23 March 2009

France: The Pope's Jews in Provence

Author Jules Farber penned a fascinating account, in the Washington Post, of his Provence trip on the trail of the "Pope's Jews." He is the author of Les Juifs du Pape en Provence: Itineraires.

We went through the medieval walls encircling Avignon's ancient heart to experience the cavernous architectural splendor of the 14th-century Palace of the Popes, one of Europe's largest and most important Gothic buildings. This home away from Rome, where seven popes and two antipopes reigned over the Christian world in altera Roma, was, our guide explained, a refuge from feared assassination in tumultuous Rome.

That's when the guide added: "In all that time, the pope's Jews were protected from the belligerent surrounding French kingdom, which expelled them under threat of forced conversion. No Protestants, heretics, agnostics or atheists were permitted in the papal enclave -- only the Jews." Our ears pricked up at this unexpected revelation, and we decided to follow in the footsteps of the papal "chosen people."

Although the Jews were tolerated, they were limited to three trades: secondhand textiles, used furniture (brocante) and money lending. Men wore a yellow rouelle (cloth badge) and women were required to sew yellow fabric to their bonnets.

Farber writes that Jews were restricted to four southern France cities - Avignon, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon and Carpentras - and to an early form of ghettos called carrieres, where Christian gatekeepers locked the gates at night.

Carpentras was the capital of the Comtat Venaissin region in papal times. It is home to the oldest functioning synagogue in France, dating from 1367, when 20% of the 2,500 residents were Jewish. The town was called La Petite Jerusalem.

Like all congregation members since the 18th-century restoration, we passed under cruciform windows designed by the Christian architect. The open door revealed a surprising burst of Provencal tints of rose, green, blue and yellow, Louis XV-style decoration, chandeliers, classical Greek-inspired columns, faux-marbre walls and carved rose motifs. Unlike in synagogues elsewhere, the rabbi officiated from a pulpit with a baldachin, a kind of canopy, on a balcony above the worshipers.

Farber describes the Comtat synagogue architecture which provided two prayer rooms: a large, beautifully decorated one for men, while, women sat - not in the balcony - hidden in a cave-like underground area. Closed off by a grill, they could not see the service but only hear it. The grill could be lifted only when the Torahs were taken out.

A medieval mikvah fed by a natural spring is underground, and the lowest level houses the bakery with ovens for daily and Shabbat bread with more ovens for coudolles (matzoh, Provencal), which were exported worldwide until the early 20th century.

The Jewish cemetery is about a half-mile from the city center. The popes did not permit visible markers, so tombstones with inscriptions were buried with the deceased for 400 years. In the late 18th century, upright tombstones were permitted.

St. Siffrein Cathedral has a late-15th century southern door known as the Jewish Gate, topped by the Rats' Ball (stone ball with scrambling rats). The congregation's president told Farber that if Jews sought conversion, they could enter near the baptism font and leave by the front door as new Christians - few did.

No one really knows what the strange sculpture means, but there's a legend that the 'Rats' Ball' represents the Catholic Church being bitten by heretics -- Jews, Moors and Cathars." The Carpentras tourism office, on the other hand, says it represents the passage of time eating away at the world.

In Cavaillon, Rue Hebraique is the only original, intact carriere in the region. The synagogue is now a city-owned museum. It was reconstructed in the late 18th century on 15th-century foundations. Like Carpentras, there are two prayer rooms for men, a basement bakery and women's area. The lower levels house the Jewish Comtadin Museum, with books, manuscripts and Judaica, tombstones, Torah Arks and marriage contracts. Objects include an oil lamp with a double menorah from either 1st century BC or BCE, when Romans ruled Provincia (southern Gaul).

Avignon's Place Jerusalem has very tall houses. In crowded ghettos, Jews built up for more space. The city-owned 1348 synagogue was rebuilt after an 1845 fire. Not decorated on the level of Carpentras and Cavaillon, there is still the underground matzoh oven. The original synagogue had prayer and meeting rooms, marriage hall, slaughterhouse/butcher and mikveh.

In L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue - Venice of the Comtat - there are canals and water wheels. The synagogue was almost destroyed by French artillery in 1793 - only the elaborate grill separating men and women during religious services was saved.

Although the "Pope's Jews" were basically prisoners, they survived, practiced their faith and buried their dead. Farber writes that for more than 500 years, religious services ended with a prayer, "petitioning God to 'exalt our sovereign and Holy Father, the pope.'"

There is a companion article with travel, restaurant, hotel and tourist information.

Read the complete article at the link above for much more.

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