In the 1930s, the Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described the climate of those pre-war times as “an inaudible hissing in our common ear.” Fast-forward to recent events and that hissing is no longer inaudible. French Jews trapped inside a synagogue while an angry mob howls outside. Jews lambasted with violent epithets while they walk down the street. It all sounds eerily familiar.
But there is another reason why some 75 percent of French Jewry said in a recent survey that they were considering leaving France: the bad economy. For students of French history, this explosive combination of financial woes and rising anti-Jewish sentiment not only echoes the 1930s, but leads all the way back to November 1394, when Jews were expelled from medieval France for the final time.
Yes, the final time.
Why did Jews keep returning to France, and what made them finally say, “Enough!”? In this two-part series, we’ll take a look at both medieval France and France in more modern times to see if those Jews of long ago have something to say about the situation in France today.
It was a land of opportunity, a place where someone who wasn’t afraid of a little hard work, or the challenges of adapting to a different climate and culture, could prosper. No, this land wasn’t America in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. It was a large tract of land that straddled what is today northern France and Germany. Towards the end of the 10th century, this untamed wilderness began to awaken from its slumber. Small cities sprang up. Commerce began to develop. And since, as the Talmud tells us, “one who has 100 wants 200,” the rulers of the area began to look around to see how they could increase their wealth.
Some of the Christian leaders extended an invitation to Jewish merchants living in areas that bordered the Mediterranean, where commerce had flourished since ancient times. Others tried to entice Jews who had already made the northward trek to move to their towns, offering better conditions. Many Jews accepted these invitations.
Rashi, the foremost Torah scholar of medieval France, was born in one of those northern towns—Troyes—in 1045. During the Middle Ages, Troyes was a flourishing market town; it even gave its name to the term “troy weight,” a system used to weigh gold, silver and precious metals. Rashi himself was involved in the manufacture and sale of wine. He, of course, also established a yeshiva in Troyes and it was there, during relatively peaceful years, that he wrote his great commentaries on the Torah and the Talmud, thereby turning the commercial center into a center of Torah as well.
Then came the First Crusade (1096-99), which occurred toward the end of Rashi’s life. Despite the French community’s initial fears, it was kehillos in Germany that bore the brunt of the Crusaders’ wrath, with entire communities being slaughtered. However, Rashi was acquainted with many of the outstanding scholars who were murdered in Speyer, Worms and Mainz and elsewhere, and he mourned their loss.
But even if France’s Jews weren’t physically destroyed, after the First Crusade the Catholic Church put pressure on them to convert. The Church tried everything, including bribery, coercion and kidnapping. Rabbeinu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandsons and one of the Baalei Tosofos, was asked what to do with a Jew who had been kidnapped as a child, raised as a Christian and later discovered the truth about his origins; did he need to convert to again be accepted as a Jew? Rabbeinu Tam, when giving his response, commented that this wasn’t an isolated incident.