In The Footsteps of Rashi

Photo by Mottel;  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Rashi shul; photo by Mottel. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Is it possible to have Jewish heritage tourism in the absence of physical Jewish heritage?

Most obviously, this question crops up when we think about the return of individuals and families from Israel and the United States to eastern Europe in order to find the places where their descendants once lived, only to witness them erased. They discover that the house or apartment their grandparents formerly owned is now occupied by someone else, that the old wooden synagogue of the shtetl was burnt down, or that what was a yeshiva is now a supermarket or a nightclub.

In this case, the absence of the infrastructure of Jewish life – indeed, outside the major cities in eastern Europe, the absence of Jews themselves – does not diminish or minimize the Judaic centrality inherent in the act of discovery. Going in search of one’s heritage in eastern Europe is a form of Jewish tourism grounded in identity, history, and above all memory. It does not necessarily need the buildings or artifacts to have meaning.

Troyes – a historic market town of lane after narrow lane of timber-framed houses, right in the heart of French champagne country – is another setting where this question quite clearly arises. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries it was, of course, the birthplace and then home of Rashi, who is not only Troyes’ most prestigious and prodigious resident but its most comprehensive historian. Troyes is also a town whose tourism industry is built around heritage, its history, industry, and architecture and the interplay between these elements.

It is possible to walk in Troyes today in the footsteps of Rashi, as I did when I was shown around the town on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the middle of July by Mme Christine Lerat, a guide with the Office de Tourisme in Troyes. But any physical heritage, any traces of the Troyes of the time of Rashi, were erased by the great fire that ravaged the town in May 1524, when a quarter of the city was reduced to ash and 7,500 people were displaced. The heritage in Troyes today dates back to the reconstruction of the town after that disaster.

Troyes’ physical religious heritage is also post-Rashi. Part of Rashi’s writing concentrated on answering questions from Jews concerned about how best to live among Christians, a pertinent question in the Middle Ages. Rashi was best placed to respond since while Troyes’ medieval city contained a Jewish quarter, it was not walled in. The Jews of Troyes were not ghettoized in the way the Jews of Worms were, for example, contemporaneously. There was a degree of fluidity between the different parts of the old town and some cultural and commercial interaction between Jews and Christians.

At the time of Rashi, Jews lived in Troyes under the auspices and protection of the counts of Champagne. Their role in the economy of Troyes became over time that of the money lender, although Jews were also involved in trade and commerce, the town being a centre for the manufacture of cloth, leather, and wine. (Rashi himself was a winemaker.) But the history of the medieval Jewish community of Troyes comes to an abrupt end with the final expulsion of Jews from France in 1394. Troyes, therefore, has a historical role as a cradle of Jewish thought but its physical religious heritage today is decidedly Christian.

Walking in the footsteps of Rashi, one sees that what was once a cemetery for both Jewish and Christian bodies – and it is unknown whether the graveyard was separated into two parts or Jewish and Christian headstones mingled together – is now a car park. At the end of the car park is a small square containing a monument to Rashi, unveiled by Elie Weisel on Rashi’s 950th birthday. I was also shown the site where a synagogue in the medieval Jewish quarter once stood, which from Rashi’s descriptions sounds more like a house of meeting, a beit knesset, than a house of worship. The stones from that synagogue were repurposed in the construction of a church.

While the institutions of Jewish life today in Troyes invoke the name of Rashi, and most certainly are connected to him through his ideas and his spirit, they are entirely modern and distinct from the original settlement of Jews in the town. The Rashi Synagogue, located in a sixteenth-century building outside the walls of the old town, conducts services in accordance with Sephardic rites, a reflection of the fact that its congregation finds its origins in North Africa. Across the street, the Institut Universitaire Européen Rachi opened its doors in 1989 and is a centre for Hebraic and Judaic studies in France. The Musée d’Art Moderne was created out of a donation to the French state of artworks collected by the textile industrialists Pierre and Denise Lévy.

Rashi, thus, is nowhere to be found in modern Troyes. He lingers on in folkloric tales, and his writings are the best indication of how the Troyes of his time looked and functioned, but his Troyes no longer exists in its physical form. It is only possible to walk in his footsteps, to go in search of his ghost, but in spite of that Troyes does attract some tourism – a small amount, one wouldn’t want to exaggerate it – purely based on the fact that Rashi once lived, worked, and thought there. There was a spike in 2005, the 900th anniversary of his death, particularly of tourists from the United States, while the synagogue in Troyes sees people from Paris wanting to have their bar mitzvah in the town that gave the world Rashi.

This is a very conceptual, almost ethereal kind of Jewish heritage tourism, but if the visitor is pulled towards Troyes purely by Rashi himself and the intent of that visitors is to walk in his footsteps, then its Jewishness is difficult to minimize or downplay. Troyes is hardly a model, but does make for an interesting example of the relationship between Judaism and tourism, and particularly Jewish ideas and tourism, can play in contemporary Europe, outside the traditional forums: the museum, synagogue, and community center.