France / Provence


Synagogue, Avignon © Marianne Casamance – Wikimedia Commons

The first attestation of a Jewish presence in Avignon dates from the fourth century. It is a seal representing a five-branch menorah and bearing the inscription avinionensis. Jewish commercial activity was intense under Avignon’s Popes. The tailor of Gregory XI was a Jew, as was his bookbinder. During the Black Death epidemic in 1348, the community in Avignon was spared popular wrath thanks to the energetic intervention of Clement VI. The edicts of 1558 included a description of the community’s organization. Its members were divided into three categories according to wealth. The baylons, for example, were responsible for collecting taxes, charity, caring for the sick, and teaching. In the seventeenth century, Jews worked mainly in secondhand trade and horse dealing. When the city became part of the French Republic in 1791, the number of Jews in Avignon fell quickly. By 1892 there remained only forty-four families. The arrival of Sephardic Jews in the 1960s revived the community.

Avignon was the birthplace and home of many important figures in Hebrew literature. Among the best-known were Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, the author of Even Bohan (The Touchstone) a satire of Jewish life in Provence during the Middle Ages, and Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides).

The Jewish quarter was opposite the Palace of Popes, as indicated today by rue de la Vieille Juiverie. Around 1221 it was transferred to the Place de Jérusalem (now Place Victor Basch). The carriere was rue Jacob, where some of the old houses can still be seen. It was surrounded by a wall with three gates.

The old  synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1845 and replaced by a new, circular one, which can be visited.