PARIS – To the French, Provence is molded by the books of Marcel Pagnol, the Occitan language, and the paintings of Paul Cézanne. Until recently, they knew little of the region’s centuries-old Jewish legacy.
However Jews lived in the south of France at relative peace until their eventual expulsion from the Languedoc and Provence in the 14th century, when the region was united with the French Kingdom.
These banished Jews found a refuge under the Pontifical states of Avignon, which allowed them to live in the Comtat Venaissin — which refers today to the cities of Avignon, Carpentras, l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Cavaillon, in the Vaucluse department.
Later on, they became known as the “Juifs du Pape,” or the Pope’s Jews.
Home to France’s oldest active synagogue in the city of Carpentras, centuries-old “carrières” (ghettos), and a Jewish cemetery in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the region is rife with vestiges of a long forgotten community.
Thanks to Annie Stoyanov, head of Cavaillon tourism office, these vastly unknown treasures of Jewish history have caught the attention of the national media.
In July Stoyanov applied for UNESCO World Heritage status at the Culture Ministry in Paris.
“It is a protracted procedure that we’ve embarked on, but we are all so passionate about the history of our region and its connection to the Jews”, she told The Times of Israel. “Cavaillon and the Vaucluse are home to a part of French and Jewish history that you won’t find in school books, or anywhere else in France for that matter, so it’s definitely worth the struggle.”
To maximize her chances of getting the UNESCO status, Stoyanov gathered a team of scholars, such as historian Simone Mrejen-Ohana, an expert on Vaucluse’s Jewry, who identified and listed all the existing historical evidence.
“I am in love with this place, it has become a part of my life,” Mrejen-Ohana said. “I took part in this project because I wanted to give a voice to this small Jewish community that only a few people know about.”
“Sometimes, when I wander the streets of Carpentras, it feels like time has stopped,” she said.
Seeking to emphasize the singularity of this community, Mrejen-Ohana explained the Juifs du Pape did not have much in common with Sefaradis or Ashkenazis at the time.
They spoke “shuadit,” a medieval, Judeo-Provencal dialect, practiced endogamous marriages, and followed ancestral religious rites, which are anterior to Talmudic times.
Some rites, however, bore ressemblance to Christian traditions. For instance, a godmother had to be designated as the child’s representative during circumcision ceremonies.
These Jews were also characterized by their prolific piyyutim literature — liturgical poems sung during religious services.
At the time, one of the most emblematic places of Judaism was the Carpentras Synagogue.
Decorated in the Louis XV style, this edifice was built in 1367, extensively rebuilt in 1741-43 by the architect Antoine d’Allemand, and remodeled again soon thereafter.
“Carpentras was a key community, full of scholars and geonim,” Mrejen-Ohana said. “This synagogue was the symbol of a Jewish renaissance in the region.”
In the 18th century, Carpentras’s Jewish community was expanding and totaled about 1,000 people, or one-tenth of the town’s Christian population.
Mrejen-Ohana noted Jewish leaders had “grand ambitions” for the synagogue, but it was soon seen as a rival to the Church.
As the synagogue underwent its first renovations to welcome more members, Papal authorities decided to limit its expansion.
Interestingly, Mrejen-Ohana said, this decision was taken on the 9th of Av — a day which commemorates the destruction of the First and the Second Temple in the Jewish calendar.
‘These vestiges are taking us back to very dark times’
“When I look at the Carpentras synagogue, I see an old woman who bears some marks on her face that stand the test of time,” Mrejen-Ohana said. “Nowadays, we have a tendency to glorify certain parts of history, to novelize them. This can’t be the case here: These vestiges are taking us back to very dark times.”
Before Jews came under the protection of the popes, they had freedom of residence and worship in Avignon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon, and Carpentras — nicknamed the “Arba Kehilot” (“the four communities,” in Hebrew).
However, they were still required to wear a distinctive sign — the “rouelle”, or wheel.
But as tensions heightened, they were forced to live in “carrières” and were only allowed to work in second-hand clothes dealing, furniture selling, and money lending.
They were also prevented from owning property, and were charged inflated taxes.
In 1524, the Church ordered them to wear more visible signs that would differentiate them from Christians — a yellow hat for men, a scrap of yellow cloth for women.
On the eve of the French Revolution, the Church was still trying to convert the Jews, which prompted many families to leave the region for good — a trend which intensified after 1789, when the Edict of Tolerance freed Jews from ghetto life.
To Mrejen-Ohana, these migrations marked the beginning of the end for the Juifs du Pape.
Most of them eventually dispersed throughout France or converted to Christianity.
“When you study Jewish historiography, there’s always a beginning, but no end, because Jews still exist,” said Mrejen-Ohana. “But when it comes to the Juifs du Pape and their unique legacy, the sad conclusion is there was an end to it.”