Braking on the downhill, I struggled to read the route instructions fixed to my handlebars. Nancy and I were descending rapidly into the town of Saint-Rémy on the fourth day of a six-day bicycle tour of Provence. Our hotel on Boulevard Victor Hugo and a refreshing shower were now less than a half-kilometer away. I could taste the icy German beer waiting for me in the bar across the street. “Turn left at the yield sign,” I deciphered with one eye on the instructions and another on the road. “The Jewish cemetery will be on your left.”
A Jewish cemetery? Its high stone walls appeared as promised. We braked hard and searched for a gate.
It was the second cemetery we visited in as many days. A day earlier we wandered through a French cemetery outside a small hillside village. Our guides had set up a French picnic in the countryside surrounded by vineyards ablaze with autumn feuilles mortes. We lunched on truffle spreads and baguettes under a sycamore tree, the French cemetery with its high walls nearby. I travel to experience the culture and, without a doubt, the French are sentimental. The cemetery was adorned with flowers and expressions of love and remembrance. Souls resting here know they are loved.
The Jewish cemetery in Saint-Rémy was starkly different. We found the heavy metal gate secured by a substantial padlock. Peering over, I saw stone graves that mirrored those on the Mount of Olives. Grass and weeds covered the grounds. Unlike the tenderness of the French cemetery, the Cimetière des Juifs of Saint-Rémy had lost its connection to the living.
Jews lived in Provence for centuries as moneylenders, meat merchants, and metal workers, among other trades. Their condition varied from benign toleration to outright suppression. They were required to wear badges signifying they were Jews and pay a special tax, among other humiliations. After the death of “Good King” René in 1481, Provence became part of the Kingdom of France, and Provençal Jews became subject to French expulsion decrees. Following anti-Jewish disturbances in Arles, Aix and Marseilles, they were driven out of Provence in 1501. Most graves date to the 15th and 16th centuries, though the last burial took place in 1910, and the cemetery was closed in 1977. I am told it is opened once each year for historical tours.
An “abandoned” Jewish cemetery evokes all sorts of thoughts in the mind of a Jewish traveler. The 500-year-old graves spoke to me, but the meaning eluded my understanding.
Southern France is blessed with limestone soil and a sunny climate. The region produces wines such as Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Our tour guide, Pascal, is also a vintner. He proved to be a fine teacher of the French approach to wine. The all-important concept of terroir, he explained, is about geography, climate and the soil. It translates loosely to “a sense of place.”
Pascal took us to a winery where soils were on exhibit in tall glass cases. One could see the variations: Sandy, rocky or rich in limestone. “We don’t regard wine by the grape variety,” said Pascal. “It’s all about the place…and therefore the soil. The soil gives the wine its subtle flavors and characteristics.
“In France,” he continued, “we are not permitted to water the vineyard if we want to have the appellation of our region. Some years our yields are low, but we want the roots to set deep into the earth, 60 meters or more. That way the grapes can gather the characteristics of the soil.”
Voilà! Terroir is the meaning of the Jewish graves in Saint-Rémy. As Jews, our roots are in Israel where they are deep, as deep as any on earth. The Diaspora was our period of rootlessness, when we struggled to maintain our dignity and our Jewish identity. For centuries we died on foreign soil, thirsting for the sustenance and safety of a homeland of our own.
No more. Once again, we have planted our vines in Israel. Jews everywhere are connected to Israeli soil and to the land of our heritage. After two millennia, Jews have a sense of place, a Jewish terroir. And the fruit is sweet.