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Once upon a time... in Alsace!
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Sites to visit
Very little remains of the synagogues built in the Middle Ages. Then, from the 14th to the 18th century, it was generally forbidden to build them. The upper floor of a residential house was most often used for holding services. Once citizenship was acquired, synagogues were erected in virtually every village during the 19th century (176 synagogues built on Alsatian territory between 1791 and 1914 out of a total of 256 for France as a whole). Initially, the architecture was based on simple lines so as not to attract much notice, they then took on a more monumental appearance. Although an oriental style was sometimes adopted, neo-Romanesque architecture predominated.
But the decline of the rural communities gradually led to these now empty places of worship being abandoned. Many of them were destroyed or converted, sometimes in unexpected ways. Those still standing today make up a unique collection which deserves to be preserved and enhanced.
In the Jewish religion, it is forbidden to move a burial place and this explains the existence of numerous old cemeteries several of which are still in use today. A few tombstones preserved in the Museum of "l'oeuvre de Notre-Dame” in Strasbourg are all that remain of the Medieval cemetery in Strasbourg. After 1349, land that was inapt for agriculture was used for cemeteries, bringing together a large number of communities.
Wooden steles dating back to before the 16th century have all disappeared (except one preserved in the Jewish Museum in Basle). More cemeteries were opened in the 17th century. The tombstones are a rich source of information: decorations such as the hands of the Cohanim , the ewer of the Levites, the goose quill of the scribes are all signs of the deceased person's background. The style of the tombs sets them in their historical context and the influence of the classical, baroque and Louis XVI styles are clearly visible.
Nature often takes over these sites and the inscriptions have become illegible. Sometimes the stones themselves are worn away since sandstone is a flaky rock and thus all sources of historical research have been swept away.
The Mikveh (ritual bathing)
The word mikveh literally means "gathering of water" and designates a pool dug into the ground or carved out of rock, drawing pure water straight from a spring or groundwater. Each Jewish community must have a ritual bath, notably for the purification of women after their monthly period. Laws on purity are essential in Jewish religion. The mikveh is more important than the synagogue in the hierarchy of the community.
All that remains from the Middle Ages is a 13th-century mikveh in Strasbourg. In Bischheim, there is a beautifully restored mikveh for which a 16th century staircase has been re-used. More modest mikvehs can be found in the cellars of private houses. They very often take the form of rough brickwork trenches accessible by a few sandstone steps.
Many museums portray both the history of Jews in Alsace and the place of Alsace in the history of Judaism. Collections include objects for communal and family worship. Some collections recount the history of certain local communities or famous people. The brand new Jewish- Alsatian Museum in Bouxwiller offers an original insight into the different periods of Judaism in Alsace.
Signs of Jewish life can also be discovered in the towns and villages of Alsace with streets called "rue des Juifs", inscriptions or quite simply a Hebraic date on the lintel above the door or on a corner post, and notches on the door posts to house the Mezuzah - these are all small testimonies to the millennium-long presence of Jews in Alsace.