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Virtual Jewish World: Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg is a city of contrasts. The language is French, but the architecture, food, and wine are overwhelmingly German. Cities and towns all over Alsace have German names and many streets are a French German hybrid like rue Unter den Linden. Here the clash of history is evident everywhere you go as you recall that over the centuries Alsace changed from French to German hands and back again many times.

Strasbourg is also home to some 16,000 Jews and it's a good starting point for exploring the province's rich Jewish history. Like Jews in other parts of France and the rest of Europe in the middle ages, the Jews of Alsace suffered through expulsions, blood libel accusations, and blame for the Black Death. They were driven out of cities and towns, exploited by the Christian aristocracy, forced to pay high taxes, wear identity tags, and to get permission to marry. Jewish children born out of wedlock were forcibly baptized.

Alsace became part of France in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, but it was only after the French Revolution that Jews were granted civil rights.

Following emancipation Jews began to move from small towns to larger cities, and Strasbourg, which had a Jewish population of about one hundred before the Revolution, grew to over 1,000 by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was during the first flower of emancipation, that synagogues were built all over Alsace - some 176 between 1791 and 1914 - and nearly every town and village had one. It was a big change from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries when synagogue construction was banned.

Benjamin of Tudela, the twelfth century Sephardic traveler who chronicled the Jewish world of his day, tells us that Jews lived in Strasbourg and in the rest of Alsace around 1170 C.E. Today the Jewish community of Strasbourg retains its predominantly Ashkenazi character, unlike most communities in France. This vibrant community made a comeback from the devastation of the German occupation and the Shoah and is an integral part of life in the city. Many of Strasbourg's Jews live in the area around the main synagogue - a lovely and fashionable neighborhood around the Parc des Contades. The imposing Synagogue de la Paix, (1a rue du Grand Rabbin René Hirschler) was built in 1958 to replace the synagogue on the same spot that was destroyed by the Germans during the Occupation. The interior is equally impressive - a circular sanctuary nestled beneath a Star of David.

Take a walk through the heart of old Strasbourg. There's plenty to see of Jewish interest. Oddly enough, we'll start with a church.

To the left of the portal as you face Strasbourg's Cathedral of Notre Dame are two statues - Ecclesia and Synagoga, circa 1230. The one on the left represents Christianity - a woman adorned with a crown and wearing a flowing gown. She holds a staff with a cross in one hand and a chalice in the other, and grins in triumph over her enemy. The one on the right represents Judaism. Her garment is disheveled and clings tightly to her body. Her staff is broken and the tablets of the Law are about to slip from her hand. As is typical of Ecclesia and Synagoga, we do not see her face - her head is bowed and she is blindfolded because she cannot see the truth of Christianity.

Next to the Cathedral is the Musee de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame. A chronicle of the arts in Strasbourg and the Upper Rhine from the eleventh through seventeenth centuries, you will also see some Jewish tombstones from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries in the museum courtyard. They are originally from a cemetery at the Place de la Republique.

The Rue des Juifs (Jew street) is the heart of the old Jewish quarter and one of Strasbourg's oldest streets. Over 1,600 years old, it was the Roman east-west road. On the end of the street furthest from the Cathedral, number 30, between rue des Pucelles and rue de la Faisan, was the site of the twelfth century synagogue; the community's bakery was at number 17, the Mikvah at the corner of rue des Charpentiers, the butcher shop at 22 rue des Charpentiers and the cemetery at the Place de la Republique.

Number 15 was constructed in 1290 and is the only remaining building from this period that was inhabited by a Jewish family. Beginning in 1587, this section of the rue des Juifs was known as Zum Judenbad (to the Jewish bath).

In the heart of the Jewish quarter, at 20, rue des Charpentiers is a thirteenth century Mikvah. Discovered during excavations in the neighborhood, it is not yet completely restored and in a fragile state.

On the other side of the River Ill at 23 Quai Saint Nicholas is the Musee Alsacien. Here you will find two rooms devoted to Alsacien Jewish objects along with a model shtiebel.

A short ride north by car or public transport is the suburb of Bischheim. One of the most important Jewish communities of France up until the French Revolution, Jewish settlement began here following the expulsion from Colmar (in southern Alsace) in 1512.

At 17, rue Nationale is the Cour de Boecklin and the home of David Sintzheim, one of three rabbis who made up France's first chief rabbinate following the Revolution. Inside, the steep, sixteenth century restored hollow staircase leads to a restored mikveh. The room above depicts Jewish life in Bischheim.

Sources: Reprinted by permission of the author from Complete Jewish Guides.