My francophone friends will look at the title of this post and immediately think of the movie “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (French: Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob) featuring the great Louis de Funès.
But this is about another Rabbi Jacob!
This Kosher Pizza joint in the Marais Jewish neighborhood of Paris was likely not a XIIIth Century establishment…
Jewish life in the Paris region in the middle ages was a veritable roller coaster. Local edicts would allow Jews to live in Paris, only to be reversed 20 years later. Yet, Jewish communities would re-establish themselves quickly, principally along trade routes. In 1182, King Philippe II ( Auguste) seizes the debts owed to Jews and their real estate, forcing synagogues to become churches. Jews are called back in 1198. They are partially expulsed in 1253, but a royal order gives them access to old cemeteries and synagogues.
In 1272, there are signs of Yeshivots on the right bank of the Seine. In 1283, Phillipe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, enabled the community to expand somewhat. During the 13th Century, there were about 4,500 to 7,500 Jews or 3% to 5% of the total population of about 150,000. Yet, 20 years later, the Jews were driven out of Paris by Philippe le Bel in 1306.
This brings us to the cemetery at the rue Pierre-Sarrazin…
The building under which the Jewish Cemetery was found. (Photo dated 1898)
In 1849, during work on a building belonging to Louis Hachette on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, about 80 headstones were uncovered, belonging to a Jewish cemetery dating back to the XIIth Century. This large cemetery was contemporary to a prosperous era for the Jewish community of Paris.
What about Rabbi Jacob?
One of the most amazing headstones found at the cemetery of the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin is that of Rabbi Jacob, son of Rabbi Haïm. (see below)
Traduction (Nahon, 1986)
זאת מצבת קבו[רת]
ר[בי] יעקב ב[ן] הר[ב]
לגן עדן יום א
This is the headstone of
Rabbi Jacob son of Rabbi
Haïm who left us for
the garden of Eden the first day
of the parasha Emor
in the year three
ten of the computus
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life
The headstone was discovered in 1849 and given to the Museum of Cluny in Paris (Museum of the Middle Ages), cataloged in 1912, and given to the Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History. The estimated date of Rabbi Jacob’s death is April 17, 1253.
Jewish life survived the Middle Ages despite incredible odds. Communities were regularly pushed from one place to another, losing their fortunes, places of worship and cemeteries. The headstones found under the Hachette building on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin are a miracle of history. And the history told through them enables us to better appreciate the struggles and the extraordinary resilience of our people.
The story of the Touro Synagogue reveals the complexity and beauty of Jewish history, and the ability of the Jewish people to adapt in order to survive, a couple of themes that I have highlighted on several occasions in this blog. The story of its community spans the Western Hemisphere, dating back to the Middle Ages, and played a significant role in the independence of the United States.
The Touro Synagogue
The Touro Synagogue is located in of Newport, Rhode Island on the East Coast of the U.S., a 2-hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts. The synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and as such is considered to be the oldest synagogue in the United States. The synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.The synagogue was designated a National Historic Site in 1946. It still serves an active congregation and each year greets over 30,000 visitors who come to see the magnificent interior and hear its remarkable story.
Services at Touro Synagogue are orthodox and follow the Nusach Sefard liturgy. At its dedication in December 1763, the Touro Synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Newport. It anchored the community during the height of Newport’s prosperity and stood through the town’s near destruction in the Revolutionary War. As it approaches its 250th anniversary, the Synagogue remains a vital part of the Jewish community in Newport and serves as the home for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the spiritual descendants of the congregation that built it.
Origin of the Congregation
In 1658, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. Fifteen families came from Barbados, seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered. These families were descendants of ‘Marranos’ who fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal that had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica. By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco, purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) enjoyed unparalleled freedom, wealth and power. They occupied key positions in government, academia, and commerce, and especially the professions of medicine, science and law. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal tried to keep his most learned, creative and productive subjects, not to mention his personal physician, tailor, royal mathematician, royal astronomer, his government financiers, etc. He encouraged “his” Jews to convert to Christianity. He tried to persuade and cajole them, even bringing converted rabbis from Spain to preach to them. The New Christian secret Jews became known as Marranos, from the Portuguese “marrar”, i.e. forced, or from the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, a forced one. The philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Frances Sanches, Uriel Acosta, Montaigne, and David Ricardo were all Marrano descendants. Indigenous Marranos did survive nearly 300 years following the Inquisition. In 1920, Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer working in Portugal, encountered a community of Marranos in the interior of Portugal (Belmonte) who had managed to preserve some of the secret rituals, including prayers, of their ancestors.
George Washington gets in the act…
Marranos who came to the American colonies were free to profess their Judaism. Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest merchant of the thirteen colonies was born Duarte Lopez in Lisbon. He provided money and ships to George Washington during the War of Independence.
The United States won and became independent and politically free, but would there also be religious freedom? On 17 Aug 1790, Moses Seixas of the Touro Congregation wrote to George Washington, asking him for assurance in the new political climate. President Washington replied, promising that the United States would never support religious bigotry or persecution:
“…The Citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”
And then he went further:
“…while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.“
Washington’s commitment has remained a cornerstone of American values. His letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” written a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is on display at the Touro synagogue.
The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790.
March 2019 Update: Who owns the Touro Synagogue?
For years, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the congregation that worships at the Touro Synagogue, has struggled to make ends meet. The Congregation decided to put up for sale Colonial-era ceremonial bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $7.4 million.
Congregation Shearith Israel of New York objected to the sale and sued the Newport congregation (Oy!,) on the basis that they owned the Touro synagogue building and the rimonim. They also wanted the Jeshuat Israel congregation of Newport to be evicted from the Touro building and site. The New York Congregation argued that it owns Touro under terms of an agreement between the congregations dating from 1903. In May 2016 a federal judge ruled in favor of the New York Congregation. Congregation Shearith Israel appealed but lost and Congregation Shearith Israel was awarded ownership on August 2, 2017 by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.
On March 18, 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to take up the case; the lower court ruling that Congregation Shearith Israel owns Touro remains in place. (See article.)