The Last Man Who Spoke Provence’s Dead Jewish Language


In 1977, Apple Computers incorporated, Menachem Begin became Israel’s 6th Prime Minister, Jay Leno first appeared on The Tonight Show, and Armand Lunel, the last living speaker of Judeo-Provençal, died.

Also known as Shuadit and Hébraïco-Comtadin, Judeo-Provençal was the language of the Jews who arrived in Southern France in the first century after the destruction of the Second Temple. Shuadit, which is thought to have originated in the 11th century, was used for religious texts and popular writings, and also for everyday speech. It wasn’t until Jews became free to live where they wished in France that the language began to fall out of use.

Lunel, Judeo-Provençal’s last speaker, grew up in Aix-en-Provence, where he studied philosophy in high school with the future polytonic composer Darius Milhaud,with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. In fact, in later years, Lunel wrote the libretto for Milhaud’s operas, Esther de Carpentras, based on Judeo-Provençal folklore, as well as an opera based on the legends of Orpheus and Eurydice called Les Malheurs d’Orphée. Both men came from families who trace their roots to the earliest Jews to settle France.

If only Esther were written in Judeo-Provençal instead of French, we could hear the language sung today.


Listen to Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”:

Recommended from JTA