Monday, May 09, 2011

A thousand year old yeshiva in France

From YNet:
The courthouse of the French city of Rouen is an impressive gothic building from the 15th century. For hundreds of years – in fact, since its establishment, the place was used by the district judicial authority.

Even today, those who happen to reach the criminal ward, and not as one of the workers, can at least enjoy a colorful Renaissance ceiling.

About 40 years ago, archaeologists were surprised to discover under the building a historic structure dating back to 1100.

The archeological find was only revealed to the wide audience in the past year. It appears to be a yeshiva from the Middle Ages – the only one in Europe whose remains have been preserved to this day.

Rouen residents are very proud of the yeshiva, referring to it as "the most important Jewish archeological find in Europe."

The structure discovered under the courthouse proves that about 1,000 years ago, Rouen had an intellectually and commercially active Jewish Quarter.

Two phrases in Hebrew were found inscribed on the internal wall of the underground building: May the Torah Reign forever" and "This house is supreme".

The second writing made the researchers assume that the structure was a house which belonged to one of the community's rich members, a theory which was only raised after a suggestion that it was a synagogue was contradicted due to the absence of a typical eastern wall.

When American researcher Norman Golb of Chicago University delved deeply into the matter, a new light was shed on the walls. Golb, an expert on Hebrew manuscript materials, studied the structure in its initial discovery stages and established the thesis that it was a yeshiva.

Some interesting background material, that might answer why no one had heard of this in Jewish history:

[Golb]'s selection of the site of the yeshiva on Rouen's Rue aux Juifs was based on the fact that references to the building stop with the sixteenth century. This was the point at which the highly ornamented Palais de Justice was built. "I surmised that they had rased the Jewish center to make way for the new construction," Golb told me joust intelview.

Equally fascinating is the fact that Golb may have discovered why Rouen was overlooked as a center of Judaism during the Middle Ages. It may have been bypassed because Hebrew references to the city were misread by Latin scholars of the Middle Ages. Until the fourteenth century, Rouen was known as Rodom.

In surviving Hebrew manuscripts, the name Rodom is written like Rhodoz, a medieval city in southern France. What happened was that scholars, in recopying the manuscripts, often mistook the Hebrew letter samech for a final mem. Golb said he was fascinated by the possibility that the city they were really talking about and writing about as a "thriving Jewish community" was really Rodom or Rouen.

"I went back to the original manuscripts at the British Museum, and my suspicions were immediately confirmed," he said. Subsequent studies of manuscripts in Paris, Amsteidam, and Jerusalem revealed detailed maps, as well as descriptions of the Jewish quarter and of life in the city.

Today in Rouen, there are about 400 Jewish families engaged in professions and academic life, as well as industry and commerce. The Jews who came to Rotten in the 1960s from Algeria and Tunisia brought a Sephardic presence to the area.