The Four Holy Communities:
The Jewries of Medieval Provence
These . . . cities shall he a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger. . . . —Numbers 35:15
Like Canaan, Provence is eloquent with sunlight. The landscape, harsh, dry, and brilliant, with white vestiges of antique civilizations, recalls Biblical Palestine: olive trees spring from the rocky hillsides, and the vines, like those in the Old Testament, are heavy with grapes. Irrigation canals, branching from the Rhone and its tributaries, filter through fields and orchards which yield melons, asparagus, apricots, and berries that are the primeurs of France. Yet much of Provence remains desert, a land swept by sun and wind, and alive with color.
Governing the region with the authority of Sinai, six thousand feet above the plain, is the bluish peak of Mount Ventoux—the “Mountain of All Winds,” including the wicked mistral. But the mistral rarely blows in summer, when the hot countryside undulates as in a Van Gogh; and then the mountain looks down on the cities of the plain with the same austere kindness as when, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, this corner of southern France provided refuge for the children of Israel.
Until the French Revolution, northern Provence was the Papal State of the Comtat Venaissin, stretching eastward from the Rhone to the first ridge of the Alps. Its boundaries, marked by great gilded crucifixes, were opened by the Holy See to the harassed; and the Jew, exiled from England in 1290, from the crown territories of France in 1394, from Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497, found that he could live here on terms which, for the times, were relatively humane. In the ghettos of Avignon, Carpentras, L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, and Cavaillon were established four tiny republics—the Arba Kehilloth, or four Holy Communities. In spite of intermittent persecutions and vigorous—sometimes violent—proselytism by the surrounding Christian population, these communities clung to their religious and cultural heritage during four hundred years of isolation from the rest of world Jewry. On occasion, when they received permission, they also constructed synagogues; and the temples of Carpentras and Cavaillon, which are all that remain of their creations, stand as the most handsome examples of monumental Jewish art in France.
Jewish history in Provence, however, goes back further even than the medieval foundations of these 18th-century synagogues. Some Jews, drawn from the community at Rome which by Cicero’s time was already wealthy and influential, were present in southern Gaul, it would seem, from the early days of the Roman occupation which began in 125 B.C.E. They probably did their share, as commissary agents to the legions, merchants, and slave dealers, in making the colony the opulent Provincia described by Strabo. Nevertheless, Jews cannot have come to Gaul in great numbers until after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era and after the failure of Bar Kochba’s uprising in 135 C.E.
The Roman impression upon Provence has never completely faded. Descending the Rhone, as the first cypress and ilex appear along shore, the traveler feels that he is on the threshold of Italy. Almost every Provençal city has imposing Roman remains; even the market towns of Carpentras and Cavaillon have their Roman arches. Under Imperial rule—especially after Caracalla in 212 conferred citizenship on all freeborn males—Jews lived in relative calm and, very likely, affluence in the rich southern province. Their ships plied between the Rhone delta and the mouth of the Tiber, carrying corn, wheat, oil, and wine to Ostia and Rome, and returning to Marseilles and Aries with textiles, spices, papyrus, and gold. Jews were free to practice law and medicine, to serve in the administrative bureaucracy, and to hold military command. They also enjoyed liberty of residence; yet even in classical times they ordinarily congregated in a single quarter surrounding the synagogue, thus creating a proto-ghetto environment which would not be officially forced upon them until more than a thousand years later. Jewish freedom of worship, which included the security of synagogues from hostile pagan or Christian mobs, was guaranteed by law.
These synagogues evidently compared in decorative splendor and design, if not always in size, with other religious monuments of the period. Unfortunately, however, Jewish archaeological remains from late antiquity are extremely rare. Only the astonishing 3rd-century structure at Dura Europas,1 on the Euphrates, its walls covered with representational murals, has been found more or less intact; and its simple rectangular plan differs considerably from the more complex basilican plan which was probably employed in Gaul. For ground plans at Elche in Spain, at Aegina in Greece, and at Beth Alpha, Jerash, El Hammeh, and other places in Palestine, reveal that the later classical synagogue in the West usually resembled a Hellenistic basilica. Two lines of pillars, running parallel to the long side of the building, divided the interior into a central nave and flanking aisles. Often the pillars supported upper galleries which, in accordance with Zechariah 12:12-14, were reserved for women. The greatest synagogues had not two, but four rows of pillars which formed a double aisle on either side of an immense nave. Such a structure was the famous monument at Alexandria which, the Talmud boasts, could contain more people than Moses led out of Egypt.
To visualize these classical synagogues, it is necessary today to piece together fragments of walls, portals, and colonnades. But ruins such as those at K’far Birim and Capernaum (Tell Hum) in Palestine, mosaics such as the fragment from Hamman-Lif in Africa which is now at the Brooklyn Museum, and of course the magnificent Dura murals, indicate that the buildings were fastidiously decorated, both within and without. The Jew was not afraid to display his art on the exterior of his buildings, and their Doric or Corinthian façades, sometimes surmounted by entablatures and pediments, were generously conceived and executed. Significantly, too, in later times pagan motifs mingled esoterically with traditionally Jewish decorative themes.
The ancient synagogues of Provence have vanished, but near Saint-Rémy is the excavated city of Glanum, destroyed in the 3rd century C.E. by one of the first barbarian raids that marked the downfall of the Western Empire. Among the ruins are those of a basilica approximately 120 feet long and 40 feet wide, terminating in a semi-circular apse, and preceded by a forecourt which contained a ritualistic well. Almost surely this was a pagan temple, although it could also have been an assembly hall or law court, but a synagogue would not have been much different in basic plan. Nor can the Hellenistic houses of Glanum, whoever occupied them, have been distinguishable from the homes of Jews throughout the classical world. Perhaps more than the colossal arena at nearby Arles, these houses, with their delightful interior courtyards, show what was lost when wave after wave of barbarians swept over Gaul, bringing to an end, together with all human security, the security of the Jew.
Cities which escaped destruction dwindled in size and population. Their open Roman patterns gave way to twisted networks of medieval streets. The reduced perimeters were walled, and men learned to live in fear, locking themselves within fortified strongholds whenever danger threatened. Avignon, never as important during Roman days as the neighboring river ports of Arles and Orange, became a city of consequence because of the strategic value of its lofty rock dominating the Rhone. The superb Roman public works, such as the aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, fell into disuse. The roads deteriorated. Pagan and Jewish temples, too, were converted to churches, for the barbarian invaders, together with the old Gallo-Roman population, were now Christian.
The Jew, rather than a citizen with full rights, became a stranger without clear legal status. Henceforth, until modern times, his fortunes would vary according to the caprice and piety of local overlords. The lords themselves at first changed frequently as Burgundians, Goths, and Franks, and, from the 8th century onward, Saracens, contended for Provence. Too often—Isidore Loeb pointed out—legends have been accepted which allege that during this violent period Jews participated in anti-clerical revolts (they are said, for example, to have joined a popular rebellion against Bishop Stephen of Avignon in the year 390) or else that they opened the gates of Provençal cities to Moslems or heretical Goths. Much as they may have preferred Saracens or heretics to the devoutly orthodox Franks, the Jews would have been hard put to it to accomplish the treachery attributed to them by Church historians of the later Middle Ages.
The long era of barbarian and Moslem incursions, which did not subside until the 11th century, has been called the Dark Ages. Yet in some ways it was a progressive period: the West was gradually creating the society which would one day erect the Gothic cathedrals; and in spite of a growing number of pariah laws, including some which restricted synagogue construction, the Jew has known blacker moments. At worst, anti-Semitic legislation, in Provence and elsewhere, was only haphazardly enforced; at best it was openly disregarded by Christian and Jew alike. During stable intervals such as the reign of Charlemagne, a catch-as-catch-can economy offered rich opportunities to entrepreneurs of intelligence and daring, qualities which many Jews apparently possessed. Until the Saracens closed the Mediterranean to commerce, Jewish ships, commanded by Jewish captains, dominated the international luxury trade between Gaul and Asia Minor; Marseilles, one of the busiest ports, received from Bishop Gregory of Tours in the 6th century the epithet Hebraea. By the 9th century, to believe the outcries against them by the zealous Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, the Jews, made prideful by wealth, high political position under the Carolingians, and their own stiff-necked religious convictions, openly proselytized among a population which had scarcely emerged from paganism, especially in rural areas.
The Jews not only survived the Dark Ages, they emerged from the period of invasions as a prosperous and—until the massacres that coincided with the Crusades—tolerated minority. As much as to commerce and finance, they were given to crafts such as weaving, engraving, and armory (Chaucer would write of “a fyn hauberk . . . all y-wroght of Jewes werk”). By the 12th century, there were more Jews than ever before within the territory of modern France: perhaps 100,000, or nearly one-tenth of the population. More than half of them were concentrated in the south where, in places, they constituted imposing minorities of one-fourth or even one-third of the population, with wealth and influence far exceeding their numbers. As often as not, they were assigned the contemptible title of serf, but in reality they were tributary vassals of the great lords and, in this capacity, their “men.” Jews could not change their residence or transfer their allegiance, but they bore no resemblance to agricultural workers bound to the soil.
These southern Jews resided in the same cities as in antiquity, often, it is thought, in quarters they had by now occupied for a millennium. In the complex feudal mosaic of the Mediterranean coastlands, many of them lived under either the direct or indirect rule of the Counts of Toulouse. These enlightened princes governed a vast system of fiefs, extending the width of Provence and Languedoc, which even in the first half of the 12th century were so penetrated by heterodox beliefs that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux came there to preach angrily in the name of the Church Militant. With the exception of Spain, nowhere else in medieval Europe did Jews possess such ease in social intercourse and as much prominence in commerce, finance, and politics—in spite of periodic humiliations such as the ceremonial cuffing of a Jewish elder by the gauntleted Count on Good Friday.
When Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela made his celebrated journey in the second half of the 12th century, he found sizable Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Midi. At Beaucaire, a few miles below Avignon on the opposite side of the Rhone, where great annual fairs were held, there were four hundred families; at Marseilles three hundred families; and two hundred at Arles. Since families resembled small clans, and included married children and grandchildren as well as Jewish retainers, these figures should be multiplied by at least five to arrive at conservative totals for the population of the communities.
Rabbi Benjamin did not mention Avignon, but this should not be taken as proof that the community there was necessarily small and undistinguished. Other sources reveal that the city had its share of noted Jewish doctors. In 1122, to cite a happy example, King Louis VI summoned to Paris an Avignonnais physician named Zour,2 who was also an astrologer and clairvoyant. Zour detected the hiding place of jewels which had been stolen from the royal treasure, and restored them to the delighted monarch.
The Avignon which Zour knew, rather than the notorious, half-Italian later city of the Popes, was a thriving mercantile town of some fifteen thousand inhabitants. Its splendid situation near the confluence of the Rhone and the Durance, where it served—as it still does—as the hub of the major roads of the region, made it a center of both river and overland trade. This resulted not only in prosperity but in a rare degree of municipal independence. In 1129 the bourgeoisie obtained from the Count and the Bishop the concession of an oligarchic republican constitution, on the order of Venice’s, which made Avignon a free city.
Little remains of this Avignon. Not even the Romanesque portions of Notre-Dame-des-Doms (dating from 1140 to 1160) were standing at the time of Zour’s visit to Paris in 1122; a now vanished 11th-century cathedral was there. The Palace of the Popes was not dreamed of—its construction would not begin for nearly two hundred years. But between the Rhone and the great square which now lies before the Palace, is a quarter which Zour would not have found much different in his day. Its medieval houses, some of whose substructures are Roman, are pressed together on twisting lanes and alleys which occasionally become stairways on their steep descent to the river.
Here stood the Old Jewry, possibly since Roman times. The irregular area measures no more than sixty by thirty yards, less than a modern city block. The narrow street which runs half its length is still known as the Rue de Vieille-Juiverie. Intersecting this Street of the Old Jewry are two even narrower passages; and at the corner of one of them, the Rue Reille-Juiverie, stands a building whose nondescript exterior scarcely distinguishes it from its neighbors but whose interior is quite another matter.
This oblong room, only ten by fourteen feet, and vaulted by a pair of round arches, is said by an old tradition to have been the early medieval synagogue of Avignon. In the absence of a modern archaeological investigation, it is at present impossible to confirm the tradition, much less to date the construction accurately. The arches seem Romanesque, as does the round window of the southern wall. In northern France this would be enough to assign the building to the 12th century, or to the late 11th. But Romanesque forms lingered late in Provence, where round arches can be found dating, not from the 12th, but from the 13th and 14th centuries.
There is some reason to believe, however, that this is a 12th-century structure, and that it did serve a specifically Jewish purpose. The remaining traces of the eastern and northern windows show they were slightly pointed—that is, Gothic—in style, and this in turn indicates a reconstruction in the 13th century: thus the rest of the building may be presumed to be of an earlier date. Historical evidence supports this conjecture. The Jewry was damaged during the siege of Avignon in 1226: the walls may have been hit at that time and rebuilt. As will be seen, after the siege the Jews were moved from the Old Jewry, where they apparently had lived by choice, to a New Jewry which was a true ghetto. The old Synagogue and its dependencies were probably given over to the Church, as was usual in such cases. The building would then have been converted into a chapel, and presuming it escaped damage during the siege, the new cult must surely have wished to make some structural alterations. The presence of Gothic windows, in fact, when rectangular ones would have been cheaper, indicates that this was no ordinary dwelling.
Still another piece of evidence suggests that the building once had Jewish liturgical associations. At one corner a well descends fifty feet; the requirement of a ready supply of pure water for ritualistic ablutions made a well a necessity for the medieval synagogue, as it had been for the ancient Temple.
Yet unless the Avignon community was exceedingly small, this chamber, with room for no more than twenty-five worshipers, could not have sufficed as its synagogue. In all probability this was not the temple itself but an adjacent dependency, a study hall or beth ha-midrash—perhaps even a hostel for travelers. Or it could have been an auxiliary worshipping place for women, as at Worms, adjoining a more imposing men’s temple. Possible future excavations might clear up the mystery.
This venerable quarter, in which no Jews now live, has become a melancholy slum; it is hard to realize that eight hundred years ago its sleepy streets brimmed with the kind of economic and intellectual vitality which produced, in 1177, the great Bridge of Avignon. No civic improvement on this scale had been attempted in Provence since the Pont du Gard. The powerful Rhone, even today, is a formidable river to bridge, and to span it with stone arches rather than with reinforced concrete or steel was a prodigious feat which the Romans themselves, content with a bridge of boats downstream at Arles, never attempted. As much as any cathedral, the Pont d’Avignon, much changed and half-ruined as it stands, displays the imaginative vigor of the Middle Ages at its best.
Until the Pont Saint-Bénézet, as the bridge has always been known, was built, the river could be crossed at this point only by ferry, and in the popular legend that turned its construction into a supernatural event, a Jew figures as a ferryman. The legend has it that Saint Bénézet—“Little Benedict”—was a shepherd lad who, tending his lambs, heard a voice from Heaven; the Lord was instructing him to go to Avignon and build a bridge there. Bénézet arrived across the river from the city with three farthings in his pocket, and asked a ferryman to take him over “for the love of God and Our Lady Holy Mary.” The ferryman, a Jew, replied: “You must pay me three pence as all do.” Bénézet appealed to him once more in the name of God and the Virgin. The Jew only answered: “What care I for your Mary, who has no power in Heaven or on earth? I would rather have three pence, there are many Maries.” Then Bénézet offered him what money he had, and the Jew took it, and ferried him across. Once arrived in Avignon, Bénézet is said, by the legend, to have accomplished even greater marvels. To convince the skeptical Bishop of his divine mission, he lifted a stone “that thirty men could not have moved . . . as if it were a pebble, and carried it away and laid it down as the foundation stone for the bridge.”3 This supposedly took place in 1177. It required eleven years for the bridge to be completed. The difference the bridge made in the commercial life of Avignon may be appreciated today by anyone who crosses the Rhone by boat. It still costs only a penny or two to take the little ferry to the recreation ground on the Ile de la Barthelasse. The boat is strung on a cable, and after the ferryman poles it into the stream, the strong current carries it along swiftly. Medieval boatsmen had no guiding cable, and without it a boat is difficult—in heavy weather, impossible—to control.
Now the already flourishing town of Avignon attained a new prosperity. Southern France by the turn of the 13th century had fully revived economically. Not even under the Romans, perhaps, had times been so good—the standard of living so high—for the bulk of the population. Ironically, this wealth meant the doom of an independent southern civilization in France. The Albigensian Crusade, waged ostensibly to eradicate heresy, had as its main results the downfall of the brilliant House of Toulouse and the acquisition of the territory by the French Crown and the Holy See. In 1226 a French army, led by Louis VIII, appeared before Avignon, which had been under the ban of the Church for ten years. In the siege that followed, disease and famine compelled the city to capitulate after three months of furious resistance. Heavy indemnities were exacted by the victors. Three hundred houses were razed, probably many Jewish houses among them, together with the city walls which were later rebuilt by the Popes and still give a strong impression of the fortified medieval town. Northern princes—Alphonse of Poitiers and Charles of Anjou, both sons of Louis VIII—became the chief lords of Languedoc and Provence. The old Midi life was forever gone. If defeat was painful for the heretics, it was disastrous for the Jews. Henceforth they were banished from public life: a clause of the peace treaty of 1229 specifically barred them from administrative posts. Those few Jews—there were never more than a few during the Middle Ages—who had amassed large fortunes as bankers were crowded from the field by favored Christian rivals; especially, they could not compete with the powerful Florentines who had extended their operations to France. Within a century most Jewish financiers found themselves reduced to pawnbroking, although several managed to continue large-scale dealings.
At the instigation of Christian competitors, Jewish merchants were now confined to second-hand transactions in cloth, apparel, and other goods. Some were still able to trade, as they had for centuries, in spices, grains, wine, oil, honey, wax, alum, leather, horses and other animals, silks, coral, pearls, and gems. These were spirited businessmen—we know one edict forbade them to accost passers-by and pull them by force into the shops. But only extraordinary energy could cope with the oppressive legislation and arbitrary taxation that had cut heavily into profits.
Jewish artisans were even less fortunate. The guilds, which had long excluded them, achieved a virtual Christian monopoly in most crafts. Jewish seal-makers, illuminators, and jewelers long retained their skills, but Jewish gold and silversmiths, once so famous, grew rare. Franz Landsberger has pointed out that it was in the south of France, so far as can be learned, that for the first time a non-Jew, Robin Asard of Avignon, in 1439 made a Torah crown for the congregation of Aries.
It was at this time, too, that the Jewish peddler, rather than the princely traveling merchant, made his appearance on the roads. In the cities a Jewish proletariat rose, chronically unemployed and dependent on alms. The French saying “as poor as a Jew in Avignon” came into usage.
To economic hardship were added social indignities. Badges of infamy—the little red or saffron yellow wheel, sewn on the coat—were imposed throughout the West after Church policy hardened in the anti-Semitic measures of the Lateran Council of 1215. The Council also founded the Inquisition, and laid the way for the establishment of ghettos which could be sealed off by walls and gates.
The forced change of residence by the Jews of Avignon was typical of the ghetto development. Shortly after the siege, the Old Jewry was ordered evacuated, and the Jews transferred to the exact center of the city, a quarter formerly occupied by Christians. The reason for the location is clear. The Jews were suspected of dissatisfaction. To the medieval mind, as to the modern authoritarian mind, dissatisfaction was indistinguishable from disloyalty. Tales of Jewish treachery far in the past, during the Saracenic wars, were invented, and used as a pretext for placing the Jews as far as possible from the city’s outer fortifications.
The new Jewry was a city within a city, and is in fact referred to as “la cité juive” in one document. Today its changed outlines can be recognized only by such street names as the Rue Abraham and the Rue Jacob, but the original appearance of the ghetto is known from old pictorial maps. It was roughly one hundred yards square, and was connected to the rest of the city by two gates. One, at the end of the Rue Abraham, from the year 1398 onward was closed by a drawbridge, which the Jews were said to have requested “for their own security” (pro securitate ejusdem) .
The ghetto system made no provision for an increase in population. As the community grew to more than one thousand people in the 14th century, the only solution to the housing problem was to build upward. Tenements of five and six stories were constructed, some of which survive, surmounted by shabby penthouses of later date. These tall structures cut off all light from the labyrinth of narrow, dead-end streets below. The chronic shortage of water made it impossible, in spite of valiant efforts, to keep the area clean. The houses, packed together, were poorly ventilated. The lower floors were not only perpetually dark, but dank and miserable. In times of plague, which struck Avignon repeatedly, the ghetto became a deathtrap.
Yet it was during outbreaks of plague that the intellectual vitality and moral courage of the Jews came strikingly to the notice of their Christian neighbors. The Jewish physicians were beyond praise. In the epidemic of 1506 Master Videz, an exceptionally gallant figure, voluntarily visited cadavers after the first alarm to identify symptoms of pestilence: this was considered far beyond his duty as a doctor. Together with Moses Alphandery, Samuel of Lunel, and Joshua of Cavaillon, Videz joined with Christian civic leaders and helped organize municipal resistance to the plague through remarkably modern quarantine techniques, including the burning of victims’ possessions, which unfortunately caused the sick to conceal their symptoms as long as possible.4 At first a hospital outside the walls was denied to the Jews, but a barn was at last provided for this purpose in the 17th century. The hospital proved a mixed blessing. The patients were attended by Dominicans, who zealously tried to convert them, and occasionally baptized the helpless against their will.
In addition to their traditional distinction in medicine, the Jews were preeminent in the study of all the natural sciences. Southern France was one of the great cultural transmission points of the Middle Ages. It was through the passes of the Pyrenees that from half-Moslem Spain—the Spain Maimonides knew—many Semitic words came into Latin and thence into French and English. A large proportion of them, significantly, were scientific, artistic, and musical terms: azimuth, zenith, zero, alembic, azure, lute, guitar, fanfare. Jews translated learned treatises from Greek and Arabic into Hebrew, and aided Christian scholars to translate them into Latin. The debt of modern civilization to the Jewries of the Mediterranean shorelands, particularly to the great Talmudical academy at Lunel, has perhaps yet to be appreciated fully. Too often, for reasons of prudence, the Christian scholar concealed his association with Jewish colleagues, and the collaboration has been lost to history.
But Jews did more than act as intermediaries between Moslem and Christian culture. They were outstanding scientists and speculative thinkers in their own right. One of the greatest of them, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344)—Gersonides—lived in the ghetto of Avignon. If Gersonides was not actually the inventor (he may have been preceded by Jacob ben Makir, one of the great Jewish physicians of Montpellier, who died in 1308) of the Jacob’s Staff, the quadrant used by all the famous Renaissance navigators, including Columbus, he was at least among its earliest and foremost developers. As an astronomer, he anticipated Copernicus, and his work was still valuable when Kepler took pains to consult his writings in the 17th century. As an applied physicist, he experimented with a camera obscura long before Leonardo da Vinci. As a courageous independent philosopher, he was a forerunner of Spinoza, and like him earned condemnation by his coreligionists for impiety. Gersonides’ masterpiece, Wars of the Lord, was called “Wars Against the Lord” by his more orthodox critics. Christian readers were not so severe. Pope Clement VI, from the eminence of his massive palace high above the Jewry, in 1342 ordered the astronomical portions of the work to be translated into Latin. This was a stroke of luck for posterity, for when the original Hebrew version was printed in the 15th century, these sections of the manuscript were omitted for their lack of theological importance.
In the development of printing, too, the Jews were pioneers. Cecil Roth has shown that, some six years before Gutenberg is thought to have set up his press, a member of the Avignon community in 1444 commissioned a wandering German craftsman to cut a Hebrew font “according to the art of writing artificially.”
In spite of the humiliation of ghetto life and the marked costume, in spite of the misery and congestion of their locked-in community, the Jews remained intellectually and spiritually dynamic. The source of this vitality, as it had been from antiquity, was the synagogue. Today, facing the pleasant little square of the Place Jerusalem (it was merely a tiny open space during the days of the ghetto), a 19th-century temple stands on the emplacement of the medieval synagogue which was erected after 1226. Although it was remodeled several times, its location was never changed during the six centuries before its destruction by fire in 1844. The present synagogue, coldly neoclassical, can tell very little of its predecessor. Nor do the modern Jews of Avignon, none of them descended from the old community, but immigrants from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa, much resemble the vanished residents of the ghetto, even in their religious devotions. How great a loss there has been at Avignon, will be seen at Carpentras and Cavaillon.
The road to Carpentras, which is fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, follows the easy terrain of the Comtat Venaissin through lines of cypress and eucalyptus trees; on either side stretch fields of asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries. Set well back, the stone farmhouses and outbuildings are massed together architectonically, as in a Cézanne.
This rich province (approximately embracing the territory of the modern department of the Vaucluse) fell to the share of the Church after the Albigensian Crusade, and was formally ceded by France to the Holy See in 1274. Seven French-speaking Popes, all heavily obligated to the French Crown, were to find the Comtat a fortunate acquisition during the 14th century. Rome, torn by the savage feuds of the Colonna and the Orsini, became uninhabitable for them. Under strong pressure from Philip IV of France, the first Pontiff to exile himself from Italy, the Gascon Clement V, in 1309, came to Carpentras to live. The city proved too small, and too far from the main routes of communication to serve as the seat of the Papacy. Therefore Clement’s successor, John XXII, five years later established the papal court at Avignon, which had not been included with the Comtat in the peace settlement, but which Clement VI purchased in 1348 from the tragic Jeanne des Baux, Countess of Provence and Queen of the Angevin House of Naples.
It was during the reign of Clement VI (1342-1352) and of his predecessor Benedict XII (1334-1342) that the immense Papal Palace was constructed and fortified and the city walls rebuilt and strengthened. Today these formidable installations, confronting the castle of Philip IV across the Rhone, still give a spectacular impression of the resurgence of Avignon under the Popes. But for all their brilliant show, the fortifications were defensive in spirit and strategy, a sign of weakness and fear. The Popes could not find troops even to crush the bands of brigands who roamed the countryside, but instead bought them off. In 1377 Gregory XI found the courage to return to anarchic Rome. He was followed on the throne of Peter by an Italian.
The Popes came to southern France at a particularly trying moment for the Jews of Western Europe. The new national governments, now that their centralized fiscal systems had been established and a class of great Christian capitalists had arisen, one by one despoiled and expelled their Jewish populations. Jews had been exiled from the royal domain of France as early as 1182, but the first permanent expulsion on a national rather than feudal basis was from England, in 1290. France followed suit in 1306, but then recalled the Jews at the demand of the people, who were exacerbated by the cupidity of Christian moneylenders. Periodically throughout the 14th century the Jews were chased from the kingdom of France and readmitted, in continually dwindling numbers, until at the time of their final exile in 1394, they were reduced from an original one hundred thousand to twenty thousand.
Refugees thronged the papal possessions. The Popes, who were themselves in political and financial straits, received them. This clemency held more than just a materialistic motive: the “Vicars of Christ” were morally bound, as defenders of the Old Testament, to protect the Jews and, if possible, convert them to the New. Christian charity, moreover, and humanistic enlightenment (demonstrated in Clement VI’s admiration for Gersonides) played some part in Church policy, which also extended asylum to other cast-outs: to lepers (who with the Jews were accused of poisoning wells in time of plague), and even to heretics.
Criminals and escaped prisoners, smugglers and counterfeiters, swarmed in, too, as well as a floating population of gamblers and prostitutes, plying their trades at the fairs of nearby Beaucaire. Hundreds of hangers-on attached themselves to the pontifical court, to profit from the extreme laxity in the entourages of the cardinals. Simony was widespread, and Avignon became notorious. Petrarch, castigating the city as “a sewer in which runs all the filth of the universe,” retired to the lovely Fountain of the Vaucluse; the laureate failed to add that Avignon in the 14th century was surpassed in venality and licentiousness only by Rome.
As early as 1303, Avignon and the Comtat were called “the paradise of the Jews.” The description needs correction. The comparatively mild conditions of papal rule constituted a refuge for Jews—for a handful of the wealthy ones, perhaps a comfortable refuge—but hardly more. How far from being a paradise they were could be seen at a glance, miles away, before the destruction of the ghetto of Carpentras in the last century: in a painting by Bonet at the municipal museum, depicting the city as it was in 1804, after five centuries of papal administration had ended, one sees rising out of the heart of the town, surmounting not only the ramparts and towers but also the churches and the cathedral, a rickety pyramid of Jewish dwellings, some of them small skyscrapers ten stories high, leaning against one another for support. This slum—in his splendid study of the community,5 Isidore Loeb called it a citadelle de la douleur—had been forced upward into the Provençal sky by a tight band of bigotry. As at Avignon, the Jewry was severely restricted in area. The population expanded in later times until it eventually approached two thousand, but the perimeter was never permitted to enlarge.
With the demolition of the ghetto, the aspect of Carpentras changed considerably. The city lies on a broad rise of ground, brilliant in sunlight. The cathedral, as the Church always wished, now dominates the skyline—although the synagogue remains the city’s most interesting building. A distinct air of well-being pervades Carpentras—not altogether pleasing. Carpentras is a ville fermée, a closed, self-centered provincial city on the order of Lyons and Bordeaux, unlike Marseilles or Avignon. The calculating faces of its shopkeepers seem indeed still to bear traces of the narrow smugness which once caused much pain to the residents of the Jewry.
Yet carpentras can be extremely pleasant. In place of the medieval ramparts, which rivaled Avignon’s, there is a circle of tree-lined boulevards. Beyond the city to the north and east, very near now and vivid, the foothills of the Mont Ventoux sweep upward from broad meadows.
How long Jews have lived here is a mystery. Since Carpentras is at some distance from the Rhone, the community may have been established much later than those along the river. But the town existed in ancient times, and it is possible that Jewish slavers led away the fettered Gauls who appear on the Roman arch, which dates from the reign of Augustus. Jews are known from an inscription to have penetrated to Peyruis, near Sisteron on the other side of the hills, by 352. In the Dauphiné, farther north and more inaccessible, Jews were settled at the latest in 894. But the earliest extant document which mentions the Carpentras community is a codex of rabbinical decisions, very likely compiled by Jacob Tarn, a grandson of the great Rashi of Troyes, and therefore probably written in the first half of the 12th century.
The rabbis of Carpentras subscribed to the codex, together with the rabbis and elders of Troyes, Auxerre, Reims, Paris, and Lyons, the major Jewish centers of medieval France. Thus it may be assumed that the community was already venerable, and its rabbis had by this time established their theological leadership in Provence. Carpentras long held this local supremacy in religious matters. After the Four Holy Communities stood alone in France, it remained their spiritual chief. Avignon, even though its population was usually slightly larger, looked to it, as did Cavaillon and L’lsle-sur-Sorgue, as the arbiter of doctrine. Avignon had its scientists and poets, Carpentras its learned commentators on the Pentateuch and the Talmud.
There was also a difference in the political status of the Jews of the two cities. At Carpentras they were liegemen of the Lord Bishop, rather than (if only in a nominal sense) serfs—as were the Jews of Avignon. This distinction theoretically gave the Carpentras Jews many rights, including freedom to leave the city if they wished. Yet it did not prevent their being forcibly expelled at some unknown date, for an unknown reason, in the 13th century. They were recalled in the 1260’s, however, and were residing in Carpentras when the papal officials took formal control of the Comtat Venaissin in 1274.
As the Pope’s subjects, the Jews were under the over-all jurisdiction of the Papal Rector of the province; but a charter of 1276, signed by the heads of sixty-four Jewish families,6 and which was invoked in a dispute as late as 1789, made it clear that they were still the Bishop’s men. In this charter they were accorded the title of cives—citizens—and as such given guarantees against arbitrary tax levies and mob violence. The Bishop was to receive in exchange a heavy yearly tribute in cash and kind. Among their obligations, the Jews were enjoined to deliver to the Bishop the untrimmed tongues of all the cattle they slaughtered, and to furnish bedding for his guests at the episcopal palace. If the terms seem severe, they were scarcely more so than those imposed on Christian burghers, who protested bitterly against the Bishop’s exactions. In fact, the arrangement worked well for half a century. It left the Jews free to regulate their internal affairs, which were administered by elected elders known as baylons. Property requirements made it impossible for poor Jews to stand for election; and therefore, in each of the other communities as well as at Carpentras (internal autonomy took virtually the same form in all four Jewries) the councils of baylons constituted self-perpetuating oligarchies of wealthy Jews, very similar to the municipal councils which governed Christians. The rabbis had no place in the civic government of the communities.
One of the most interesting articles of the charter of 1276, which is altogether one of the most illuminating documents of the Middle Ages, mentions both the urban and rural real estate of the Jews—a strong indication that no ghetto yet existed. It also speaks of a synagogue and of the possibility of its being rebuilt or remodeled. This temple stood on the street still known as the Rue de la Vieille-Juiverie, near the walls, in a situation very like that of the primitive Jewry of Avignon. Evidently it had been a Jewish street for ages.
In 1322 disaster fell. Two years previous, when the fanatic rabble known as the Pastoureaux staged massacres throughout France, Pope John XXII had loyally protected the Jews in his domains. During the plague that erupted in 1321 and 1322, he denied tales of contamination of the water supply, and again warded off pogroms. But late in 1322 he vacillated, and at last gave way to the hysteria. Refugees were crowding into the Comtat from the ravaged northern Jewries. Outraged, local Christians appealed to the Pope, who responded with the kind of caprice that often bent pontifical judgment of the Jews: he banished all Jews, the old residents with the newcomers, from the province, which fortunately did not include Avignon and southern Provence. The synagogues of the Comtat were demolished, and churches erected in their place. The Jews, compelled to leave on short notice, suffered heavy financial loss.
They were permitted to return at the end of 1343, twenty-one years later. Only twelve of the original sixty-four families came back to Carpentras. They were impoverished, and the Bishop (who, since they were a source of revenue, wished them to stay) eased their obligations until such time as the number of families reached ninety. For an annual payment of six pounds of ginger and pepper, or the very considerable equivalent in money, he also permitted them a synagogue and a cemetery.
The Jews did not resettle in the Old Jewry. Instead—it would seem voluntarily—they occupied the Rue de la Muse in the center of the city. There they rented a building from a Christian notary, Bertrand Pauli, which served as a synagogue until the landlord asked them to move, in 1367. Thereupon three Jewish dignitaries, Isaac Tauroci, Jacob Tamani, and Caracausa Bonafos, presented to the authorities a request for a permanent house of worship. The request was modest enough. The Jews asked only that the edifice be equal in size to the temple destroyed in 1322, which had measured no more than forty-five feet in length and twenty-six feet in width and height. When permission was finally granted, the length was reduced to thirty-three feet, and the Jews were warned that their ceremonies must be “no more beautiful, ample, and pompous” than those held in the old synagogue.
The authorization contained another provision to which little significance may have been attached at the time. It specified that the new synagogue be located in a street where more Jews lived than Christians. As it turned out, a suitable site was found near the building just vacated in the Rue de la Muse. Perhaps it was the same building: the eviction and subsequent proceedings may have been merely a device to enable Pauli to sell the property.
Construction of a new building—or refurbishment of the old one—began immediately; no records of the project have survived. It seems possible that the Jews not only erected a completely new structure, but also provided the necessary skilled labor themselves. Although it was already 1367, well into the Middle Ages, and Jewish craftsmanship was in decline, a Jewish stonecutter and a mason are known to have lived in Avignon in the 14th century and to have worked at Arles—which was ten miles farther from their homes than Carpentras.
What dramatically distinguished the synagogue from those of antiquity or of modern times, and even from contemporary structures in central European cities such as Prague, was its tightly compressed plan. Rather than a generous open hall, freely developed architecturally on an adequate site, this building had to make the most of a tiny lot. Accordingly, a two-story scheme was adopted, with the upper floor reserved for men and the lower for women. Since the height of the building was also restricted, additional space could be got only by digging. Therefore at Carpentras, as elsewhere, the lower level was not a true ground floor, but a half-cellar to which one descended by a flight of steps. This allowed the men’s chamber above to be relatively high-ceilinged and thus achieve an effect of relative grandeur. It also honored a Biblical formula of the Diaspora, when temples were first placed slightly below ground level to echo the somber music of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.”
The two-story arrangement was usual in the West during the later Middle Ages. It was employed at Rouen in Normandy, as well as at Carpentras and its sister communities in the south. At Lincoln in England, much altered but partly intact, survives a similar and very fascinating 12th-century structure called “Jews’ Court,” which Helen Rosenau has shown to have been a synagogue: the main feature of its upper floor is a simple niche which housed the Scrolls of the Law. Possibly it owes its traditional name to the fact that it served also as a law court. In their confined situations, medieval synagogues were used for a variety of purposes. The two stories gave the small buildings a needed flexibility and privacy for different functions. Their thick walls and narrow windows could make them doughty little fortresses too, if need arose.
The upper portion of the Carpentras synagogue of 1367 has vanished, but beneath the beautiful room that replaced it in the 18th century the Gothic vaults of the dark, half-subterranean women’s synagogue hold staunchly. Here, by candlelight, the women followed the men’s services through a vent in the ceiling. They also had an aged rabbi of their own, who led their responses in a Judeo-Provençal patois, for unlike the men they knew no Hebrew. At Avignon, where the synagogue was similarly divided, a Christian visitor7 in 1599 noted that the women’s rabbi was blind.
For nearly a century the Jews of Carpentras worshipped in the synagogue without fear of molestation. The Rue de la Muse in time became known as the Juiverie de la Muse, and later simply as the Juiverie. Some Christian residences and shops remained among the majority of Jewish ones. The population of the community had increased again: forty-two family heads contributed to the repair of the cathedral in 1400 (they helped pay for the elegant south portal, in flamboyant Gothic, which is the outstanding element of the church today, and is called the Porte Juive). The departure of the Popes for Rome had caused a financial decline, but this was felt more keenly at Avignon than in the Comtat. The Vicar General at Avignon and the Rector at Carpentras were invariably Italian, and less disposed to be fanatics than the French. Conditions were not perfect, but could have been worse. Expulsions continued sporadically in the north: from the French-speaking provinces of the Holy Roman Empire in 1365, from Lorraine in 1409, from the city of Lyons (where Jews had been allowed to remain after the final exile from France) in 1420; there were few pockets of tolerance left in the West.
The Jews had reason to pray. And each year, in the autumn dusk, two virgins stood in the small synagogue garden, and held a white thread and a black thread against the sky. When they could no longer distinguish the colors, the long Day of Atonement would begin.
After eighty years of tranquility, during which the community gradually spread from the Jewry to three adjacent streets, and neglected to wear the signs of infamy, wrangling again broke out between the Jews and Christians of Carpentras in the middle of the 15th century. From 1450 on, the town records are filled with terse comments concerning the Jews, so cryptic, however, that it is difficult to know what the real disputes were about. Among the problems dealt with were taxes, allegations of unfair practices by Jewish brokers, a charge that the kosher abattoir was close to the Christian one. In 1455, apparently in a move to compel the Jews to yield certain concessions, the authorities threatened to transfer their quarter to some other part of the city.
The arrival of a new Rector, Angelo Geraldini, temporarily saved the situation. The Christians carried their case to Pius II at Rome, and in two Bulls of 1459 he made it clear that the Jews were not to forget their proper humility: he renewed several old pariah laws, and reimposed the rouella or little wheel. Christian emotion was stirred up when a rival delegation, led by Salves de l’Argentière and Vides de Lates, traveled to Rome and obtained abrogation of these edicts.
The residential clause of the synagogue agreement of 1367, seemingly innocuous in itself, appeared now to be open to conflicting interpretations. There were outcries in the city council that the Jewish quarter had been unlawfully and needlessly enlarged. Negotiations followed, and a compromise was arranged; then on Friday, June 13, 1460, riots shook the city. If there were other motives behind this outburst, anti-Semitism was doubtless the strongest. A mob pillaged the Jewry. The authorities, in response to popular clamor, reconsidered the settlement just made. Six months later the community was confined to the Juiverie and a single adjoining street—approximately half its former area.
Christian zealots were not satisfied. Additional complaints were heard, and in 1485 a tragic event brought matters to a head. The County of Provence, which except for the Comtat remained the last French- or Provençal-speaking territory open to Jews, expelled its ancient communities. Refugees began entering the papal enclave. The influx at Carpentras was particularly heavy. The new arrivals overflowed the area alloted to the Jews, and sought lodgings among Christians. It was difficult to maintain order. For some time it had been necessary to post special police in the Jewish quarter to prevent violence by the peasants who came to the city to market and celebrate the grape harvest. This October it was scarcely possible to control them. The burghers, who had never been happy about paying armed men to defend Jews, sought to rid themselves of this vexing autumnal expense. Simultaneously, they hoped to solve the problem of Jewish expansion to other parts of the city. The council suggested to the Jews that, in their own interest, they should be limited to a single street protected by security gates.
The Jews replied that although they found the solution distasteful, they were nevertheless disposed to accept it. They were weary of the onslaughts of the drunken harvesters, and they wished to be absolved of the charge that they were a financial burden to the rest of the city. They themselves drew up the document which made the Jewry a true ghetto.
The term “ghetto,”8 however, was not used. It appears only once, at the late date of 1736, among all the official papers which mention the Jewry of Carpentras. To both Jews and non-Jews, the Juiverie was known always as la carriero—Provençal for “the Street”—or, in French, la carrière. (From the Italian carriera, a place closed by barriers, originally for the purpose of horse racing.) In Hebrew the name for street is mesilla, and was used in the community’s records. But because, as their contacts with outside Jewry grew rare, the Comtadins changed s sounds, and sometimes th, to f, it was pronounced mefilla.
Among the ten articles of the ghetto agreement, the Jews insisted on several points:
- That the Carrière have at each end a gate which could be locked and barred from within. The gates were to remain open by day, except in case of danger; at night they were to be closed, providing no Christians were still within.
- That the doors and windows of Christian buildings facing the Carrière should be either walled up or barred.
- That the Jews should have a year in which to divest themselves of their property outside the Carrière, which they might rent to Christians in the interim.
- That although Christians should have free passage of the Carrière by day, ecclesiastical processions through the street were to be discontinued. In such processions, the clerks accompanying the priests had taken the occasion to pelt the Jews with stones.
The last seems not to have been acceded to, and the Jews were to experience much woe from future processions. The other articles were approved successively by the Rector, the Cardinal-Legate at Avignon, and Pope Innocent VIII in March, October, and December of 1487. Early in 1488, construction of the pointed Gothic portals closing in the Jews began. They stood until the 19th century.
The Jews found themselves enclosed in a street 270 feet long and dog-legged in shape. At the bend it widened slightly to form a small open place from which the synagogue, surrounded by a cluster of other buildings, could be entered. Overhead, the houses rose ever taller, until they reached an average of seven and eight stories. In the year 1743 there were some 50 such tenements lining the narrow street, divided into 168 apartments. The population was usually about 1,200. Occasionally the construction gave way and houses fell, burying their occupants in wreckage. The Jews were forbidden by papal edict to chant or carry tapers during their funeral processions, once these had reached the Christian streets outside the Carrière, on their way to the cemetery. By another pontifical decree, strictly enforced, Jewish tombstones were not permitted to be dignified by inscriptions.
It was impossible, the Jews soon found, to keep the Carrière clean. They appealed in vain for the right to a fountain; during three hundred years they were forced to send outside for water. The drainage system was an abomination. The street, even under the brilliant sun, lay in darkness. Only the poorest Jews, forced to live on the roofs, enjoyed the Provençal sky. Rather than carry their provisions up the many flights of stairs, they hoisted them with ropes and pulleys.
Under the pressure of the Counter Reformation conditions grew steadily worse. The 16th and 17th centuries were the most oppressive in history for the Jews in the Catholic countries of Western Europe. In 1525 Pope Clement VII, incensed that they were concealing the yellow badges which they had been ordered by law to display prominently, substituted a more conspicuous sign of infamy: the yellow hat. A fine of one hundred ducats—about $250 of our money—was the penalty for non-compliance. Boys were to commence wearing their pointed bonnets at fourteen, girls to attach yellow ribbons to their coifs at the age of twelve.
Demands for the expulsion of the Jews from the Comtat and Avignon never ceased. Twice they were successful: Pius V in 1569 and Clement VIII in 1593 issued orders of banishment which were at least partly enforced before they were annulled. Repeatedly, in 1606, 1612, 1614, 1617, 1618, 1620, 1622, 1623, and 1638—and still once more in 1693—Rome was petitioned by diehards to expel the Jews; but the requests were denied. There was now no place in the West for the Jews to go, except to the Protestant north, or beyond the Rhine to the communities of the Ashkenazim. Only the rich could afford the long journeys, hindered by a profusion of border regulations. The ghettos of Italy were even more miserable and overcrowded than those of southern France. In Spain and Portugal, autos-da-fé were in progress. Some Marranos escaped detection in the Crown territories of France, at Paris and other cities, especially Bayonne in the southwest where a small colony lived openly, but their existence was perilous: Louis XIII reaffirmed in 1615 the edict of exile of 1394, which carried dread punishment for evasion.
The Four Holy Communities at last stood completely alone. The small groups of Jews who had lived since the early Middle Ages in the villages of the Comtat—at Malaucène, Valabrègue, Monteux, and other outlying places—had been chased into the carrières of the cities. Even here, however, there was no real peace. The Holy See twice a month compelled the Jews to listen to conversionist sermons designed to prove that they were no longer the Chosen People. Adolph Kober9 has described these painful sessions, which sometimes turned into fiery debates. More often, the Jews attended with studied indifference, or cracked nuts, while impassioned clergymen—Father Justin of Carpentras was the most dedicated of these orators—harangued them. More outrageous still was the baptism of Jewish children criminally spirited away from their parents; apologies followed, but under canon law these child converts could not be returned to the Carrière.
The Jews never surrendered. The cycles of Holy Days were observed with devotion and joy. Each year the drama of Purim was enacted; Esther of Carpentras has been embodied by Darius Milhaud and Armand Lunel into a modern opera. At the Passover table, the family sang the “Had Gadya” in Provençal; and the father recited over the unleavened bread: “Iço es lou fan d’affliction que manjavoun nosti predecessur en terro de Misraïm—Here is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The matzoth were prepared in a community oven built into the substructure of the synagogue; it has survived together with its appurtenances: the long-handled wooden shovels and the massive stone kneading tables, donated by Gad of Digne in 1652. The Jews, in a region fond of pastry, also baked condoles, cakes made with sweet wine and oil. Many Christians, forbidden by law to taste the delicacies, enjoyed them in secret.
In theory, if not in fact, all amicable intercourse between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited. The more enlightened members of both groups refused to accept such segregation, as is eloquently proven in the correspondence between the great humanist and nobleman, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and Solomon Azubi, rabbi of Carpentras from 1617 to 1635. Rabbi Azubi, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, was one of the many noted scholars and theologians called from other countries by the Comtadin Jews. In an effort to keep their intellectual standard high, and their links with world Jewry intact, they imported rabbis from Amsterdam and Prague, and from cities in Germany and Poland. Another Jewish humanist, Juda Messer Leon of Avignon, in the 17th century wrote a rather garbled version in Hebrew of the story of Petrarch and Laura.
The Jews did not fail to relish whatever social and intellectual delights they were allowed. In addition to holidays, the residents of the Carrière of Carpentras celebrated two great local fêtes at the end of November and the beginning of April. Events unknown, in 1512 and 1682, were the occasions for extraordinary celebrations, with special thanksgiving prayers; kosher wine flowed at weddings, births, and circumcisions, and was dispensed at a tavern in the Carrière, which seems always to have been kept by women. The wine was made from the grapes of a vineyard adjacent to the cemetery. To go outside the walls to tend the vines gave the Jews a rare chance to relax in the countryside. There is an instance of a party of Jews picnicking outside the city on a Sunday, only to be reproved by the clergy for keeping the Christian coachman from mass.
Repeatedly, even when the rest of the populace was ready to cease bickering, the clergy exasperated the Jews by displaying the cross in the Carrière. Once, as the chant-ting clerks passed their homes, the Jews opened the sewage taps; in revenge, they were heavily fined. On another occasion, the Jews were accused of garbing a crucifix in a harlequin’s costume, capping it with a yellow bonnet, and parading it the length of the Carrière. For this sacrilege the Bishop ordered them to erect a marble cross before the cathedral, where it stood for two centuries until a Tree of Liberty was planted in its place in 1793. Jewish women were no more cowed than the men. They would spit irreverently when provoked by Christians, and earn public floggings for their courage.
Today, in her kitchen-utensils shop on the Rue des Halles, Mademoiselle Blanche Mossé—the only descendant of the old community who still lives in Carpentras—carries on the tradition. This proud, brave, scornful spinster stayed through the Nazi occupation, and by sheer moral force, rallying the other citizens around her, saved the synagogue. It is her synagogue. She remains aloof from the small colony of East Europeans who have prayed there since the end of the war. To her, “they are not Jews”—at least they are not on the order of her father, Armand Mossé, the erudite historian of the Carrière, or her ancestor Salomon Mossé who in 1786, possessing a fortune of 100,000 livres, was one of its wealthiest men, or of countless other Mossés, going back to the 13th-century family rolls, and further, into antiquity. The tourist must apply to her to see the synagogue, for she will not permit anyone else to act as guide.
The austere façade of the synagogue—an unadorned wall pierced by a single door—remains as unobtrusive in the center of Carpentras as it was meant to be. Centuries of persecution had taught the Jews of Carpentras, by the time the new synagogue was begun in 1741, that prudence must be the better part of their architectural wisdom. Today the synagogue, once in the thick of the ghetto, stands exposed as the community never dreamed; stripped of the surrounding houses of the Carrière, it seems excessively plain. It fronts on the Place de la Mairie, one of the many pleasant squares in France which have supplanted scabrous medieval quarters. The sunlight, pouring into what was once a dark ghetto, catches the usual inscription on the near-by city hall: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Inside the synagogue’s doorway is a modern vestibule (rebuilt in the restoration of 1930) whose staircase rises above the primitive women’s synagogue, which is completely hidden by later construction and no longer visited. At the head of the stairs, well away from the street, is the real entrance.
The doors open to a wonderful display of light: the precise and delicate light of the 18th century, entering through large upper windows, and passing across galleries into a lofty and sumptuous room. An effect of elegance pervades the rich classical detail of fluted columns and carven garlands, the handsome balustrades of the galleries, the wainscoting and ironwork, the chandeliers of crystal and bronze. The décor is profuse and gay and polite—as in a Watteau. It is Louis Quinze—at its best a winning enough style, for all its artifice. In this provincial southern town, it is captivating.
Directly across from the entrance, dominating the long eastern wall—the side of Jerusalem—is a resplendent Ark of the Law, neoclassical in style, showing in its marbled and gilded stucco a Mediterranean liveliness and warmth. Provence is close to Italy, and the great baroque Ark of Padua was not far away when this one was designed. But the preciseness and delicacy of the proportions are altogether French.
The central unit of the Ark itself, framed by engaged Ionic columns, and hung with velvets, is set off from the rest by a low pedestal and a grille of finely wrought iron. To either side of the Ark, set in large formal panels and wreathed in gilt moldings, are the Tablets of the Law. At each end is a niche: the one on the far left holds a vase which Madame de Pompadour might have treasured, but which must hold some hermetic Jewish significance; on the far right, a golden and tiny armchair, upholstered in red satin, carries a Hebrew inscription embroidered in gold thread—this is the symbolic throne of the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah.10
The ark determines the scale of the rest of this lordly room. The line of its cornice is continued in the skillfully turned balustrades of the upper galleries which run to north and south, where they cross the short sides of the building, and then, completing their circuit of the vessel, return to meet on the west. Here, mounted above the entrance way on four Doric pillars, opposite the Ark, is the synagogue’s other major feature: the bima, the elevated dais from which the services were sung, and the Torah—spread beneath the canopy of an elaborate lectern—was read to the congregation below. This liturgical arrangement, with its possibilities for drama, was used in all four of the Holy Communities. Although a similar scheme was employed in some Italian synagogues, it was apparently a local creation, designed to meet the special needs of the Comtadin Jewry, whose liturgy, as Cecil Roth has shown, developed quite independently from that of the rest of the Diaspora during centuries of isolation.
Such a synagogue, admirably designed, and spacious in its proportions, had long been desired at Carpentras. Until the 18th century, however, the ecclesiastical authorities had refused the Jews permission to enlarge, much less rebuild, their house of worship of 1367. Some repairs were made in 1677, and possibly at unrecorded earlier times; it was not until 1714 that any substantial alteration of the venerable structure was allowed: a wall was opened and a few extra square feet of precious space was gained. In 1730 the lighting of the men’s synagogue on the upper level was improved by the construction of an octagonal lantern tower; it was made of plaster, very likely a flimsy affair. At this time the decoration of the building was also renewed with plaster ornamentation.
The joy in the Carrière may be imagined when the Bishop, Monsignor Malachi d’Inguimbert, at last authorized extensive alteration and enlargement in 1740. The Jews seized this chance—it is doubtful whether the Bishop had so ambitious an undertaking in mind—to reconstruct the building virtually from the foundations upward. The women were to be given new accommodations11 aboveground; their lightless ancient chamber was to be abandoned, but since its vaults were solid, it was retained as a structural support. The bakery, too, was to be saved and incorporated with the foundations. Deeper down still, the women’s ritual bath, the mikveh, hewn with its dark twisting staircase from the living rock, would also remain.
The community had the wisdom to engage one of the most gifted architects of the time, a Christian—no Jews now practiced architecture in the West: Antoine d’Allemand, royal architect and engineer to the King of France. This nobleman (he was the Seigneur de Fenouillet) was also rumored to be a Free Mason. No investigation, fortunately, was made by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was still in operation at Carpentras, for d’AIlemand’s subsequent loyalty to the Jews might point to the truth of the rumor.
No better man could have been found for the job. The Jews, from their cemetery and vineyard outside the walls, had a close view of his most recent project, a majestic aqueduct conceived on a scale which recalled Roman construction. In designing the synagogue, the architect’s one regret must have been that he would have to confine his imagination to the interior, and forsake a façade. The elegance he was capable of giving to the exterior of a building can be seen in the quietly rich façade of the Hôtel-Dieu of Carpentras, which was executed a few years afterward.
Work began on the synagogue in October 1741, with “a great number of workers”—probably all Christian—under d’Allemand’s supervision. The Bishop attended the casting of the foundations, in order to make sure the Jews would not exceed the new dimensions allowed them. For once Monsignor d’Inguimbert was affable. He remarked that the Jews were probably taking liberties, but allowed them to proceed nevertheless. The Jews were to learn to their sorrow that this avowed anti-Semite could not be trusted.
As the temple rose, the Jews found that they had made the mistake of wishing it to be beautiful and filled with light. A further mistake was in wishing it to be lofty, as the Talmud states a synagogue should be. Angry recriminations issued from zealous Catholics—li zelanti cattolici della Citta, as they styled themselves in Italian in a letter of protest to the Holy Office. They charged that the synagogue was “much more magnificent and vast than its predecessor” and, though not yet at its full height, so “dominated the whole of the city, that its superb mass could be seen from miles away.” The Jews had, in fact, raised it only from twenty-eight to forty feet, but this made it taller than two neighboring churches. “Such a situation,” the letter concluded, “should not be tolerated, for it would seem that the Jews, reduced to servitude by their own fault, would wish to demonstrate—by this structure—their superiority to Christians.”
The reverend Father Inquisitor and the Bishop did not fail to agree. An inquiry was held. D’Allemand, plainly reluctant to see his work mutilated, defended it on technical grounds: the new roof height was necessary, he testified, in order to protect the structure from rain water draining off adjacent buildings. His objection was immediately ruled out: the old synagogue had withstood the rains for centuries. Any objection would have been ruled out—this was a malicious comedy being staged before the kangaroo court. It was claimed that the synagogue rose higher than the Cathedral of Saint-Siffrein, which like many provincial episcopal seats, is a comparatively small monument. The Jews replied that the Cathedral was actually taller by some twelve feet.12 They added that they were poor, and could not afford to demolish the new building, as some Christians were demanding. To this it was answered that, except for Livorno, the Carrière was the wealthiest of ghettos. Had not the Jews already expended an immense sum on the construction? The question was embarrassing: by 1743, some 30,000 livres—a large amount for the times—had gone to the temple.
The church’s decision came as expected. The imposing roof was removed, and the walls reduced by a total of fifteen feet. This was found to be lower than the old synagogue. Now it was the Jews who cried out angrily. Monsignor d’Inguimbert equivocated, but in September 1743, finally made concessions. The walls were raised slightly and the interior covered with a temporary shelter against the seasonal rains, which had begun to fall.
Still other difficulties had arisen. The windows of the synagogue, opened up into formerly blank walls, were declared an inconvenience by the Order of the White Penitents, whose church of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Charité backed on the Carrière. The Jewish services, the Penitents claimed, interfered with their own ceremonies. The Jews promised to chant softly, but the splendid east windows above the Ark (since reopened) were walled up. The Jews opened new windows elsewhere, only to have them blocked. The Bishop personally examined every modification. He brought experts with him who minutely measured the walls, as they were lowered again and raised. Costs grew, but the Jews strove desperately to preserve what they could of the original design. By 1748 it seems to have been much as it is today, with a permanent roof in place.
Still the affair dragged on. Quarreling had not ended when Monsignor d’Inguimbert died in 1753. The citizens of his native Carpentras, whom he had provided with a hospital and a library, erected a marble tomb for him, in the chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu. His bust shows a benign clergyman, accompanied by the allegorical figures of Charity nursing her infant, and Knowledge weeping.
Forty-three years passed between the commencement of the synagogue and its consecration in 1784. The community had put its soul into the structure—few religious monuments of the 18th century can boast its peculiar intensity. It shows the underlying seriousness of which the Louis Quinze style was capable, and which has been noticed too rarely. Here it achieves an impressiveness of purpose which was perhaps unattainable in the pleasure houses of the nobility or, for different reasons, in most churches of the period. The synagogue, like many Louis XV churches—the Chapel of the Pénitents Noirs, for example, in Avignon—has been described as “profane,” and compared to a salon. But its courteous mood and cheerful detail nowhere give way to frivolity. It speaks the gracious idiom of its time for the reason that it knew no other.
This temple, constructed at the end of the ancien régime, was a symbol of things to come. Once again, Jews were erecting spacious open halls, letting in the light wherever they could, as they had in antiquity. The new synagogues, drawing inspiration not only from baroque Italy, perhaps not even primarily from it, but from Protestant structures such as the lost Huguenot Temple of Charenton, near Paris, looked forward and not back. They anticipated the separation of church and state which the Enlightenment had made inevitable. The Provençal scola of Carpentras was part of a much wider movement, most conspicuous perhaps in the synagogues of Amsterdam and London, but present too, in the construction of the Touro Synagogue at Providence in 1763, in the New World.
From Carpentras it is fifteen miles south to the third of the Holy Communities: L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. As its name reveals, the city is an island embraced by two arms of the river Sorgue which flows down from its spectacular source at the Fountain of the Vaucluse, and spreads across the fertile country in twenty branches as it goes westward to the Rhone. The city, which has been called “the Venice of Provence,” is musical with flowing water. Canals pass beneath the spreading trees through the beautiful Renaissance quarters, whose mansions now are dilapidated and largely deserted. The development of a modern French textile industry has stopped the waterwheels in their turning, and the thread that was once a source of the town’s prosperity is now manufactured in the smoky cities of the north.
With the town’s commercial importance has also disappeared all trace of its Jewish community. Not even the size and exact location of the Carrière are known. A bare open space, called the Place de la Juiverie, defines the general area in which some three hundred and fifty Jews were living at the time of the Revolution. Probably there were never more than that; the records of the community have been lost, along with those of the entire municipality. That there was a synagogue in the Carrière, and that close relations were maintained with the Jewry of Carpentras, is all that is definitely known. Doubtless the community was ancient, although the earliest surviving document to mention it dates from 1296. It must have had some outstanding scholars: in 1633 Rabbi Azubi of Carpentras came to deliver an elegy for his friend, the learned Chaim Judah ben Jacob Sègre.
L’Isle, now so somnolent, was the scene, in 1773, of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Comtadin Jewry. From across the Rhine Jews had begun to re-enter France, and a colony of Ashkenazim lived more or less openly in Paris, together with rival groups of Sephardic and Comtadin Jews who had also discovered that the police were no longer strictly enforcing the expulsion edicts. Those Jews—most of them poor—who failed to find lodgings in the capital descended on the papal possessions. But the Four Communities, with troubles of their own, were reluctant to admit them, and voted alms to buy them off and send them on their way.
On September 18, 1773, a band of about one hundred wanderers, “speaking all the tongues of Europe,” burst into the ghetto of L’Isle. The community consented to take in those who were ill or pregnant—in all, about twenty. The remainder it tried to appease with a gift of twenty-five sous each. These left, but returned the following day, their numbers swollen by additional unfortunates who had been refused admittance to the other three Carrières. The refugees were desperate to the point of violence. They forced the gates of the city, and swarmed through the streets. Soldiers arrived from Avignon to expel them, but after camping in the countryside for two days, they were back. Again troops were called in to restore order, and the entire band was evicted from the territory.
On October 8, one hundred of them again appeared before the city of L’Isle and attempted to break down the gates. By the following day they had succeeded, and they ran through the streets attacking the local Jews, who were forced to barricade themselves within the ghetto. Grenadiers from Avignon once more chased the wanderers from the province, this time for good.
Times were changing. The Carrières had begun to empty. Population was shifting, as yet barely perceptibly, from the Four Communities to a number of cities in addition to Paris, all in theory forbidden to Jews: Lyons, Bordeaux, Nantes, Nîmes, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Béziers. Still no one realized how mighty a social and political upheaval was at hand, least of all, perhaps, the Jews. At Cavaillon, on the Durance seven miles south of L’Isle, in the same year the riots took place, 1773, a new synagogue had been built, as if the community expected to stay forever.
Mounted above the great round arch of the Carrière portal, the synagogue of Cavaillon floats as a vision of lightness and refinement. Here, finally, is a Jewish façade, so ingenious and enchanting that perhaps it has been worth the centuries of waiting. Seen from the far end of the Rue Hébraïque, across the fifty-yard distance of the Carrière, the high entrance terrace—adorned with a magnificent five-arched balustrade of wrought iron—seems inaccessible. The architect has placed the terrace a full story above the street, and he has cleverly concealed the approach to it by placing a staircase behind a wall at the left. With the arch open beneath it, and the blue Provençal sky above, the white temple seems to sit in the air, freed from the ghetto, as an incarnation of Jewish aspiration and idealism.
As the synagogue is approached, it seems to rise higher, its proportions gaining in grace and vivacity without losing vigor. All has been carefully considered: the display of ironwork against beautifully tailored stone, the baroque cartouche above the entrance—a conscious touch of richness which emphasizes the handsome exchange of proportions between the tall, chaste doorway, and the calm line of the windows above.
It is, nevertheless, a small structure, meant to serve a community of two hundred, who seem always to have enjoyed slightly better conditions than the Jews of the larger cities. Here, too, of course, the Carrière was a true ghetto, locked every night, but there was less congestion, the street was broader to admit the sun, and the houses not so tall. Many of the buildings have long since been removed, to give more open space and greenery than existed in the 18th century; but if the Carrière was not so pleasant as would appear today, there was not the extreme wretchedness of Carpentras and Avignon. The Jews were confined to their single enclosed street in 1453; they had evidently been living there since the preceding century. Earlier still, they had occupied a primitive Jewry in another part of the city, which was in existence at the end of the 11th century—and almost certainly before.
By 1498 the synagogue which once stood on the emplacement of the present one was in poor condition, and the Bishop of Cavaillon authorized the erection of a new building, which in turn was refurbished in 1615; its basic structure apparently remained unchanged until 1772,13 when the present synagogue was begun. Two years later the work was completed. The inscription over the doorway quotes in bold Hebrew characters from Psalm 118: “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter—1774.”
To enter this small room—it measures only twenty by thirty feet—is to step literally two centuries into the past. The building has been repaired on several occasions, and given a new roof, but otherwise it remains essentially as it was when the Jews of Cavaillon first stepped across the threshold. The fine light of the 18th century plays as delicately over the carved wainscots as at Carpentras, but the subdued intimacy, the hushed grays and green, evokes an atmosphere of a Fragonard. The decoration, more lively and more humorous, is rococo. The ironwork, light as filigree, spirals upward in the balustrades which follow the stairs to the gallery above and then sinuously trail downward again on the other side. The baldaquin lectern, from which the services were conducted, in an arrangement similar to that at Carpentras, is entwined with carven roses. The Ark, standing below on the east, is flanked by slender Corinthian columns, and surmounted by a corbeille de fruits, the melons, grapes, cherries, and peaches of the region. Hidden everywhere among the carvings are musical instruments: violins and flutes and tambours.
This superlative craftsmanship is the work of the Christian artisans of the Comtat; perhaps the greatest of them was François Isbard, the metalsmith, who spent three years on the ironwork. Christians also designed the building: a father and son named Armelin, master masons of Cavaillon, drew up the plans, which were later approved by an architect at Avignon. Even the financing was undertaken by Christian bankers, Pierre and Barnabeé Desandreé of Avignon, who loaned the community 6,000 livres.
Just a few years ago, after standing unused for half a century, the synagogue came into its own for a single evening. Candles were placed in the bronze chandeliers, and the eternal lamp was lit. The Grand Rabbi of Marseilles led a procession from the Ark to the upper gallery, and a service was sung. And then, in the candlelight, as the shadows lifted on the paneled walls, the music of Mozart was played.
High in the shadows, perched on a console carved to signify a bank of clouds, stood the Throne of Elijah. For centuries during the Diaspora, as synagogue replaced synagogue, the Jews had appealed to the Lord for the Messiah promised to them by the Prophet. The Messiah had not come. But in 1789, when hope seemed almost gone, came the portentous deliverance of the French Revolution.
The fresh wind of liberation blew open the gates of the ghettos, and the people of France wrested back their territory from the Church. The badge of infamy became a badge of honor. The Jews refused to remove their yellow hats, as they joined the Republicans on the barricades. The synagogues became Jacobin Clubs and Temples of Reason. Many of the precious lamps and candelabras were sent to the foundry for cannon, as the Republic fought to survive. Gold and silver Torah ornaments were cast into coins at the mint. In vain, and too late, the cities of the Comtat pleaded with the Jews to stay. But the Carrières were almost deserted now, and their demolition had begun. The Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 would remove virtually all trace of them except the synagogues. “Leave us our ruins!” cried a solitary Jew at L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. No one paid heed. The Four Holy Communities had left the Comtat Venaissin forever.
1 For a discussion of recent literature concerning the Dura synagogue, see the review by Moses Hadas, “Pagan and Jew in the Ancient World,” in COMMENTARY of July 1957.
2 A transliteration of the Hebrew word for “rock,” which indicates that he was called de Rocha in Provencal or, in French, de la Roche, and that his family had originated in the ancient Jewry of Roquemaure (“Moorish Rock”) on the Rhone ten miles above Avignon. Members of the family later emigrated to the Netherlands, where there were two physicians named Rocamora at Amsterdam to the 17th century. It was quite usual for medieval Jews to take the names of their dwelling places. Two eminent descendants of the communities at Milhaud and Monteux, villages near Carpentras, are the composer Darius Milhaud and the conductor Pierre Monteux.
3 The true facts are more fascinating than the legend. Bénézet, hardly a shepherd boy, was the medieval equivalent of a modern engineer, the head of an order of bridge-building friars who left impressive examples of their skill and diligence throughout southern France; their outstanding monument remained the bridge at Avignon.
4 Not all Jews were as unselfish as the doctor Videz. In 1721, after plague had erupted at Marseilles, strict precautions were taken at Avignon. But Mordecai Delpuget had purchased contaminated goods and secretly brought them to his house, thereby causing his death, his wife's, and those of seventy-one other Jews inside the ghetto.
5 In the Révue des Etudes Juives of 1886.
6 The document has survived, together with the signatures. The community was composed largely of southern families, bearing the names of Jewries in Provence and Languedoc: Avignon, Narbonne, Lunel, Monteux, Orange, Montpellier, Carcassonne. Others had purely Hebrew names: Cohen and Abraham.
7 It was usual for curious strangers to inspect the ghettos. In 1730 the Prince de Conti was delighted by his visit to the synagogue of Carpentras. Stendhal, when he passed through Avignon, did not fail to notice the beauty of the women of the Juiverie.
8 The origin of the term has been much debated. The famous ghetto of Venice was originally situated near a gun foundry, gietto in Italian, and this has been accepted by some scholars as its source. Another possibility, as Abram Leon Sachar has noted, is that it is a degeneration of Judaca, one of the many names given to Jewish quarters (in France, Juiverie and Juaterie were used most frequently). However, it was only into the later “ghetto” that Jews were herded by legal compulsion.
9 His article in Jewish Social Studies of October 1944 is excellent. For an account of the disintegration of the Communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, see the thorough study by Zosa Szajkowski in the same periodical, January 1944.
10 Although Elijah is traditionally the patron of circumcisions, the thrones which existed for the Prophet in the synagogues of the Comtat were never taken from their niches for such ceremonies. They signify only the Messianic tradition, and are quite different from the “Elijah chairs” on which babies were placed for circumcisions elsewhere in Europe.
11 These remained strictly separated from the men's. The women were placed in a narrow passage, hidden by lattice-work, behind the arcades on the north side of the room. In the last days of the community the women occupied the upper galleries, which in the 18th century were reserved for the choir of men and boys.
12 It is now impossible to say precisely what their height was at the time; but the argument seems reasonable.
13 The surviving ground floor beneath the present synagogue serves as its base. Next to the portal of the Carrière is a bakery in an excellent state of preservation which, it is hoped, will soon become a museum for the Jewish antiquities of the region. Other notable local collections of Jewish artifacts are at the museum of Carpentras and the Museon Arlaten at Aries. The synagogues of Carpentras and Cavaillon have been classified as national monuments and their care in the future is assured.