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Letters of a Parisian Woman

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French Jewish writer Julienne Bloch uses her series “Letters of a Parisian Woman” to comment on current events and reflect on citizenship, gender, and Jewishness in the middle of the nineteenth century. As a rare woman contributor to the French Jewish newspaper “L’Univers Israélite de France,” Bloch called attention to the political significance of social news and women’s interests and provided fresh and substantive insights into contemporary French Jewish existence.

Title (English)

Letters of a Parisian Woman

Title (original)

Lettres d'une Parisienne

Date Issued

September 1855

Place issued


Content type



Yahel Matalon


Yahel Matalon

Copyright status

no known copyright


women, modernity, modernization, education, Jewish tradition

Original Text


Julienne Bloch, “Letters of a Parisian Woman,” 1855. Translated by Yahel Matalon

Paris, September 1855.

To the editor,

In this moment in which our proud capital reveals to the eyes of the world so much wonder and so much splendor united within its walls, it is doubtless bold of me to hope for the least attention to my humble correspondence. Besides, outside of Paris, are there really still men and women on the rest of our planet? Is not all of humanity assembled here as it was in the garden of Eden on the first days of creation? as it will be one day in the holy city, bearing, according to the words of the prophet, the treasures of the sea and the riches of the nations? Upon seeing these immense native and foreign populations that throng in our boulevards, at our monuments, and in our theaters, in our halls and in our restaurants, I often ask myself, like Moses: “If all the sheep and all the cows are slaughtered, will that suffice; if all the fishes of the sea are gathered, will it satisfy them?” (Numbers 11:22.)

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Long ago, when the inhabitants of Palestine would all assemble at the sanctuary in Jerusalem, they took with them many herds of livestock, grain, and fruits; why, alas! is this admirable custom not followed by the countless pilgrims who flock to the industrial temple of the Champs-Élysées!

The magnificent festival of the nations and of human intelligence that Paris has celebrated for more than three months is not yet over; but it has already had its round of applause, its fireworks, its crowning moment, and its apotheosis: the Queen of England’s visit.

The triumphant arrival of Victoria the First to our great city, the loud cheers that sounded as she passed, the garlands of flowers, the triumphal arches, the dazzling banners, the enchanting lights and all the royal pomp deployed in her honor by France’s capital have without a doubt touched her pride as a sovereign; but women’s sentiments may have found equal pride and satisfaction.

For my part, I admit, I felt pride at seeing, in the land of salic law and of the Civil Code1 that says so civilly “woman must obey her husband,” a person of my delicate sex receive so many tributes, command so much respect, inspire so much enthusiasm, and reign over men by right of birth and by the ascendancy of her merits and her virtues. At this immense Parisian banquet in the year 5616 after creation, woman brilliantly avenged the humiliation suffered by Vashti at the feast in Susa in 2407.2

And in contemplating the graceful figure of Her Majesty, I thought of Esther and of the stunning story of her ascension to the throne, and I said to myself: If, despite the impossibility, the sovereign of Great Britain, on the advice of a feminine Memucan3 and following the example of Ahasuerus, she who likewise reigns from Hodu to Cush4, were to repudiate her husband and launch a competition among all the young men of her empire, and if her choice were to fall on the nephew of some Mordechai or other from our city, and if she were to marry him, not under the true Christian faith, but according to the law of Moses and of Israel, what would the Hamans of the Parliament say, who to this day still refuse the Baron de Rothschild the place which is due to him in the House of Commons? We truly have need of another Purim in order to be able to say everywhere, as in the time of Esther: “The Yehudim [Jews] had light, joy, and honor.” (Esther 8:16.)

I was told that, during her last visit to the Éxposition Universelle,5 Queen Victoria greatly admired the remarkable products of our coreligionist, the honorable M. Mosbach, especially a diadem of imitation diamonds of the rarest perfection. The art of imitation is making much progress, but singularly in opposition to the kinds described by the prophet: “In place of copper I will bring gold, and in place of iron I will bring silver.” (Isaiah 60:17.) Precious stones, gold, silver, lace, silk, cashmere, flowers, pearls from Brazil, and wood from the Indies are being imitated; there is even imitation wine, imitation milk, imitation coffee, and imitation meat. But all these imitations tend to diminish the expenses, to spare the purses of the less wealthy, while satisfying their pride or the requirements of their position. There are unfortunately other imitations that have a much greater cost to society. These are the imitations of virtue, of piety, of charity, of modesty, of loyalty, and of honesty, which are the great shame of and gravest danger to humankind. These moral falsifications kill whoever practices them and cause the unhappiness of those who are their victims. It is above all an imitation that compromises even future generations: counterfeit science and counterfeit abilities are running the schools and instructing the youth.

The distribution of the latest prizes for the national scholastic competition and at the various secondary schools of Paris have again shown the intelligence and uncommon faculties of our young coreligionists, many of whom received university awards. Primary instruction is what, among us, leaves much to be desired, the insufficient number of elementary school teachers. The Central Consistory,6 I have been told, is working on creating a Jewish training college in order to form a teaching staff. May this thought be realized! It is the greatest need of our faith, for “from the mouths of babes God’s reign is strengthened.” (Psalms 8:3.)

Let us do justice to the mutual education girls’ school of Paris, directed by Mme. Kahn-Oppenheim, and to the municipal nursery, directed by Mme. Séder. For these intelligent and devoted women, the very great number of students admitted to these establishments is not an obstacle to maintaining a perfect order, an irreproachable conduct, an astonishing consistency of work. The religious solicitude of these women, their care and efforts are legible in the smiling and happy figures of those children who, mostly of the less well-off class of our population, are nevertheless true models of neatness, propriety, and diligence. They will one day contribute to the dignified continuity of the Jewish family.

Allow me, Mr. Editor, to end this letter by expressing the wishes I have formed for the occasion of Rosh Hashanah.

I wish you the lifespan of Methuselah, the blessings of Abraham, the physical preservation of Moses, the strength of Samson, the triumphs of David over his adversaries, the far-reaching fame of Solomon, the ardor of the prophets, and the patience of Hillel, in order to continue, for many long years, the praiseworthy work to which you have devoted your life.

I wish you many subscribers who read and many readers who subscribe.

I wish our Consistories the love and gratitude of their constituents, perseverance, and tenacity in their worthy projects, success and prosperity in all the holy enterprises to which they attach their name.

I wish from certain synagogue administrations the imposition of a little less of a tax on the faith and a little more syntax in their writings.

I wish our rabbis all the successes, all the celestial fruits that their gentle virtues and pastoral tenderness merit; listeners who hear their words and follow their examples; synagogues where God may find a community, and communities in which God has established His dwelling-place.

I wish our officiating ministers sacred songs that lift themselves up to the heavens from a pure and believing soul, rather than concerts that leave the mouth to enter the ears. That their heart be a sanctuary and not an instrument; that their voice be a prayer and not a musical scale!

I wish Jewish journalists a pen that is a torch lit from the sacred fire of faith, and not a chemical match struck on material interests or passions. I wish them much vitality in their writings, much moderation in their polemics, much variety in their subjects, much uncontrived good news, and correspondences as interesting as they are free-minded.

I wish our soldiers in Crimea a quick recompense for their courage and heroism, their swift return to the bosom of their families and to the French homeland, which cries at their suffering and smiles at their valor and triumphs.

I wish my brothers and sisters of Israel all the happiness, all the domestic and social prosperity that they require in order to walk tall and steady through the ages, and to maintain the honor and independence of the Jewish name, its holy spark, and its divine meaning.

Julienne Bloch

  1. Salic law of succession historically excluded European women from determining the line of succession, including ascending to the throne; it was current law in France at the time of Bloch’s writing, although, as the presence of Queen Victoria demonstrates, not in England. The Civil Code, which had formerly been known as the Napoleonic Code, is the French legal code, first enacted under the First Republic. 
  2. Allusion to the first chapter of the Book of Esther. 
  3. An advisor of King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. 
  4. This descriptor of King Ahasuerus in the first verse of the Book of Esther conveys the extent of his territory. 
  5. The Éxposition Universelle, a world’s fair held that summer in Paris, consisted primarily of an industrial pavilion, the Palais de l’Industrie located on the Champs-Élysées, and an arts pavilion, together intended to showcase French innovations and contributions in various fields.  
  6. The Consistoire central israélite de France, or Israelite Central Consistory of France, was an administrative body created by Napoleon to represent the interests of French Jewry and serve as an umbrella organization for its institutions, with regional consistories operating under it.  


Julienne Bloch, “Letters of a Parisian Woman,” 1855. Commentary by Yahel Matalon

In the opening lines of her feuilleton, French Jewish writer and educator Julienne Bloch implicitly positions herself as the titular “Parisian woman,” an urban observer and social commentator whose “humble correspondence” is hardly serious news. But as she describes recent events, her unique perspective begins to emerge. Contemplating the crowds assembled in Paris to witness the spectacles displayed at the 1855 Éxposition Universelle, an international fair celebrating French advancements in arts and industry held that summer, she identifies with an overwhelmed Moses wondering whether there can ever be enough food for his people. Reflecting on “the royal pomp deployed in [Queen Victoria’s] honor by France’s capital,” a proud Bloch imagines this as the revenge of Vashti, the dishonored first wife of King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther; going further, she fantasizes about Queen Victoria following Ahasuerus’s example and ending up with a Jewish spouse.

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Queen Victoria's entry into Paris
Eugène-Charles-François Guérard, “Queen Victoria's entry into Paris, 18 August 1855” (1855). Image thanks to the Royal Collection Trust.

This feuilleton is part of the series “Letters of a Parisian Woman,” which Bloch published in L’Univers Israélite de France, a monthly “journal of the conservative principles of Judaism” edited by her father, between 1854 and 1861. Although not explicitly labelled a feuilleton, its lively, engaging, and sometimes caustic commentary on current events in France and French Jewish life resemble feuilletons found throughout the French press. Many of her forms, styles, and techniques have their roots in modern European women’s literature, tools which Bloch applies as she brings together Jewish textual traditions and frameworks with questions of modern French identity. Her letters touch on a broad array of subjects, as her imaginative application of the Book of Esther illustrates. As a popular figure, Esther’s Jewish identity made her an active node of discourse regarding the status of Jews in the modern state. Through Bloch, Esther’s story takes on multiple meanings. First, she transforms the honors lavished on Queen Victoria by French society into a corrective for Queen Vashti’s “humiliation,” mirroring the ongoing humiliation of French laws that denied women, even royal ones, their full rights. Then Bloch recasts Victoria not as Esther, but as Ahasuerus, producing a gender-inverted commentary on the prolonged denial of Baron de Rothschild’s elected position to the House of Commons, an issue with direct implications for the status of Jews as full citizens under British law.

Bloch’s ability to shift playfully between these topics and to fluidly combine lenses of gender, Jewish, and French identity come to define “Letters of a Parisian Woman.” In its first installment, published in June 1854, Bloch acknowledges the obvious traditional models for a woman writing for L’Univers Israélite: biblical prophetesses and singers, like Miriam and Deborah. But she quickly complicates the role of singer of the “truths and the glory of the Israelite faith” by drawing attention to what she sees as a glaring absence she hopes to address in her writing: “[O]ne might also forgive a feminine voice for making itself heard, modest and humble, while women keep silent around all debates of which they are the object…Should we not instead say, like Zelophehad’s daughters, ‘Give us an inheritance among the brothers of our father[?]’” As a rare woman contributor, Bloch identified the political significance of social news and women’s interests and provided fresh and substantive insights into contemporary French Jewish existence.

This aim is reflected in Bloch’s letter from September 1855, which raises questions of gender and Jewishness in relation to each other. She uses Queen Victoria’s admiration of a Jewish artisan’s imitation jewelry to launch a critique of superficiality as a social ill. While accusations of artifice and materialism were historically levied against women and Jews specifically, Bloch touches neither of those themes, leaving her object of criticism ambiguous. Instead, she ties superficiality to the state of contemporary education and cites the relative successes of Jewish students in French institutions, concluding with a hopeful spotlight on the undervalued, feminized labor of primary, early-childhood, and girls’ education, which she deems fundamental to the continuity of meaningful Jewish life in France.

The text’s frequent, often subtle shifts in tone ultimately reveal an authoritative voice behind the lighthearted titular persona, one that is dedicated to collective development through a critical interaction between traditional and modern modes of thought. Bloch was part of a second generation of French Jews who had been raised with the stability of full citizenship while witnessing the question of Jewish emancipation grow throughout Europe. In her concluding Rosh Hashanah greetings, Bloch’s incisive critiques paired with consistent encouragement point to her hopes for the various civil and religious structures—governmental Jewish consistories, synagogue administrations and leadership, Jewish journalists and soldiers—with the potential to shape the contemporary French Jewish community.

Further Reading:
  • Michèle Bitton, Présences féminines juives en France, XIXe-XXe siècles: cent itinéraires (Pertuis: 2M éditions, 2002).
  • Julienne Bloch, “Lettres d’une Parisienne.“ L’Univers Israélite. July 1854, pp. 481-486; Sept. 1855, pp. 37-41. Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb344300007
  • Madeleine Cottenet-Hage and Eva Martin Sartori, eds. Daughters of Sarah: Anthology of Jewish Women Writing in French (Teaneck, NJ: Holmes & Meier, 2006).
  • Paula E. Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representations of Women (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).
  • Maurice Samuels, Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
  • Maurice Samuels, “France’s Jewish Star.” The Right to Difference: French Universalism and the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  • Eva Martin Sartori and Jennifer Sartori. “Julienne Bloch.“ The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, 31 Dec. 1999, Jewish Women’s Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bloch-julienne.