'New' French Jews: from ghetto to Champs Elysees

Only 20, Sophie already is a senior at Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Paris, the French equivalent of Harvard Business School.

She speaks fluent English, Spanish, German, and Italian, and will use those skills next fall working for an international investment bank.

But Sophie Zeitoun is not from a well-to-do family. She is a Sephardic Jew, born in Tunisia, and is now adding Hebrew to her repertoire. Since she was 3 years old, when her parents left North Africa, she has lived with them in a modest apartment in Sarcelles, a drab suburb 20 minutes north of Paris.

Her stunning success is representative of the tremendous strides the children of the relatively poor, ill-educated 350,000 North African Jewish immigrants have made since they arrived in France during the 1960s. Moreover, these successful youths are changing the face of French Jewry, replacing its previous timid character with a strong pride and militance.

While the establishment European ''Ashkenazi'' French Jews, led by the celebrated Rothschilds, are always well-mannered in fighting the government's pro-Arab policies, the Sephardic youth are loudly Zionist.

And unlike the timid Ashkenazi, they believe in combating anti-Semitism - most with large public demonstrations, but some even with Jewish Defense League-type vigilante groups.

Their parents started this change. In contrast to the profoundly secular Ashkenazi Jews who submerged their Jewish identity in an overwhelming desire to be French, these Sephardim were religious, orthodox in observing Jewish traditions.

When they came to France, most in occupations such as taxi drivers, policemen , clerks, and laborers, they settled together in working-class Paris neighborhoods or suburbs such as Sarcelles. In this atmosphere, ''Judaism is the central force, causing neither embarrassment nor defensiveness,'' explains Serge Czwegenbaum of the Paris branch of the World Jewish Congress.

Today, the professional children of these Sephardim are moving en masse to the fashionable 16th Arrondissement of Paris. Or like Sophie Zeitoun, they are entering France's elite ''grandes ecoles'' in disproportionate numbers. A benchmark for their success is the appointment of 38-year-old Algerian-born Jacques Atali as President Francois Mitterrand's chief domestic adviser.

While integrating themselves into the French elite, these young Sephardim have discarded many of the Orthodox Jewish traditions of their parents. Sophie does not keep kosher nor faithfully observe the Sabbath like her parents. ''But they gave me pride in being Jewish,'' she says.

Older, established Jews such as the famous political journalist Raymond Aron admit they were born ''Jewish,'' but are slightly ashamed of that distinction, emphasizing their dominant ''Frenchness.''

Instead of conjuring up the problems of being separate, though, the young generation, including many young Ashkenazi who have picked up the Sephardic spirit, rejoice in their separateness.

With Judaism, ''I have the stature of a hero,'' writes Alain Finkelkraut, child of a distinguished Ashkenazi family. In his early 30s, he is already the leading writer of the Jewish revival. ''The history of my people gives my present life a prestige and beauty.''

The new movement is also political. The younger generation seem to have gained a self-confidence to speak out that their parents have lacked. As treasurer of the national Jewish student group, Sophie, for example, is the first in her family to be active in the Jewish community.

''Our parents try to be optimistic about anti-Semitism, like the Jews were before the war,'' she says. ''We want to be ready to fight back.''

Since the bombing of a Paris synagogue on Rue Copernic in October 1980, they have formed numerous groups to promote their cause. Most prominent among them is Renouveau Juif, which organized huge demonstrations after the bombing.

Led by the feisty 32-year-old lawyer, Henri Hadjenberg, Renouveau Juif and its offspring are challenging the Rothschild establishment for leadership of the French Jewish community, 700,000 strong in a country of some 50 million.

They are agitating for the creation of a French Jewish lobby modeled after that in the United States.

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