"I didn't know there were so many French speakers here," says Salinger. "I was moved to rediscover my native language, to hear expressions in French that I hadn't heard in years. It was like hearing a lullaby from my childhood." Israel's French speaking new immigrant society is connecting to a culture that is rewarding and yet at home in Israel.
A year ago, when Ilan Halimi was murdered in Paris, Muriel Vera Salinger of Netanya felt a new connection to France, the country she had left 18 years earlier. Salinger had been Halimi's kindergarten teacher.
"He was always standing on the side with a big smile on his face," she recalls. "I'll always remember that smile, because in my eyes it represents the French smile: a smile full of sincerity, curiosity, an eagerness to discover the world. When I saw the reports about the murder, I felt I wanted to reconnect with my French roots. I feel like I've been deceiving myself for the last 19 years - that I wasn't at peace with who I am."
Following the murder, Salinger, a composer and voice instructor, established israArtis, a group of Israeli immigrant artists from Francophone countries. The group includes 80 artists from all fields, including theater, song, dance and plastic arts.
Salinger says she was surprised by the response to her project - from the immigrant artists who did not find their place in the Israeli cultural scene, to the French-speaking public. According to the French Embassy, Israel has half a million French speakers, including Israelis who learned the language.
"I didn't know there were so many French speakers here," says Salinger. "I was moved to rediscover my native language, to hear expressions in French that I hadn't heard in years. It was like hearing a lullaby from my childhood.
"The new immigration wave is stronger, even aggressive," adds Salinger. "They want to be accepted with their own cultural baggage, and are not as willing to be absorbed like in the past."
The Netanya Heichal Hatarbut took Salinger up on her initiative. Every Thursday, a different show by a group member is to be staged in the 300-person auditorium.
"You hear either French or Russian in the street," explains Benny Efraim, the hall's general manager. "When we were offered this cooperation with the French artists, I agreed immediately."
Salinger sits in a cafe adjacent to the hall, chain-smoking. She's preparing for the group's first event, which will include an introduction and a jam session with 20 singers and a belly dancer.
The majority of recent French immigrants chose to live in Jerusalem, Netanya and Ashdod, in that order. In the past five years, 15,000 immigrants came to Israel, with a return rate of only 4 percent. The second intifada and the terror attacks did not deter them. The largest number of immigrants - 3,000 - arrived in Israel in 2005. In 2006, 2,800 French Jews moved to Israel.
Singer Guy Mardel immigrated last year. He represented France in the 1965 Eurovision competition with the song "N'Avoue Jamais," winning third place. Mardel, 62, lives in Jerusalem. Like other French immigrants, he continues to work in France. Mardel is the owner of Chorus Cafe, a coffee shop located near Paris' Opera Square. "I wanted to study Torah, and this is the place to do it," Mardel says when asked why he chose to live in Jerusalem.
Mardel is also enthusiastic about the israArtis initiative, through which he hopes to perform. "The French immigration is good for the development of the Israel mentality," he says. "We bring with us everything we've learned of French culture, and that's important for Israel."
Mardel distinguishes between the Francophone immigration wave of the 1960s and the current one. "The 1960s immigration from North Africa was out of necessity; they had to escape," he says. "The current wave is out of choice."
Today's immigrants know what they're in for. They have visited Israel many times before, and many of them speak the language, mainly from Jewish schools.
Too much French
The new French presence is visible on Herzl Street in central Netanya, and in Kikar Ha'atzmaut, overlooking the sea: Brokerage offices, a lawyer and a dentist with signs in French only, and a French bakery displaying French petits fours. Ten magazines in French are distributed in Netanya: a housing magazine (Israel immobilier), a religion magazine (Chiour 7 jours), a weekly television review (Tv Futee) and more.
At the offices of UNIFAN, the Francophone immigrants' organization, many volunteers work in Netanya. The volunteers take immigrants to the National Insurance office, the bank, fill out forms for them, lend them books and organize singing nights, lectures and karaoke.
UNIFAN advisor Odette Yasinski profiles the French immigrants there: Sixty percent keep Shabbat, and most have families, are wealthy, and come from Paris, Marseilles, Nice and Leon. "They come to Israel ready and aware of the situation here. They are less naive," says Yasinski. "They come here because they fear the violence in France and mixed marriages."
"Israel is a safety net," explains Yasinski. "If something happens in France, they'll always have somewhere to go."
Yasinski is aware of the importance of the new immigrants' culture. But, as opposed to Salinger, her goal is to help them integrate quickly. And so, she amicably complains that during the last karaoke night, there were too many songs in French. She recommends to the immigrants that they avoid cable or satellite television, because she knows that if they do, they will watch French channels.