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Alsatian Judaism


With over 200 sites on record, Alsace boasts an exceptionally dense Jewish heritage. It bears witness to the multi-cultural wealth of Alsace and the region’s pride of place in the history of Judaism in France.

The programme promoting the Jewish heritage in Alsace was set up by the Agency for the Development of Tourism in Northern Alsace and with the aim of opening a gateway of discovery for the public at large. It falls within the scope of the development of cultural tourism and preserving historical sites.


The eventful history of Judaism in Alsace

Origins

The Jews settled in Gaul during the Roman era. In the Rhine valley, we know that they lived mainly in the towns in the 12th century. Towards 1170, Benjamin from Tudèle, a Spanish Jew, traveled through the "known world" reaching Russian and Arabia. In his memoirs, he mentioned the flourishing Jewish community in Strasbourg. At this time, nothing in their outward appearance differentiated them from their neighbors, with whom they were on good terms. Hostility towards them began with the First Crusade in 1096 and the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which declared the yellow badge and Judenhut compulsory.

The turning point of the 14th century: rural Judaism

In the Rhine region, hostility towards the Jews increased during the Black Death in 1348. In 1349, a number of Jews from Strasbourg were accused of poisoning the wells and burned at the stake. Jews were evicted from most Alsatian towns.

From then rural Judaism developed, combining strong solidarity within the community with integration into village life. Excluded from land ownership, craft and trading guilds and therefore from artisanal trades, farming and running shops, they were often traders in cattle, horses or grain, peddlers, money-lenders or secondhand clothes dealers. When the Thirty Years’ War broke out, Judaism in Alsace was on the wane with only a hundred or so families remaining. When Alsace was annexed to France by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, several immigrants came across the Rhine to settle. The Jewish population grew once more, paying heavy residence taxes in exchange for protection.

On the eve of the French Revolution, 180 rural communities in Alsace was home to 20,000 Jews, i.e. more than half of all French Jews at this time.

The acquisition of citizenship in 1791

The decree of emancipation in 1791, which gave Jewish people full citizenship, enabled them to return to the towns and practice any trade. Since France was the first country in Europe to take this decision, the Jewish population doubled in less than a century. This legal status in France attracted a number of German Jews in particular. In 1808, the Napoleonic laws set up a centralized organization, with a Central Consistory and regional consistories. This announced the end of religious autonomy for the Jews of Alsace. From the mid 19th century, the communities fell into decline due to the exodus from the rural areas, emigration towards Paris, North Africa and the Americas. When Alsace was annexed to Germany after the French defeat of 1870, many Jews chose to live in France in order to keep the benefitsthey had gained in 1791. In Germany, they had to wait until 1871 before they could enjoy the same rights. From being rural traders, they became town citizens practicing industrial activities and the liberal professions as well as trade.

The 20th century

Since the beginning of the century, Alsace has been a refuge for Jews who were often persecuted in their country of origin. In 1940, the Jews were thrown out of Alsace by the Nazis. The genocide of the Holocaust was to wipe out more than a quarter of them. After 1945, the survivors went back to their original communities, but the migratory trend towards the urban areas was accelerated, leading to the virtual disappearance of rural Judaism. In the 1960s, the Ashkenazi communities welcomed over 2,000 Sephardic Jews from North Africa. Today, the communities in Alsace tend to live in urban areas and remain among the most important communities in France.

Community and Family Life

The synagogue, a place for prayer and study

The synagogue (from the Greek SUNAGOGE meaning meeting or gathering), is a place where people meet to study and recite prayers together. In Alsace, the synagogue is called SCHOUL (from the German Schule meaning "school"). The Bible is the sacred book of the Jews. The TORAH is the core section. It is made up of the five Books of Moses (hence the name Pentateuch). Its counterpart is the oral law and Rabbinical commentaries and discussions which make up the TALMUD. Building a synagogue is not dictated by any standard plan, but it must be oriented to the East towards Jerusalem. Inside, there is usually a raised platform with a lectern at which the Torah is read and the service conducted.

The ark, or ARON AKODESH, is a cabinet on the wall housing the scrolls of the TORAH covered by an embroidered curtain. Conducting a service requires the presence of 10 men who have attained religious maturity. The rabbi is not a priest, but a leader, a spiritual counselor. At the service, he is merely a fellow worshipper, but through his sermons and lessons, he guides the community. The service is conducted by the HAZAN, or reader, or by a member of the congregation. Women are separated from the men in the synagogue.

Daily life, worship within the home and stages of life

Family life is the core of the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a question of studying, but an act of everyday life by respecting MITSVOTH (command-ments), such as the dietary laws or KASHRUT.

Eight days after birth, boys are circumcised as a sign of the alliance with God. Boys reach religious maturity at the age of 13 and girls at 12.

When they get married, the bride and groom sit under the bridal canopy (HUPPAH) during the blessings. Upon death, burial is a sober affair and the ceremony is the same for everyone.

Calendar and holidays

The SHABBAT: Saturday, the seventh day of the week is a day of rest. It begins on Friday evening with the mother of the family lighting the candles and is followed by the KIDDUSH, or sanctification, before the meal.

The year begins in the autumn with ROSH HASHANAH, the holiday marking the Jewish New Year.

YOM KIPPUR, or the "day of atonement", is a day of fasting devoted to prayer and repentance.

The other festivals are PESACH (Passover, celebrating the exodus from Egypt), SHAVUOTH (season of the giving of the Torah), SUKKOTH (Feast of Tabernacles), CHANUKKAH (Feast of Lights) and PURIM (celebrated with readings from the book of Esther).

Special Jewish-Alsatian dishes

Mealtimes are ideal for passing on the principles of Judaism with its rites and traditions. Some dishes are linked with festivals, but are specific to Alsace, for instance, "chalet" (apple cake) is eaten during Rosh Hashanah and, after Yom Kippur, it is traditional to eat herrings in cream sauce with tea or coffee and cinnamon cakes "tsémetkuech".

"Matzo", or unleavened bread, and matzo flour are used to prepare "chalet" and the traditional "matzehkneipfle" (dumplings) eaten with beef broth.

Plaited bread (often with poppy seeds) eaten on Shabbat is called "berchess" in Alsace (from the Hebrew "berharot" meaning blessings)

Speciality dishes include sauerkraut (with smoked beef or goose), strudel (apple, raisin and cinnamon cake), "gefelter mawe" (stuffed stomach), Jewish-style carp, "pickelfleisch" (beef brisket in brine or pastrami).

Yiddish - Alsatian style

Alsatian Yiddish comes under the western Yiddish which developed in the North-East of France and in the Rhine Basin during the Middle Ages before spreading to Poland and Russia where the eastern version of Yiddish developed.

Alsatian Yiddish is a variation of this very old written language, which was adopted by the Jews from both Germany and France who settled around the free towns of Alsace.

A lot of terms are still commonly used and have become a part of the Alsatian dialect :

  • baijes = shack, hovel
  • beduecht = wealthy, rich
  • dewwere = grouse, grumble
  • maschugge = mad, crazy
  • a kaft = a village
  • mores = fear, fright
  • schlamassel = a waste
  • schmuesse = cuddle, fondle

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