Provence has always been a shelter and a welcoming land for Jewish communities. Their presence in the south of France goes back to the beginning of Roman Gaul after the fall of Massada in 73 A.D.
These communities improved the cultural life of the area especially the scientific, medical, mystical and philosophical fields. They played an important economic role in the progression of techniques, and in the movement of goods and ideas. The artistic field is also part of the heritage especially in music.
During the middle ages these communities were banished from the Kingdom of France and consequently had to find other places to live.
The independant County of Provence was one of the places. Aix-en-Provence for example had an important Jewish community.
But after this area was linked to the Kingdom of France, Jews were asked to leave or to convert to Catholicism.
Not far, the lands owned by the Pope, especially, a region called Comtat Venassin remained a shelter from them unltil the French Revolution. They became the « Jews of the Pope ».
They found freedom of worship and religion in this area.
However, these were difficult times and there was a lot of discrimination against these Jewish communities.
They had to wear a distinctive sign: the Rouelle or Wheel and later a Yellow hat for men and ladies had to put a small piece of yellow fabric on their headwear.
In the middle ages Jews were allowed to work in many different fields, there were doctors, surgeons, masons, tailors but in the 16th C they were excluded from a lot of professions and little by little had to specialise in 3 businesses, usury which was forbidden to Christians, second hand goods and old fabrics.
After a while, Jews had to live in a « Carrière », Provencal word for street, separate from the Christian section and closed at night by a chain, and later a gate. The space was very limited in this narrow street with high houses and therefore life was not easy.
Hence, there is a lot to learn and discover in Provence, a lot of history, old synagogues like in Carpentras, Cavaillon, remains of the Jewish quarters, old cemeteries…
In Carpentras, Cavaillon, Isle sur la Sorgue, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence while strolling the former Jewish sections of the towns you’ll learn about these Jewish communities and their life in Provence.
Suggested tours focusing on Jewish heritage :
- Carpentras, we will tour the Comtat Venaissin owned by the Pope until the French Revolution. We will walk in the footsteps of the « Jews of the Pope » and we will discover the 18th C Synagogue of Carpentras built in a very amazing style. This is still a working synagogue and it is one of the oldest in Europe.
- In Cavaillon, you’ll see the old Jewish section, the 18th C Synagogue and the area of Luberon with the quaint hilltop villages of Gordes, Roussillon, Lacoste.
- Avignon, Old Jewish section, Synagogue, Pont du Gard and Kosher winery
- Aix-en-Provence focusing on Jewish history and the Camp des Milles from where many people where deported in the second world war.