Surprising history of Jewish Provence:’Only in Provence’— Part 4
People are often surprised to learn that France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the United States.
And they are even more surprised to learn that for centuries the center of Jewish life in France wasn’t Paris, it was Provence… thanks to the Pope!
How did this happen? Let’s take a look.
Jewish Provence— a history of persecution
Jews have long been subject to persecution in France, as in many places.
In the Middle Ages, French Jews were the victims of murders, riots, and outright expulsions. There were few places where they were allowed to live, even fewer jobs they were allowed to hold, and many were forced to wear a yellow star.
Life was intolerable… but hope beckoned in the south.
A safe haven
Popes had long owned land in Provence, and the papacy even moved to Avignon in the 14th century. Next to the Avignon was a papal territory known as the Comtat Venaissin and together they formed the French Papal States.
It was here that Jews found refuge.
Living under the Pope’s protection, they became known as les Juifs du Pape (the Pope’s Jews) and were able to live with far fewer restrictions than in other places. The community thrived, building synagogues and kosher bakeries at a time when they were disappearing elsewhere in France. A new dialect even developed, called shuadit, a mixture of Hebrew and Provençal.
But things change
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism never dies and over time new restrictions were added in the Papal States so that by the late Middle Ages Jews were allowed to live in only four cities. Even there, they were forced into small ghettos, with gates that shut them in at night.
It is in these four cities—
- Cavaillon, and
—that we find many of the oldest Jewish sites in Provence today.
Thanks to the French Revolution, Jews were finally granted full citizenship and many restrictions on employment were removed. A process of emigration to other parts of France began and today the majority of French Jews live in and near Paris.
The Jewish communities of Provence withered until immigration from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s revitalized them.
Points of interest
- Avignon has a large and active synagogue, with services daily.
- The one in Carpentras, built in 1367, is the oldest active synagogue in France.
- Cavaillon’s synagogue, overlooking the old ghetto, is now a national historical site and includes an interesting museum.
Outside of the former Papal States, Marseille and Nice both have large and active Jewish communities and impressive Grand Synagogues. Many towns also display signs like Place de la Juiverie (Jewish Square) or Rue des Juifs (Street of the Jews) marking their long-ago Jewish neighborhoods.
Information on visiting Jewish sites in Provence, including directions for a driving tour, can be found here.
Were you familiar with this part of the history of Provence? Can you add particulars? We’d like to hear from you in the comments section.
1. Menorah via Carpentras tourist office website
2. Comtat Venaissin via GNU public license attribution
3. Synagogue 1 via Carpentras synagogue website
4. Street sign via L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue tourist office website
5. Synagogue 2 via Carpentras synagogue website
Only in Provence
There is much to celebrate and experience in Provence.
This series sets out to create a collection of highlights – unique features and experiences to be had in Provence.
Use this series to create your very own must-do list.
Only in Provence Part 1 – Brilliant Roussillon
Only in Provence Part 2 – Carrières de Lumières
Only in Provence Part 3 – Provence legends
Only in Provence Part 4 – Surprising history of Jewish Provence
Only in Provence Part 5 – The Animal Kingdom of Provence