Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some Notes on Jewish Montpellier

Every time I've walked up the hill via the main street, the rue de la Loge, I've passed it: a hat store. An odd little place it is, too: a relic of another time on the street with the art-directed windows of high fashion and mass-market attempts at high fashion. It's brown, and the wooden letters spelling out CHAPEAUX seem to be falling off. In the window, arranged neatly, there are hats. They're not on mannequin heads, nor is there anything trendy about how they're displayed. They're offered, as it were, as information.

I have a flat wool cap from Ireland that I like, but it needs replacing. Last spring, when it was warm enough to work with the windows open, it got some odd attention: a huge wasp flew in the window, then went over to the cap and hung out for a while. Then it left. About 30 minutes later, it came back and hung out on the cap. Then it left again. The irritated me: I didn't want this humongous insect in my house, and it was really distracting me. Plus, who knew what it was doing to the cap? So I went into the kitchen, got a plastic bag, sealed the cap in the bag, and hung the bag from the hat-rack. The wasp returned, flew all over the house, spent about 45 minutes trying to figure out what was wrong and finally departed. It's nice to know that wasps aren't too bright. I decided that maybe the cap was too funky and I should stop in this odd shop and buy a new one when the weather got cold.

But I went in there before that, as it turned out. A woman I'd known in Austin came through with her family during the summer, and told me she had a couple of things she wanted to do. The first was to take a picture: she was utterly convinced that French supermarkets sold vibrators. I'd never seen such a thing, but I had to prove it to her, and she was disappointed. The other thing was to buy a beret for her husband. This isn't exactly beret country, but I figured if anyone would have them, the odd little hat shop on the rue de la Loge would be the place. The guy was nice enough, and she finally found something she liked, and I hung out in the store, absorbing its ambiance. I never did go back for a warm hat, but I swear, if the shop lasts the year, I will this year.

* * *

Last Sunday was nice and warm, and I remembered a suggestion Gerry had had for a place for one of my epic walks, the Domaine de Merle. I looked at the map, and it seemed to be a large house set in a green park not far from the St.-Lazaire Cemetery. Not a very long walk at all, I realized, so I set off on Sunday afternoon to find it.

I'd been up the road, the Avenue de Saint Lazaire, several times before, but always with a destination beyond it in mind after the first time I walked it and came back to puzzle out the Resistance Monument and its relation to Helen of Savoy, Queen of Italy and Montenegro, who hid out here during World War II.

She died in her lavish apartments in the hotel which is now the Holiday Inn, just around the corner from me, and is buried in St.-Lazaire.

It's a huge cemetery, large enough that it has two satellite graveyards, and as I passed the first one I saw a large black monument shaped like half of a ship's wheel. Curious, I walked in and found myself at an extension of the Jewish cemetery. Now, I'd seen the first part of this last year when I was walking up to Castelneau, and had been puzzled by it. Its location outside the cemetery walls was provocative.

But the extension was only geographically isolated from the Christian plots, and, I realized, there was no anti-Jewish agenda here, only that the Jews wanted to be buried together. Maybe this wasn't the case when the other half of the graveyard had been started, but I couldn't figure out how to get into it, so there was no way to tell. Interestingly, most of the names in the new section showed Northern African origins: Shelbroum, Barchemoul, Sulem, Benboussan. So I walked over to the old part, the part I could see from the large road which could take me to the road leading to Castelneau, shot the above picture, and strained to see if I could make out a name. The only one I could see for sure was the one with the white plaque on it, which was all in Hebrew except for a small bit at the bottom which had the name Guinzberg. Now, that was familiar: Serge Gainsbourg had started out a Ginsburg.

I made a note to investigate further, backtracked to the road leading to the Domaine de Merle, took the wrong fork, walked for another hour at least up a hill filled with nice bourgeois houses until it dead ended at a fancy tennis club and a sign pointing to the zoo. I was lost.

* * *

Now, the way I always heard the story, a thousand years ago, this was a spice-trading port. The ships, largely run by North African Muslims who were the masters of Mediterranean shipping and had connections at the end of the Spice Route in Turkey, docked at what's now called Port Marianne, which today is a tram stop with some gleaming new apartment buildings one passes on the way to Ikea and the Odysseum. The trade was financed by Spanish and Moroccan Jews, and French Christians operated the routes north to important destinations like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Paris where they sold the spices at a nice profit. The ships would dock, the spices would be unloaded, and from time to time, there'd be samples someone had handed off in hopes of stimulating a new trade in that item. The mysterious substance would have alleged for it various cures: it lessened the pain of menstrual cramps; it killed toothache; put some on a wound and it would heal quicker. Who knew if any of it worked? And why miss a lucrative new piece of inventory if it did?

So at one point, a deal was worked out: the Muslims had a system, the ancestor of today's scientific method, and the system was teachable. Thus, it would be possible to do experiments with these substances to verify the claims. All that was needed was a building in which to do this and the money to pay the scientists they'd bring over from Spain. The Jews had the money, and the Christians would donate one of their hospitals, which were as much hotels for pilgrims, since the town was on the route to Santiago de Compostella, as they were healing establishments. One of the earliest is landmarked on the side of the Monoprix on the Comédie.

Some of the items did, in fact, work as advertised, and soon, people were coming to the institution to learn about this. And, thus, somewhere along the way Montpellier University was founded as a medical school, with financial input from the French nobility, the Spanish Muslims, and the Jews, who were also working on publishing theological treatises.

Over the years, the harbor silted in and became unusable, the Spaniards threw first the Muslims, then the Jews, out of Spain, and yet a Jewish community, small, but prestigious, hung on in Montpellier. There's an ancient mikvah, a ritual bath, underneath one of the old buildings here, and you can sign up at the Tourist Bureau to take the tour of it twice a week. The building itself has signs about Montpellier's history of science and medicine and the part the Jews played in building it up. Eventually, of course, the Jews got expelled here, and then returned, and after a while the story gets very complicated. They never totally left, of course, not in a place devoted to learning.

* * *

You can read more about this in the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the Jewish Virtual Library, if you'd like, but the story that was utterly unknown to me when I did a Google search on "jews+montpellier" was the one that cropped up on a blog from 2007. It told the story of Alfred, the hatmaker, and proprietor of that place selling CHAPEAUX on the rue de la Loge. I commend it to your attention. And if the weather's nice tomorrow, I may well attempt the Domaine de Merle yet again.


  1. Interesting to read about how the university came about.
    And why on earth did that lady think they sold vibrators in the grocery store? They don't even sell dental floss in the grocery store! I'd love to know how that rumor came about

  2. I don't know where the domaine du Merle is located (I have never heard of it). In the area of avenue Saint-Lazare, I know the domaine de Méric, but I think you know it too..... Do you mean Montpellier was a port ? :-)))

    A few years ago, one of my neighbors, who was Jewish, died and was buried in the new "carré juif" (that's the way they call it) in Cimetière Saint-Lazare. This new carré is in the main part of the cemetery, not at all where the old carré is located. At the time I had never seen the old Jewish cemetery. When I first saw it, there were a lot of tombstones that were broken, upside down. It seems to me that they have been repaired (when looking at your photos).


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