There was an awesome article in the Washington Post on Sunday about the Jews of four cities in the South of France (Avignon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon and Carpentras) who were protected because they lived in the vicinity of the Palace of the Popes, where seven Popes and two antipopes reigned over the Christian world. Apparently, ” No Protestants, heretics, agnostics or atheists were permitted in the papal enclave — only the Jews.”
The article is really fantastic, and includes tidbits about the pre-Venetian ghettos to which the Jews were restricted, various synagogues, some almost 700 years old, and strange remnants of a world in which Jews ended davening every day with a prayer, “petitioning God to ‘exalt our sovereign and Holy Father, the pope.’”
Check out the description of the synagogue in Carpentras:
Jenny Levy, a volunteer, welcomed us at the top of a lofty stone stairway leading up to the sanctuary level. Like all congregation members since the 18th-century restoration, we passed under cruciform windows designed by the Christian architect. The open door revealed a surprising burst of Provencal tints of rose, green, blue and yellow, Louis XV-style decoration, chandeliers, classical Greek-inspired columns, faux-marbre walls and carved rose motifs. Unlike in synagogues elsewhere, the rabbi officiated from a pulpit with a baldachin, a kind of canopy, on a balcony above the worshipers.
The architectural peculiarity of Comtat synagogues, Levy explained, is the superimposing of the two prayer rooms. The larger, more beautifully decorated was reserved for men. Women were hidden, relegated to a cavelike underground area closed off by a grille. They could not see the service but followed it through a sound tunnel and could lift the grille to peek out only when the Torah scrolls were removed from the Holy Ark. Unique in Comtat synagogues are two niches, one on either side of the Holy Ark. The one on the left is used for Sukkoth harvest celebrations; the one on the right has a Louis XV-style miniature arm chair where the prophet Elijah, according to legend, silently witnesses all circumcisions in the synagogue, Levy explained.