Vintage Synagogues, Extravagant But Empty

By Cara Greenberg

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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A French archbishop in a synagogue, wearing a yarmulke, drinking kosher wine and singing the praises of the Torah? Believe it. It happened at an unusual book party earlier this month at France’s oldest synagogue in Carpentras. Jules Farber, an American Jewish journalist who has lived in the south of France since 1997, presented Monsignor Cattenoz, archbishop of Avignon, with a copy of his new French-language book, “Les Juifs du pape en Provence: Itineraires, or “The Pope’s Jews in Provence: Itineraries.” Published last month, Farber’s book is a detailed study of a small population of Jews who endured five unhappy centuries of rule by the Vatican.

“We Christians have to look at our roots, and our roots are in the Torah,” Cattenoz said in remarks to 150 people crammed into Carpentras’s petite synagogue, which includes a vintage matzo oven and a 14th-century mikvah. Among the guests were the Catholic mayors of four towns in which Jews of the Middle Ages were allowed to live, the rabbi of Avignon, Jews who trace their roots in the region as far back as the 16th century and representatives of the local Protestant church.

It was a lovely ecumenical moment in a region that has a harrowing history of treating Jews badly. For much of the second millennium, the Jews lived not in France proper, but in the Comtat Venaissin, a swath of what is now Provence. The Comtat belonged to the Vatican from 1274 to 1791, and the Jews had the grudging permission of the popes of Avignon to reside there after they had been expelled from Languedoc, Herault and every other surrounding province.

The official line, in booklets published by the Vaucluse region’s tourist board, has long been that the Jews were “welcomed and protected” and “granted the freedom to live and worship” by the popes, who ruled from Avignon for most of the 14th century, before power returned to Rome (bishops and other papal emissaries continued to govern the Comtat from Avignon until the French Revolution).

Such revisionism still goes on, but the truth is slowly coming out. “The popes ‘welcomed’ the Jews because they wanted to use them as scapegoats,” said Farber, who has written extensively for The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Christian Science Monitor, and who spent five years researching his book. “They wanted to keep them impoverished and downtrodden, so they could say to their Catholic populace, ‘See, they didn’t recognize the savior, so they have to suffer.’”

Suffer they did, in crowded carrieres (from the Provençal word for “street,” since Jewish quarters in the south of France usually comprised a single street) that were locked up tight at dusk. “It was a matter of control,” Farber said. “There was a Christian gatekeeper, and the Jews had to pay him.” After working as doctors, surgeons, masons, dyers and bookbinders in the 14th century, Jews were gradually excluded from all professions except money-lending and selling secondhand goods. They were forbidden to speak to Christians, and forced to wear distinguishing signs — first rouelles, red and white “wheels” pinned to their clothing, and later, yellow hats. “They wanted to make sure people could see from a distance who was not a Christian,” Farber said, “and to keep Jews from having sexual relations with Christians — they were especially concerned about that.”

For all the hardship, small communities of Jews — never more than 2,000 altogether — managed to survive for five centuries in the ghettos of Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L’Isle sur la Sorgue. All are within an hour’s drive of each other and, if you look closely, you can still find traces of pre-Revolutionary Jewish life.

The Carpentras synagogue, whose earliest sections date from 1367, rates official highway signage — arrows point to it from every intersection in town. Reconstructed and redecorated between 1741 and 1743, today it is in spiffy shape, with help from sources ranging from the French government to the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit organization. The building has an unremarkable facade (synagogues were forbidden exterior decoration), but an ornate interior done up in the fashionable vernacular of the era, with marble walls, abundant gold leaf and a blue-domed ceiling studded with painted stars.

Carpentras may be the oldest synagogue in the region, but it is not the prettiest. That distinction belongs to Cavaillon, built between 1772 and 1774 on the site of a 15th-century synagogue. Plain on the outside but pure confectionery within, its gilded ark is flanked by neoclassical columns and crowned with flowers, its wrought iron balcony and dangling chandeliers elaborately curlicued, its Pepto Bismol-pink walls encircled with swags and rosettes. A miniature red velvet chair, oriented toward Jerusalem, awaits the prophet Elijah in the style of Louis XV.

In this fanciful setting, you can almost take seriously the ironic expression, “happy as a Jew in France.” Both Carpentras and Cavaillon exemplify a flurry of loving attention given the synagogues of the carrieres during a rare sliver of good times for Jews of the region.

“Jews were poor until the 18th century, when they were allowed to go to market fairs all over Provence, and some became very wealthy,” Farber explained. “But they were still not allowed to buy chateaus or live outside the ghetto, so they used their money to beautify and enrich the synagogues.”

A couple of decades later, the Jews of the Comtat found themselves suddenly liberated by the French Revolution. They soon fled to larger economic centers like Marseille, Nimes and Montpellier, abandoning their beautiful synagogues.

Today’s elderly Sephardic congregation at Carpentras has dwindled, and a minyan meets only about once a month. “We have Shabbat services if people come, but they are not in the habit,” said Joseph Amar, 79, who has been president of the synagogue since 1995. And no one worships in the exuberantly decorated architectural gem at Cavaillon, not even on Yom Kippur. “There are only about a dozen Jewish families in the area, not enough to support regular services,” said Sylvie Grange, curator of the one-room Musee Juif Comtadin (Museum of the Jews of the Comtat), tucked underneath the shul.

With regular membership an unfulfilled dream, the synagogue is now struggling even to attract visitors. American visitors to the Cavaillon synagogue and its small museum, who normally number about 1,500 annually, have not turned up this year in their usual numbers. The same is true 15 miles away in Avignon. “Usually we get about 1,000 Americans a year coming from the Rhone barge cruises,” said Rabbi Moshe Amar of Avignon’s single synagogue, a domed 19th-century building on the site of earlier ones dating as far back as 1221. “This year there hasn’t been one.”

At least Avignon has an active congregation of Orthodox Sephardi Jews. Many are immigrants from North Africa like the rabbi himself, who came from Morocco 18 years ago. Of some 3,000 Jews living in the Avignon area, about 100 people show up for Sabbath services, the rabbi said, and there is a busy schedule of weddings and bar mitzvahs.

In addition, a four-day Jewish music festival, held every August since 2000 at Carpentras, is a bright spot. It brings together artists from Europe, Israel and the United States for concerts ranging from modern liturgical music to klezmer to music in the North African style. The Carpentras synagogue also participates in the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, an ambitious program of lectures, conferences and synagogue and cemetery visits, which takes place simultaneously in 23 countries throughout Europe.

Still, except for larger centers like Marseille and Avignon, there really isn’t a whole lot of revival of Jewish communities in the south of France. But at least, according to Farber, some of the recent bad news — of increasing antisemitism, acts of vandalism and the like — is, in fact, not so.

“Half those things are exaggerated or not true,” said Farber, who lives with his wife Barbara in a village between Marseille and Aix. “We keep reading in the Herald Tribune and New York Times that it’s dangerous here. Personally, we haven’t noticed it.”

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