Surprising history of Jewish Provence:’Only in Provence’ Part 4

Only in Provence: Part 4 - surprising history of Jewish Provence

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 - Jewish Provence

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 - history of Jewish Provence

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—

  • Avignon,
  • Carpentras,
  • Cavaillon, and
  • L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

—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

Only in Provence: Part 4 - surprising history of Jewish Provence
  • 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.

Image Credits:
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 3Provence legends
Only in Provence Part 4 Surprising history of Jewish Provence
Only in Provence Part 5 – The Animal Kingdom of Provence (this one)
Only in Provence Part 6 – Roman Provence

About the Contributor

Keith Van Sickle

I am a lifelong traveler who lives part of the year in Provence. I am the author of Are We French Yet and One Sip at a Time, as well as the upcoming An Insider’s Guide to Provence, all available at Amazon. You can follow me on Facebook,  Twitter and

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One Comment

  1. June Jacobs Dec 10, 2020 at 11:51 PM - Reply

    On my first extended trip to France in 1992, I visited Avignon, Carpentras and Cavaillon especially to see the “Jewishness.” In Avignon I found a walk that I took in the old town that followed a route of a Jewish woman and her two children as they were being chased by Nazis. It was a chilling experience. I learned they were caught and deported. Are you familiar with that route? I’ve never found it again. I wish I had written down exactly where it was.

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