I don’t remember when the BeamZ ad first showed up on my Facebook feed. I’d been looking for Hebrew language courses some time before then, so my feed was filling up with Jewish-related ads, and this one advertised a free virtual tour of the Jewish Quarter in Paris. Free? Paris? I looked into it a bit to make sure it wasn’t just a scam to get my email address or something, and it seemed genuine, so I decided to try it out.
Mom and I dutifully sat in front of the computer to see what would happen, and it was, a bit, underwhelming. It was raining in Paris that day, and the host was sort of hitting the end of his rope, telling us that he wasn’t making enough money to keep working as a tour guide and would need to rethink his line of work. His internet connection was also spotty, but there was something about the whole thing; something charming about being on a real time tour of a foreign city.
The way the BeamZ platform works is that instead of asking for a flat fee up front, they ask viewers to pay a tip to the host if they like the tour. You can pay from two dollars up to twenty dollars (with five to seven recommended), and if you leave early, or feel like it was a waste of your time, you just don’t pay. The guilt for not paying is relieved by the fact that there are so many viewers of each tour at the same time. That arrangement meant that we could take the risk of signing up for more tours, knowing that if we didn’t like the host, or the connection was bad, we could just leave without owing any money or feeling any (or much) guilt.
I continued to get e-mails from BeamZ, listing more possible tours, and I realized that this wasn’t only a Jewish-centric enterprise; there were tours from Quebec and Tokyo and Vietnam and Amsterdam and Scotland, too. We decided to sign up for another tour, this time to a Flea Market outside of Paris (because Mom is a big fan of flea markets) and that’s when we discovered Patrick. Patrick was relaxed and friendly and knowledgeable, and even though I’m not a flea market/antiques person, I still had a good time. Watching his tour, I started to understand how the platform could really work for a host who could build a following, because there were viewers on the tour who’d been with him week after week, and he kept adding more tours to his list – like a series on sacred places and another on famous Americans in Paris – and hundreds of people were showing up.
On our next Paris tour, Patrick took us to a popular foodie area and showed us the inside of his raspberry pate au choux and chocolate-covered macaron, and walked us through a kitchen supply store and a chocolatier. The immediacy of watching random Parisians walking down the street, some wearing masks and some not, with no one really aware of being filmed, or caring, made it feel like we were really there in Paris, except that I didn’t have to do the walking. And it only cost a few dollars for each of us, instead of having to pay for airline tickets and hotels and transportation. And each tour was only forty-five minutes long, so I didn’t have time to get (too) bored. It was like a little vacation in the middle of the day, and a chance to visit a place I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.
I tried a tour of Jewish Berlin by myself, but it felt too much like a history class, and a painful one, because we visited a Jewish cemetery in East Berlin that had been destroyed by the Nazis and remade as a memorial to Holocaust victims. There was a haunting sculpture depicting the people who’d been brought to the Jewish retirement home, in front of the cemetery, when it was made into a detention center for the Jews on their way to the death camps. I made it through the whole tour, and found it interesting, but I wasn’t up to the next three tours in the series.
We tried a few other tours, to Venice and Quebec and Edinburgh and Loch Ness and Budapest, with mixed results, and then I signed us up for a Tokyo tour. Usually the television coverage of the Olympics is full of stories from the host country, and how the people live their lives, but because of Covid there were only a few overhead shots of Tokyo’s Olympic village, and I wanted more. Our guide, Eriko, walked us through a lotus filled pond – with a walkway running through it – and the lotus plants were as tall as she was! And then we visited a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple, and then we went to a market under the train tracks where they sold pretty much everything, but especially seafood. And there was a candy stall at the end of the market that sold boxes of candy sushi, where you could put together your own little piece of sushi however you wanted! We even saw a pine tree bent by a bonsai master into the shape of a circle! It was placed in front of a Buddhist temple, so that if you looked through the circle you could see another Buddhist temple across the park. Eriko was lovely and seemed to enjoy the trip as much as we did, and we immediately signed up for another tour with her, this time to an area outside of Tokyo called Kamakura, where we could virtually sample Japanese street food.
And then we went back to Patrick, for a second attempt at Paris’ Jewish Quarter, Le Marais. He told us from the beginning that this tour would be about the sweet and the sour; the memorials to the Holocaust, yes, but also the life of the Jewish quarter today.
Le Marais means the swamp, because in the Middle Ages the streets in the area were flooded regularly, which is probably why the Jews were allowed to live there. The streets are still what they were in the middle ages, made of cobblestones with a channel down the middle for water to pass through. And there are plaques everywhere to commemorate the French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. An especially painful one commemorates the 11,400 Jewish children collected in the Marais and sent to their deaths; one as young as 27 days old.
One of the main streets of the Jewish Quarter is Rue Des Rosiers – the street of rosebushes – and it is filled with kosher restaurants and pastry shops and Jewish bookstores. Many Jewish people still live in the Marais today and it’s a lively place. I went to the Rue Des Rosiers as a teenager, but I didn’t really know what to look for back then, and I didn’t even get to try the food because I was struggling with a serious eating disorder at the time, so it was so nice to be back there, with Patrick and my virtual friends, in a very different state of mind.
Some of the streets in the area are set aside for pedestrians, but others have metal poles at regular intervals to prevent cars from ramming into people. Patrick acknowledged that there is still anti-Semitism in France, but he said that there is much more anti-Moslem sentiment among the French. When one woman asked about the number of Jews of color living in France, Patrick told us that French law forbids the counting of people by color, religion, or ethnicity, because of how the Nazis used those lists in the Holocaust, so any count would have to be approximate.
The last stop on the tour was the Memorial de la Shoah – the Memorial of the Holocaust – which included a wall of names of the French Jews killed in the Shoah (in France they use the Hebrew word Shoah rather than Holocaust). In this memorial, there was a chimney-like installation, with the names of the death camps inscribed on it, and underneath they mixed together ashes from Auschwitz and earth from Israel, to both mark the horror and to provide some form of good burial for those who were murdered.
The final moment of the tour was the wall of the righteous among nations, listing 3,800 non-Jewish French people determined by Yad Vashem to have helped save Jewish lives during the Shoah. Somehow the balance of the sour and the sweet on this tour was just right.
There are more BeamZ tours of Prague, St. Petersburg, Glasgow, Lisbon, Barcelona, India, Vietnam, etc…and they’re adding more tours, and more countries, all the time. Covid be damned. My only real problem is deciding where to go next. I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t have to go everywhere right away, because there’s plenty of time to explore at my own pace, if only because Covid doesn’t seem to be going away.
Cricket and Ellie tend to sleep through these tours, though every once in a while there’s a dog on the screen, barking in a completely different dialect, and they’ll perk up for a second and then go back to their naps. Maybe, one day, BeamZ will do a canine tour of Paris and the girls will be able to take part.
Until then, in case you’re interested in going on a virtual tour to visit the humans of the world with BeamZ, here’s the link: https://www.beamz.live/
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?