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The Jewish history and heritage of Provence

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The Jewish history and heritage of Provence

Provence at a glance

A captivating and unknown history

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. Some probably came earlier with the Greeks of Marseille as traders or slaves.
These communities, especially in the South West, in places such as Narbonne, improved the cultural life in different fields: 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. This was a gold age for them. The artistic field is also part of the heritage especially music.
During the Middle Ages, these communities were banished from the Kingdom of France and other European countries  – England, Spain – and, consequently, had to find other places to live.
The independant County of Provence was one of them and there were Jewish communities in Marseille, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for example where they could live in relative harmony with Christians.
After Provence 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 Venaissin remained a shelter for them until 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 the discrimination, restrictions, taxes became unbearable over the years.
They had to wear distinctive signs: the Rouelle or Wheel and later a Yellow hat for men while 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, farmers, winemakers… but, little by little, they were excluded from a lot of professions and ended up with 3 businesses only: 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, you will learn about these communities and their life in Provence.


See below our suggested tours focusing on Jewish heritage

jewish heritage aix en provence
King René, jewish tour Aix-en-Provence