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Following the Trail of the 'Pope's Jews' in Provence

By Jules B. Farber
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 1, 2009

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

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

Jews -- seen as despised, homeless wanderers who had not recognized Christ as the messiah but had to be preserved as a people entrusted with the mission of bearing witness -- were tolerated here. They could survive but not thrive, mostly limited to three trades: secondhand textiles, brocante (used furniture) and limited money lending. Men had to wear the yellow rouelle, a cloth badge of shame, to ensure no confusion with Christians, while women were obliged to sew a piece of yellow fabric onto their bonnets.

Corralled into four cities in the south of France (Avignon, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon and Carpentras), Jews were restricted to narrow, congested, unsanitary streets called carrieres, actually pre-Venetian ghettos. Christian gatekeepers, whose salaries the Jews were obliged to pay, kept the gates locked at night.

We started in Carpentras, the capital of the region known as Comtat Venaissin in papal times. The city is home to the oldest still-functioning synagogue in France, dating from 1367, when one-fifth of the 2,500 inhabitants were Jews and the town was called La Petite Jerusalem. On the square behind the city hall, where the ghetto and enclosing gates had been demolished, we spotted beyond the bustling market the synagogue's austere facade with no apparent sign of its Judaic function. Near the front door a discreet marble plaque bears a Hebrew and French text translated as: "This is the gate of the Lord into which the Righteous shall enter, Psalm CXVIII."

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

The architectural peculiarity of Comtat synagogues, Levy explained, is the superimposing of the two prayer rooms. The larger, more beautifully decorated was reserved for men. Women were hidden, relegated to a cavelike underground area closed off by a grille. They could not see the service but followed it through a sound tunnel and could lift the grille to peek out only when the Torah scrolls were removed from the Holy Ark. Unique in Comtat synagogues are two niches, one on either side of the Holy Ark. The one on the left is used for Sukkoth harvest celebrations; the one on the right has a Louis XV-style miniature arm chair where the prophet Elijah, according to legend, silently witnesses all circumcisions in the synagogue, Levy explained.

Jo Amar, the Algerian-born synagogue president, led us down to the medieval mikvah (ritual bath), still fed by a natural spring. At the lowest cellar level, he explained: "This is the original bakery with ovens for daily bread and special Sabbath bread. The other ovens were used to bake coudolles, Provencal for what you call matzoh, exported everywhere, even the United States, until the early 20th century."

Amar lent us the key to the cemetery, about a half-mile from the city center. The popes, he said, forbade visible markers, so tombstones with inscriptions had to be buried along with the deceased for more than four centuries. Starting in the late 18th century, upright burial stones were permitted. "We had to lock the oldest European Jewish cemetery still in use after the shocking desecration by local skinheads in 1990," he said.

On the lighter side, he added, "there's a local expression, 'Nous avons fréquenté chez les Juifs,' which really means, 'We courted at the cemetery.' Our burial place was a romantic rendezvous for young Carpentras couples."

Amar reminded us to visit the nearby St. Siffrein Cathedral, with its late-15th-century flamboyant Gothic southern portal known as the Jewish Gate, topped by a "Rats' Ball" sculpture, a high-relief stone orb punctuated by scrambling rats. He explained: "Through that side door, if Jews sought conversion, they could enter close to the baptism font and leave as 'new Christians' through the front door, but very few did. No one really knows what the strange sculpture means, but there's a legend that the 'Rats' Ball' represents the Catholic Church being bitten by heretics -- Jews, Moors and Cathars." The Carpentras tourism office, on the other hand, says it represents the passage of time eating away at the world.

We drove the 17 miles to Cavaillon, heading to the Rue Hebraique, the only original, intact carriere in the Comtat. Waiting for us at the street-level courtyard to lead us up the exterior metal stairs to the synagogue entrance was our guide, Angélique Lopez, engaged by the city, which owns the synagogue-museum. No services are held here. Lopez said the house of prayer had been reconstructed in the late 18th century on its 15th-century foundations, a little sister of Carpentras, right down to Elijah's chair.

She then took us far below the two elegant prayer levels, reserved as elsewhere for men, to a basement with its bread and matzoh ovens and the women's area. This space now houses the modest Jewish Comtadin Museum, with books, manuscripts and liturgical objects from a "book cemetery" uncovered during roof repairs, as well as tombstones, holy arks and marriage certificates. There is an oil lamp with a double menorah, unearthed in nearby Orgon, which archaeologists dated as 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D., a period of Roman presence in Provincia, as they called southern Gaul.

We continued 16 miles to Avignon, going directly to the Place Jerusalem. Its extremely tall houses are adapted holdovers from the teeming ghetto where Jews had to continually expand upward with precarious "skyscrapers" on the rues Jacob and Abraham. The synagogue, the heart of the carriere, was rebuilt in 1845 after an accidental fire destroyed the city-owned edifice. The Christian architect designed a synagogue more like a Greek temple than a Jewish one.

As the caretaker, Francis Tosoni, escorted us through the prayer room, we were very aware of a deliberate break with Comtat tradition, as the place bears no resemblance to its predecessor or to the Carpentras and Cavaillon synagogues. Starkness replaced joyful colors of earlier centuries. The only link with the past is the matzoh oven, deep underground. Tosoni told us that the original synagogue was built in 1348 with prayer and meeting rooms, a marriage hall, a slaughterhouse-butcher shop and ritual bath.

And then on to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, 16 miles away, the smallest and most picturesque of the four cities where Jews lived in papal times. Called Venice of the Comtat, with myriad canals punctuated by some 20 water wheels, it has a sprawling concentration of antiques and brocante markets. From the synagogue, virtually destroyed in 1793 by French artillery during the Reign of Terror, only the elaborately decorated grille that separated men and women during services was salvaged (it's in the Notre Dame des Anges cathedral). On the Jewish square, a deserted U-shaped Jewish House is a remnant of the old carriere.

Though the Jews were, in fact, subjugated and virtual papal prisoners, they survived, able to practice their faith and bury their dead with dignity. During a period of more than five centuries, their services always concluded with a prayer petitioning God to "exalt our sovereign and Holy Father, the pope."

Jules B. Farber is the author of "Les Juifs du Pape en Provence: Itineraires" (Actes Sud) and "Talking About Cezanne (Romain Pages).

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