Champagne city to uncork festival for talmudic master

TROYES, France — The project is still in the initial planning stages, but the birthplace of the medieval biblical commentator Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac is determined not to miss out this time.

In 2005, Troyes, the ancient capital of the Counts of Champagne in northern France, will celebrate the 900th anniversary of the death of its most famous son, known to the Jewish world by his acronym of Rashi.

The author of the monumental commentary on the Talmud and the Torah, Rashi was born in Troyes in 1040, and although his grave has never been found, scholars believe he died there in about 1105.

For obvious reasons, the town missed out on the anniversary of Rashi's birth in 1940. The Champagne region around Troyes had as its prefect Rene Bousquet, who later headed the Vichy police and was responsible for numerous roundups of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France.

Today, a well-kept, small, medieval city about 100 miles east of Paris, Troyes was once at the center of European trade routes located on the ancient Roman road connecting Milan in northern Italy with Boulogne-sur-mer on the English Channel.

With these traders came Jews, welcomed by the Counts of Champagne and protected in the Jewish quarter close to the city's cathedral.

Rashi's family probably came to Troyes from across the Rhine in Germany, and he himself spent some 10 years studying in the Rhineland at Worms in the famous Yeshiva of Mainz, founded by Rabbeinu Gershom, the "Light of the Diaspora."

Today, virtually nothing remains of the city's history from the time of Rashi, since a large part of the city was destroyed by fire in 1524.

Nevertheless, the 16th-century wooden building that houses the synagogue in the heart of the old section of Troyes is still there and now serves as the Jewish community center. It holds regular Shabbat and holiday services.

Across the narrow street from the synagogue is the Rashi Institute, which provides courses in Jewish studies and stages conferences regularly.

In close cooperation with the Troyes municipality, the institute has already begun work on preparing for the 900th anniversary of Rashi's death, and it intends to bring together the world's 20 leading experts on Rashi's works for a conference in the city.

It has also set as one of its primary goals to make the local population in Troyes and the Champagne region more aware of the contribution of Rashi and other talmudic masters from the area.

Although there are a number of sites associated with Rashi in Troyes, including a statue of him unveiled by Elie Wiesel to mark the 850th anniversary of Rashi's birth in 1990, the local population has shown little interest.

"Unfortunately, Rashi is really only associated with Troyes for the Jewish community," said the city's deputy director for tourism, Laurence Hugin-Pujol.

Indeed, unlike many other centers of medieval Jewry in Europe, there is no museum other than the synagogue itself, while festivals have yet to be organized, he said.

According to the town's rabbi, Abba Samoun, there is a Rashi Street, and Samoun succeeded in persuading the City Council to take down the sign that described the street as a dead end.

Despite the fact that Rashi both taught and wrote in Troyes, Samoun said he was almost certainly not the city's rabbi.

Rather, Rashi, like other medieval scholars, was strict in upholding the talmudic injunction against earning one's living from teaching the Torah.

In fact, he owned vineyards and was a winemaker — very much in keeping with the Champagne region in which he lived.