Thursday, February 18, 2010

February Miettes

Today was the first really nice day in some time, so naturally, after trying to work a bit on my book, the call of the great outdoors was just too much, and I put on my coat and headed outdoors, where it was warmish and the sun was beating down hard. Naturally, I had a destination in mind: a dark room.

The Médiathèque Émile Zola is making up for its disappointing seminary-library show of some months back with its current exhibit of sacred Hebraic writings. It's kind of a strange show on some levels, in that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with Montpellier, although among the organizers are the city archives, the Maimondes Euro-Mediterranean University Institute, and the city's cultural and historical directors. This is due to the star of the show, a rather plain-looking, hand-written book called the Montpellier Mahzor, a collection of ritual and liturgical texts (prayers and ritual responses, as at the seder), which was used by the cantor at the synagogue, and is the key to understanding how Montpellier's extensive medieval Jewish community worshipped. Its unique liturgical cycle was spread after the city kicked its Jews out in 1394, whereupon they scattered to Avignon and Venice. During the centuries they were here, documented as far back as 1165, when a famed rabbi passed through, their medical schools were an important adjunct to the University, and they enjoyed the protection of the local rulers. The Mahzor, which was compiled shortly after the expulsion, is currently visiting from its usual home at Paris' Museum of the Art and History of Judaism.

The rest of the show is a mixed bag. I'm not sure what Jacob Soffer (1857-1930) has to do with all of this, but the numerous examples of his calligraphy and particularly his microscopic writing, found on hand-written texts to be included in mezuzahs and as portraits of famous Jews made out of tiny letters is amazing. There are other decorations, several text-based amulets, and other books which I guess are either from the city archives or the local libraries, and explanations of Jewish numerology and its connection to mysticism.

I didn't stay long, because the exhibition isn't very large and it was, after all, a nice day out there, but my guess is we'll get more rain between now and Mar. 19, when this closes, so if your interest in the local Jewish heritage goes beyond the texts posted in the windows of the building on rue Barralerie where they found a mikvah in the basement, wander down to the Zola and check this out.

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I'm afraid I've fed my readers a bit of misinformation, but in so doing, I seem to have opened a window on a scrap of the past that's almost disappeared. Some time ago, I mentioned that there were people with big wooden boxes on wheels selling kittens and puppies on the streets. As it turns out, the truth is something else: they might or might not be willing to part with one of the critters they use, but what these people are selling is candy. I was at the market on Tuesday, in a light rain (there was almost nothing worth buying), and they were there. A woman walked up to me and thrust an open box of little pastilles my way, and I was so surprised that I turned her down. The design on the boxes is quite archaic -- 1920s, I'd say -- and the baby animals (I snapped to the fact that they weren't for sale when I saw a pygmy goat on one of the carts) are just bait to get your kids to drag you over to where they'll try to sell you the pastilles. If anyone has any further details about what this is and who these people are, please let me know.

* * *

According to an article in the Independent newspaper in Britain, this past Monday Montpellier started selling thumb drives for €5 which can be used for a number of things, including tram and bus fares. Sounds good, but I have yet to see anything on this except the newspaper article. Anyone out there know where you can get these?

* * *

I've been wanting to get a real nice sunset shot of the Place de la Comédie to stick at the top of this blog for over a year, and I keep forgetting to go out there and wait for the sunset and shoot it. Now I'll have to wait a bit longer: the city has sealed off a huge hunk of the square to replace the polished limestone which covers it, which means that the folks who like to hang out in the sun in front of the cafes there are getting a nice view of white-painted plywood and the sounds of construction equipment. The reconstruction is supposed to last three months, and it's a good thing it's as noisy as it is because otherwise you'd hear the sound of the cafe owners grinding their teeth in frustration.

* * *

And in the impeccable timing department, a huge wine scandal erupted today when it was revealed that Gallo got sold 3.57 million gallons -- enough to fill 460 oil tankers -- of counterfeit Pinot Noir, which it marketed under the name Red Bicyclette, by a canny quartet of Languedoc winesellers. The sheer volume of the wine involved makes this one of the largest wine-crimes of recent memory. And I say impeccable timing because on Monday, Vinisud, the huge gathering of Mediterranean wine, happens out at the Parc des Expositions here. Languedoc wine has long had an undeserved bad reputation as sub-standard (as apparently the plonk sold to Gallo was), and this won't help. I'll be at Vinisud, thanks to the good folks at Cathar Sun (whose wine I haven't tried, but whose Brian Bolger came to my talk the other night), so watch for a blog-post about all of this next week when my head clears. Let's just hope my nose stays clear so I can taste something!


  1. Hello Ed, I have not seen this new exhibition yet. But the previous one, which you think "disappointing" was remarkable to me. Remarquable in French. If you mastered French and particularly old French, you would have liked it. I saw books that were read by John Locke when he came to Montpellier in the last 1600s. And books that mentioned him.

  2. The people with the animals sell "bonbons des Vosges." They just perpetuate an old tradition. They are part of the French folklore. I like it too.

  3. Hello Ed, it's me again. Looking for the real name of "les bonbons des Vosges", i fell upon this:

    The blogger says that some people who sell the bonbons also sell the animals although they are not allowed to do so. Apparently they do not treat the animals very well, either.

    Of course, I like the bonbons and the tradition of selling them that way, but I oppose and hate animal trafficking!


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