagogue.

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The smell of tobacco, discreet and fleeting in the cold of winter, perfectly illustrates the capacity that I have to write about this scholar further to the hours and months of interviews.

This is no easy task. It is difficult to paint the portrait of such a creative spirit. Plus, it would not please him to see an article, irrespective of its length, dedicated to him. It is for this reason, for the first time and against all professional instinct, I will not paint the portrait of the man, but a friend.

The first time that I met a priest, it was in the calmness of his rectory. The room was large and austere with a view over a pretty little garden. The Rabbi Dahan welcomed me at his home. I entered into the privacy of his kitchen and that of his family. Armed with a vegetable peeler, “brought back from New York, you have no idea of the number of vegetables it has peeled!” David invited me to start the interview, he was preparing his lunch. It was after two o’clock in the afternoon.

Two young girls were playing on the floor –Tiféreth (which means “splender”) the explanation is a little short but we will come back to this later) and Ohra (“light”). In another room his wife Rebecca “Becky”, was getting busy.

– Go ahead!

He was far from intimidated by the recorder that I had, even before I had pressed record, I already had 5000 words to write. With his sleeves rolled up on his slender forearms, David energetically peels his vegetables, responds to my questions without avoiding a single one, laughs, offers me a beer between two explanations of scriptures, jumps up, invites me to follow him into the kitchen and I witness a culinary conversation with Becky (his wife is American), all this while discussing the depths of his faith.

Pulling a face and sceptical:

– What is the meaning that you give to the word faith?

Nothing is simple with David. He has this ability to analyse my questions in such a way that it is almost up to me to respond. The simultaneous conversation with Becky in fast paced English does not help this.

– In Hebrew faith translates to Hemouna, but Hemouna goes far beyond belief. It also includes fidelity to God

– Do you ever doubt the existence of God?

– I can doubt myself, but God, never! Sometimes we do not understand what he expects of us, we find the journey difficult. You do things without understanding why. Belief is insufficient. It is important to remain faithful and loyal to God. Would you say to the woman who asks you to marry her “what do you understand by marriage?” No! You just do it! It is the same with God!

Born in 1981 in the 12th arrondissement of Paris to a father who was also a Rabbi and brother to numerous others (Montréal, Lille…) David is a Parisian to the core. He limits the city to a handful of arrondissements (nothing beyond the 12th arrondissement, the 13th is to be avoided): the Rabbi has a very personal vision regarding the geography of the city. He is also an immense fan of New York where he lived for a number of years, or Brussels where he interacted with journalists and parliamentary politicians when he worked there for a press agency. From Melbourne where he studied for two years, to Jerusalem of course, to New England where his in-laws live, to Montreal or even Argentina where one of his sisters resides….David has all of the hallmarks of a globe-trotter taking with him his own energy, his own culture whilst enjoying the cultures of those he meets: Belgium beers, bourbons, spices, jazz clubs, English fabrics…

The slightest mention of a text, an image, a sound or a liqueur energises him. He uses his hands to express himself and to bring to life the text of a book, discover the smell of an alcoholic drink, surf the net to pad out his speech (he always has a tablet on hand).

“You are always happy” the caretaker of the Community Centre throws at him. David loves life and life loves him too. And he never fails to pass on this love of life. He does not like melancholy, depression, which consume the soul and worse still cause people to wallow in self-pity.

The Rabbi encourages people to surpass themselves, both in difficult times but also when the monotony of a predictable social life sets in, irrespective of how rich it might be: he encourages people not to let themselves be fooled by appearances. Happiness comes from the fulfilment of our two lives: social and inward. Never mind, if it is sometimes necessary to profoundly shake up your beliefs, your social and emotional experiences: serenity is a personal matter. Courage comes from action.

I raise the issue of social success which is so dear to Jewish mothers. He exclaims:

– Is it that difficult to become a doctor or a lawyer? No, tell me instead if you are a good husband, father, son…there is a true challenge to rise to.

– It is funny: you who are so full of references and teachings you seem to relegate intellect. However, in Yeshiva (Talmudic schools) some students highlight the depth to the scriptures: understanding requires a good dose of intellect, which not everybody has in abundance.

David takes off his glasses and the red mark which they have left lights up his eyes:

-Everyone has the ability to understand. Intelligence is a tool! Some people understand more quickly than others, ok! And then? One person may shine with his speech or his ability to write but will he have understood the profound meaning of the religious word? Has he felt the presence of God? I know certain commentators of the Torah, learned scholars if ever there were, who never once mention God in their book. You can spend years studying without ever meeting God. Educational success is gratifying. Intellect, like social success flatters the ego. The greater the amount of intellect, the more care should be taken to maintain the link with God. There is nothing more glorifying than intelligence. Humans are omnipotent on earth, we have not yet seen snails construct machines, but how we distinguish ourselves from animals is by our knowledge of God’s existence.

– Is this metaphysical relationship accessible to all?

– Yes! Everything we do is linked to religion. Taking leather strips and wrapping them around ones biceps, is it not silly? Shaking a plant (during Souccot – Jewish Easter) it does not mean anything if you do not put your soul into it.

I have to shake him a little to bring him back from the trance state that he enters into from time to time, only broken by a genuine laugh, which fails to slow him down in his train of thought. It is very clear now: my Rabbi is a rapper.

His ghetto is the universe; his crack is the Talmud and his bitches the words. In English, in Yiddish or in Hebrew: he acts with talent, grabs the arm of the person that he is speaking to and draws him to him and shakes him. David Dahan is the only interviewee who sat next to me from the start. How can you surprise him?

In this melting pot of ideas, convictions, he has an extraordinary speech – I do however manage to discern a salient feature of his personality: the extreme tenderness that he shows Becky. She could just as easily be an illustrious Rabbi (look her fingers are entwined and she is frowning: a GREAT Rabbi) he would not express himself in another way. Furthermore, he likes to take advice from her. It is the meaning of his “I will speak to my Rabbi.”

It is all the richness of this person is shown by both his integrity and his extraverted nature. He has a big soul and heart. With the gentleness that he shows on a daily basis with those closest to him and with himself, distracted by a thought during his speech, he strokes his beard and adds:

– While you were asking me the question, I questioned myself.

I keep my thoughts to myself.

3 hours of the interview have already passed by and I am exhausted. It is not easy to keep up with the Rabbi when he talks. He is always there, ready to break the silence.

Always on the look out: no request from his children, his wife or a pain in the neck after prayers escapes his attention. He neglects nothing. A likeable calm, he is bursting with energy, and a collection of words delivered with conviction.

He has an answer for everything, a pleasant tendency for demonstrations; he always falls on his feet. Even when he talks about the creation forty-five minutes after having started an explanation regarding his daughter’s first name….

I must be cunning. From such efforts, with which I would be rendered powerless, I am indebted to him. David is one of these people that we quickly know that we will not forget. Armed with his Kippa in red velvet and his matching socks, he calls out to your inner-self, nothing is anodyne, even taking out the liqueurs on Saturday lunchtime after presiding over the service: his “after”. The kiddouch (lunch provided by a member of the community after Chabbat) just over, he extends an invitation to whoever can hear, and so one minute later, he leads a procession of ten people (men, women and children) his quiff of hair tickling his forehead, with a face dominated by a smile. At home, Becky welcomes us with her smile and her famous homemade cakes, with Ohra and Tiféreth, all three elegant. .

In the living room, the pre-lunch drinks are waiting: a dozen bottles. From the labels he rolls off explanations which are so good that the small collection of different liquors give off a biblical mystic and we are all, last minute guests and close friends and relatives, captivated and drunk on his words.

– Judaism is not a religion!

He blushes as his mind is gripped by an obvious thought. It is obvious to him and ends up being obvious to us too, 30 minutes to him.

Back to the interview he gave a month ago at his home. When I try to keep him in a certain setting, he escapes with the energy of a hassid (a saint) who has gone into a sex shop by mistake. It only needs me to qualify his family environment as religious for him to stop me kindly, but firmly and invite me to reflect on the meaning of my words.

– “Religion” is an interesting word, which can be used for lots of things, but which is alien to Judaism.

– Is this a personal approach?

– No it is a Jewish approach. 2000 years of exile have led Jews to adopt alien terms to express who they are, but alien they are to the religion. It is a spiritual term which is not Jewish. You are Jewish. If you eat pork at Kippur or prayer 3 times a day. It is in you, in what you want and you cannot take it away. Being Jewish is not just a succession of acts and prayers: there is a feeling in each word and action. We practice our Judaism on a daily basis when our actions are dictated by good reasons. Respect your father and your mother! You can say it every morning, but if you do not do this in reality, it does not mean anything.

This is why he practices religiousness: being overzealous in practice can corrupt the meaning.

The thing that is good about my Rabbi is that despite his title, his responsibilities we can talk about everything with him. Therefore, I come out with all the clichés in the right place, where Judaism is presumed to be exclusive and not open to others, condemned by some, antisematic or not. He leaps on this :

– Let’s speak about exclusion! In what way do you feel excluded? Do you feel excluded from the group that tries to convert you or from the group that tells you “dude, you are super, just as you are and if I have something to tell you, it would be to not follow my path, I have 613 commandments! Have you seen the job? I am only asking you to follow 7. Do you get it?” As opposed to those people that say “look at me, I am right, do as I do” I say “I respect you as you are, respect me as I am”. Which is exclusive?

David is young, three years my junior. He has a bushy little beard with red tints and his face his always lit up. He is thin, very thin and he pays attention to his look: trainers or socks always matching his Kippa, red or green. One day when we were alone on the solemn stage from which he presides, he spreads his arms as if he is gathering a maximum amount and miming a judo move. Is he aware of the incongruity of the moment? Surely not! David is unique and indivisible: he must be taken as a whole and tough look if he does not give any warning of what my happen.

He is full of life and I must remind myself that my Judoka, an amateur of German beer is also a pillar of the community, director of the school and well-read scholar.

The Rabbi is also a big reader, he generously offers his opinion about authors, from the bearded Schtreimel wearer to the alcoholic shaggy haired Californian – and even when discussing this I have to concentrate to keep up.

About Céline:

– What an author! But as a human….. what a lousy swine!


– He was especially lucky to move in circles with the literary greats (Dos Passos)


– He had it sussed!

He has his own references, some of which are on the back of one of his jacket, even if Becky does not agree with some of them…

Invited to mine, he continues to peruse the books in my bookcase:

– Hang on, I read this (Kessel) but a very long time ago…

My bookshelf is his only centre of interest just two minutes after entering my apartment. Despite graduating from a renowned school for IT (Epitech, 5 years rewarded by a degree) he is fascinated by books.

Yes: David is an IT specialist by training, specialising in International relations (he did an apprenticeship for a Think Tanks in the US), journalist for a press agency… At 33 years of age he has cumulated more professional experiences than five motivated men and listening to him other doors remain wide open:

– I would like to be a fisherman or a farmer…he that breeds animals has a direct link with the creator….

Go figure: everything seems to be within his grasp. Maybe this is due to his cognitive faculties; to the profound conviction with which he undertakes the smallest of tasks…the reason is deeper than that. David is driven. This is what carries him forward constantly. From the Kosher section of a small supermarket to the lectern, he always has his wits about him. The morning of the 9th of January 2015, I offer for him to join me to do some shopping at a Kosher supermarket in Vincennes: however he is on duty at the Synagogue and declines. His dedication – the synagogue was empty that particular week – saves both our lives. The afternoon of this dismal day, he prays with fervor, intones with all his soul the psalms read in these circumstances (the Téhilimes).

Who better than him can express all of the power?

The improvised Minyan (a group of 10 Jewish men) coming to the aide of a suffering member of the community:

– Thank you for coming (the faithfuls are numb, wide-eyed, he calls out to them) Guys: the force of the psalms is universal !

Who better that him to dissociate religion from the believer while making an overwhelming demonstration of faith?

He chants his faith, his eyes light up, asking you to move away from the general pre-conceived ideas, the stifling seriousness of certain practices: Judaism transcends your whole life.

– Do not always try to understand! Doing will give a meaning.

The stereotypes take a hit. The institutions as well!

– So what: is it a piece of paper that will determine your identity ? You cannot hide what you are, it is obvious! Live with it and find your path! You are not Jewish simply because you religiously follow the mitsvots (the commandments), it is in generally living by them! Being Jewish is first of all being a son, a father, a husband, a citizen. A perfect son: it does not exist! IT DOES NOT EXIST! Simply try to be a good one. Even a mediocre one, but trying is what counts! Be a good son, a good father, a good husband and a good Jew!

Charlie Hebdo, bloodbath at the Kosher supermarket. A record number of French Jews are leaving for Israel: he despairs. He left New York to preside over a small community near to Paris.

– Judaism is not Zionism! Enriching your host country, is a commandment :

– Serve the Kingdom where you are. The kingdom’s interests are the same as yours. The Jews who leave have their own issues. They no longer know who they are. French Jews tend to forget that they are French.

The Rabbi Dahan denounces pessimists, alarmist complainers who only have one thing on their mind: leaving.

– Act! If Aliya (returning to Israel) is your path, do it. But make sure you are not leaving for the wrong reasons; ask yourself questions instead of fleeing, complaining. Take control of your life instead of enduring. It is not inevitable, nothing is written: you have the power over your life: be proactive!

People like to mope around. Let’s be happy! To be Jewish is to be happy! You have a treasure, it is your soul: why complain?

Everything is so positive with him and I feel duty bound to remind him of the hate to which our community is currently subjected.

– For me the followers of Soral and Dieudonné, the Jihadistes: I have no problem with them. They are convinced of their rhetoric. I can have a discussion with them (he interviewed a fundamentalist from Northern Europe) but my time is better spent with those who are looking to understand.

-What do you think for example, of the exaggerated exhibitionism of our coreligionists?

– Big cars, arrogance, money: Jews have a victimisation culture because we have always been persecuted. The current times are mere crumbs in the history of our people. Slavery in Egypt, the prohibitions of the middle ages, the gulags of Russia…

The sorrow of the elders, who survived the concentration camps, is followed by the exhibition of generations who have not known persecution. Evidently, they have better things to do with their money. But, even if they could dedicate their means to other things, should they apologise for their success?

– What do you say to the person that sees in us an exclusive community, convinced about its superiority?

– A Jew is not above a Goy! We have never been better than others; we were the last to accept the Torah that God offered us! It is said that he offered it to all the others. The others initially said: what are the mitsvots? The Jews accepted first and asked questions later. Doing gives meaning. Even if you have doubts, even if you are unsure: when Moses came down from Mount Sinaï with the laws and histories, the Jews found nothing better to do than construct the golden calf! In Hebrew, there are no chosen people, but there are elders. And so what? Is it contested that Judaism came into being before the two others?

– With assurance on this point: no. Thus no superiority complex?

– No! If Judaism is not a single proselyte it is because there is no vocation to change the others. We work to make the world around us better. I only ask you to respect the 7 commandments and you; you want to impose the 606 others upon yourself? Stay as you are, respect me as I respect you and we can live all together. Stop questioning if you should hide or demonstrate your Jewishness. Do as you feel. French Jews are afraid of what they are.

– You do not have any problem walking in the street with your beard and your Kippa?

– What problem? The person who should have a problem is the one that it bothers.

– What do you think of Sunday Jews, or even Kippur Jews such as those who set foot in the Synagogue once a year, in the last ten minutes of the period of fasting?

– They are as Jewish as me irrespective of whether they eat pork at Kippur or prayer 4 times a day, they are Jewish. You cannot take it away from them.

– And our famous solidarity? That which so harmed Ilan Halimi?

– Do you want it? No. “Ahavât Israël” you must love the people of Israel, There is a true link between us. Yes we are rich, not from money, but from our links. There is an implicit obligation to live one’s Jewishness in a community. When you pray at the Synagogue, you do not know three quarters of the people around you, but there is a link that unites us. (He takes the Bible in his hand, it is all crumpled as he takes it everywhere) The Bible is the family album. Moses, Abraham…they are all part of the family!

The words are simple, be they spoken from behind a pulpit or a supermarket trolley, they are true. One is ashamed to doubt or be sad in the presence of David. It is an insult to is overwhelming serenity.

However, he really needs to concentrate everytime he reads the sacred text, four times a week. Four hours before, he gets up to put himself in the right frame of mind. Certain people are engrossed by him, others exchange banalities. None of them trouble him. He is our link to God. The feeling flows well between them, when he struggles with a syllable; he loudly repeats the word of the Torah (read on scrolls without indicating the vowels and tonalities). These readings that are faithful to the meaning require an exhausting amount of work every week. As the text must be studied in depth, a precise tone, the spoken words of David in conclusion to the reading fulfil the demands of his position.

“Powerful” said an occasional follower.

The applause after a conference or the waves of congratulations in the audience play no role in gift that he has for public speaking. And too bad if he waivers sometimes, overcome after hours of prayer! He must say the words.

I am surprised by the implication that he puts into each prayer, that the congregation recite on the tip of their tongues – without fully understanding the meaning – and he proclaims the words accentuating every word, with a clenched fist.

There are people like him who make us grow, add value to our whispers when, reflecting on our prayer books, we recite without understanding the pages and words. David Dahan gives meaning to this substance which without him could be misinterpreted, easily interrupted by chatting or by a child moving between our shawls.

– It is the children that bring the parents to the Synagogue. Allow them to laugh and speak during prayer: they feel good as do their parents.

Does he realise how his words resonate? How they excuse the chatter of others, the adults who fidget at the back of the room, and clap their hands together when he prays? He manages to give importance to this nonchalance and the impertinence of the moment – silence is the rule during Bible reading – a harmony. To those who are offended, he convinces them without telling them to like those who bother them… Ahavât Israël.

David does not tell off or reprimand the children at the Jewish school which he runs. He considers one day’s training a week to be lazy. On the contrary, he points the finger at the inconsistency of such a clumsy expectation. Judaism is sometimes tarnished in business, as demonstrated by the preparations in reading the Torah that must be undertaken by all boys at the age of 13.

– The Bar-Mitzva does not stop at 13 years of age! It does not stop with the party, irrespective of how sumptuous it may be.

David hates seeing his mission as a job; he forces people to take responsibility at the risk of annoying mothers who wake up one day wondering if their 12 year old son knows his paracha (chapter of the Bible).

– There are some who monetize training…I cannot work like that. I am not going to be paid for being what I am! I can only demonstrate to those who perceive communion as being a day to make everyone “have a laugh” that without spending a single euro, it is possible to make a deeper impact: for example, going to the Synagogue on a regular basis. It is intimidating for a child to stand up and speak in front a congregation that he does not know. If he goes on a regular basis and knows the people, it will be second nature on his big day.

The reason behind the irritation of the Rabbi is the desire to glorify a ceremony which was originally conceived as a formality by they that seek to enter into a true communion under the watchful eye of God.

It is rare after several white hairs and challenges to feel as good thanks to somebody who is more inspired. It seems improper to find behind the solemnity of his uniform a naughtiness which generates extraordinariness. It seems even more improper to find oneself through the eyes and words of someone else and discover what one is and what one truly aspires to be. He is one of those individuals who transcend reality in order to give a sense to more basic things. Red is his colour, God must have wanted to alert people who cross his path: thank you David, thank you for being you!

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