The oldest synagogue still in activity in France, a rare example of private ritual baths, synagogues built by artisans more used to building churches or chapels, which gave rise to surprising architectural details… Jewish heritage in Vaucluse is unique and reveals a rich mediaeval history, but one that is turbulent.
The history of the Pope’s Jews
The first record of Jews in Provence dates to the 1st century. In 1307, King Philip the Fair drove out the Jews of France. The Avignon pope Clement VI decided to accommodate them in the pontifical land of Comtat Venaissin. The notion of the Popes’ Jews came to life.
It is true that they were welcomed, but with relative tolerance! They were made to wear a distinctive sign, and they were only allowed to work with second-hand clothes and money lending. Then, from the 15th century, they were obliged to live in the “carrières”, the Provencal equivalent of the Italian “ghettos”, closed by chains then doors at each end. The communities were also obliged to be grouped together in four cities, Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
It was only when the Comtat Venaissin was unified with France in 1791, when the French Revolution took place, that everyone was given citizen status. The Pope’s Jews’ communities moved to the large towns of the South of France.
The Carpentras synagogue
It is the oldest synagogue still in use in France, at more than 650 years old! Some parts date from the 6th century. The building, which was reorganised in the 15th century, is still a place of worship for a hundred families. It bears witness to the Judeo-Provencal community. The worship room has 18th-century baroque decor with false marble columns and decor, whereas the ground floor accommodates the oldest parts: the ritual baths, 2 bakeries, one reserved for the daily bread, the other for making unleavened bread, and a room devoted to Jerusalem.
Open from Monday to Friday
T. +33(0)4 90 63 39 97
The Jewish cemetery in Carpentras
Carpentras Tourist Office
T. +33 (0)4 90 63 00 78
The Jewish cemetery in Carpentras is the oldest in France that is still in use. It is laid out over more than 2 hectares surrounded by a high stone wall, at the edge of the city. The pope conceded grounds for its use in 1343. No monument could be built and inscriptions on tombs were forbidden. The first tombs with inscriptions date from the 18th century. The big trees and vegetation that invaded the alleys provide a peaceful atmosphere and invite you to immerse yourself in its history by deciphering the family names that were typical of Comtadin Judaism: Bédarrides, Carcassonne, Cavaillon, Milhaud, Valabrègue… It can be visited at set dates according to a Tourist Office calendar and through booking.
The Cavaillon Synagogue
A gem of Judeo-Comtadin art stands at the heart of the old Jewish “carrière” in Cavaillon: the synagogue, which is a museum today. It was rebuilt in the 18th century on the old 15th-century foundations, and has two volumes one placed on the other, connected by an exterior staircase. It is a place of prayer, a school and assembly for the community, and witness to the community life of the Pope’s Jews. Visitors will be surprised by how rich its decor is and how precious its furniture is, which is simply unique. It has accommodated the Comtadin Jewish Museum since the 1960s and rich collections and archives from the old Jewish community of Cavaillon can be seen there.
You can also walk through the last “carrière” of the Comtat Venaissin, “rue Hébraïque”.
It is open all week except Tuesdays from May to September. Also closed on Sundays in winter. Guided tours.
T. +33 (0)4 90 72 26 86
The Avignon Synagogue
T. +33(0)4 90 85 21 24
In Avignon, the 19th-century urban modifications only left a few vestiges of the old “carrières”. A few very high houses still exist on place de Jérusalem and rue Jacob as well as the new 19th-century synagogue that replaced that of the Middle Ages destroyed by a fire in 1845 – today still a place of worship.
The recent discoveries at Pernes-les-Fontaines
Lying in the heart of the Comtat Venaissin, Pernes-les-Fontaines accommodated a Jewish community in the Middle Ages, the presence is recorded in the 14th century. In the 1990s, a Jewish bath was discovered in the current Cheylus hotel. From 2016 to 2018, archaeologists uncovered a second mikveh, and in all probability a third, all within the restricted perimeter that encircled the old Jewish quarter. The discovery of these ritual baths is a first in the South of France, where they are always collective and located in the synagogues.
Good to know
Tour of the Hôtel de Cheylus upon reservation with Pernes les Fontaines Tourist Office
T. 04 90 61 31 04
Jewish Music Festival, July
12th Festival of Israeli Cinema, October