10 Historic Jewish Sites in Provence
France has a thriving Jewish community, the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. And while today Paris is the center of French Jewish life, this wasn’t always the case. That center was Provence for centuries, thanks to a surprising protector: the Pope. This article covers ten (10) historic Jewish sites in Provence, some of which you can visit and others with restrictions on entry.
The Pope’s Jews
During the Middle Ages, when Jews were being driven out of country after country, the Pope offered them refuge in the French Papal States. These States were made up of Avignon and the adjoining territory called the Comtat Venaissin, and Jews could live there in relative freedom. Known as Les Juifs du Pape (the Pope’s Jews), they built active communities and even developed a new dialect, shuadit, a mix of Hebrew and Provençal.
Unfortunately, over time these Jews found themselves subject to more and more restrictions. Eventually, they could live in only four cities, the Arba Kehilot (“holy communities”) of Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon, and l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They were crammed into small ghettos called carrières, with gates that locked them in at night. The limited space forced residents to build upwards, creating medieval “skyscrapers” as many as five stories high.
Today you can visit Jewish historical sites in the four towns of the Arba Kehilot and other towns and cities throughout Provence. Most of the cities have active Jewish communities and synagogues.
While not much evidence of the ancient Jewish community remains, you can visit the city’s synagogue and the next-door Darius Milhaud Cultural Center, which hosts Jewish cultural events and a Jewish Heritage tour. Outside of town is the Camp des Milles Memorial Site, a former detention camp where thousands of Jews were held before being sent to Auschwitz.
Camp des Milles Memorial Site
40 Chem. de la Badesse,
Open daily 10h – 19h
Before being expelled during the Middle Ages, Jews lived along the Rue de la Juiverie (Jewry Street), now called Rue du Docteur Fanton. The Jewish quarter was then destroyed, and unfortunately, no vestiges remain. The Museon Arlaten, a museum devoted to folk art and traditions, displays several Jewish historical objects from the Provence region.
29 – 31 rue de la République
Open daily from 10h to 18h
Closed on Mondays.
Last admission: 17h15
The Jewish community of Avignon goes back to the first century and the destruction of the Second Temple. The original Jewish quarter faced the Palais des Papes on Rue de la Vieille Juiverie (Old Jewry Street). Still, by the 13th century, it had moved to Rue Jacob and Place Jérusalem, where the present-day synagogue stands. This synagogue, on the site of the 13th-century original, was rebuilt after a fire in 1846. The synagogue hosts daily services and stands next to a matzo bakery.
2 place Jérusalem
Closed on Saturdays and Sundays
The Carpentras Synagogue is the oldest in France. Built in 1367, it has been designated a Historic Monument. Synagogues weren’t allowed ornamentation at the time of its construction, so it has a plain facade but a beautiful and ornate interior. The remnants of a mikvah (ritual bath) and a matzo bakery are in the basement.
Place Maurice Charretier,
Closed on Saturdays and Sundays
The old Jewish quarter is on Rue Hébraïque (Hebrew Street), behind the tourist office. Its beautiful synagogue, today a Historical Monument, is no longer in use. In the museum’s basement, which once housed a matzo bakery, you will find the Musée Judéo-Comtadin. It displays Torah scrolls, ritual objects and historical documents and provides a fascinating look at French Jewish life in the region.
Little remains of the medieval Jewish quarter, although street names like Rue Hébraïque mark its presence. Original wrought-iron balconies still decorate some of the buildings of the old carrière. The Jewish cemetery can be seen outside of town.
Marseille has France’s second-largest Jewish community, with several dozen active synagogues. The largest of these, the Grand Synagogue, was built in 1864 in a Roman-Byzantine style and is considered one of the finest religious achievements of the Second Empire. There are many mikvahs in town and a small Holocaust memorial, the Deportations Memorial, at the foot of Fort Saint-Jean.
Grande Synagogue de Marseille
Consistoire Israélite de Marseille
117-119 rue breteuil
Outside town is a Jewish cemetery built at the beginning of the 15th century. During September’s Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days), it is open once a year when there are guided visits.
The Jewish community once lived around the former Rue des Juifs (Street of the Jews), now called Rue Paul-Bert. The ancient synagogue is believed to have been housed in one of the buildings which today line that street, but its exact location is uncertain.
More information on visiting Jewish sites in Provence, including directions for a driving tour, can be found on the official French tourism site. You can also find information about Jewish sites throughout France and Europe at J Guide Europe.
Image credits as indicated above.