For Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, a specialist in Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic studies, Monday, October 13, 1980 will be a day to remember: it was the formal dedication of a medieval building which he has declared to be Europe’s oldest surviving yeshiva.
To Golb and to scholars all over the world, the importance of this archaeological find means that Jewish presence in northern France was not only economic and commercial but cultural as well. What makes the story even more exciting was that the location of the structure had indeed been predicted by Golb who reached his conclusions from a study of medieval manuscripts.
Months before the Romanesque building was discovered beneath the parking lot of the Palace of Justice in Rouen here in Normandy, the 51-year-old professor published his hypothesis of a yeshiva in the courtyard in a book titled, “History and Culture of the Jews of Rouen,” which appeared in Hebrew in the spring of 1976.
He had researched 150 manuscripts which he studied, in Jerusalem; the British Museum, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris; libraries in Budapest, Amsterdam, New York, as well as the Vatican Library.
His selection of the site of the yeshiva on Rouen’s Rue aux Juifs (The Street of the Jews) was based on the fact that references to the building stop with the 10th Century. This was the point at which the highly ornamented Palaces de Justice was built. “I surmised that they razed the Jewish center to make way for the new construction,” Golb told me in an interview.
HISTORY OF AN OVERLOOKED CITY
Equally fascinating is the fact that Golb may have discovered why Rouen was overlooked as a center of Judaism during the Middle Ages. It may have been bypassed because Hebrew references to the city were misread by Latin choirs of the Middle Ages. Until the 14th Century, Rouen was known as Rodom.
In surviving Hebrew manuscripts, the name Radom is written like Rhodoz, a medieval city in southern France. What happened was that scholars, often in recopying the manuscripts, mistook the Hebrew letter “samoch,” for a final item.” Golb said he was fascinated by the possibility that the city they were really talking about and writing about as a “thriving Jewish community,” was really Rodom, or Rouen.
“I went back to the original manuscripts at the British Museum and my suspicions were immediately confirmed,” he said. Subsequent studies of manuscripts in Paris, Amsterdam and Jerusalem revealed detailed mops and descriptions of the Jewish quarter and life in the city.
JEWS ACTIVE IN ROUEN
Even today, the Jews of Rouen are active in the civic life of this city which is associated with another chapter of French history: on the market square here, Joan of Are was burned at the stake in 1431.
For centuries, Jews have lived in Normandy whose countryside is serene and peaceful and yet whose coast provided windows to the world for Jews and non-Jews since the Middle Ages. From the beautiful seaside town of Honfleur, Samuel de Champlain set soil to found Quebec and explore the Great Lakes.
In Rouen itself, there are about 400 Jewish families engaged in professions and academic life, as well as industry and commerce. Greater Rouen has a population of about 400,000 and is one of the great industrial centers of France. There is a synagogue and Rabbi C. Perez, its spiritual leader, told me that many Jews came to Rouen in the 1960’s from Algeria and Tunisia, and that they have given the congregation a Sephardic tone.
With the archaeological discovery, more Jews certainly will be visiting Rouen. Since that day when the excavation were found, Rouen and the government of France have spent about $1 million on the restoration. should be open to the public in the near future. It is a Jewish historic site in France not to be missed. (Tomorrow: Part Three)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.