Jews lived in Germany already in the Late Roman era. The first authentic proof of their presence is from Cologne in 321. It is assumed that Jews also then lived in the other cities along the Rhine. The collapse of the Roman Empire and the decline of the urban lifestyle that went with it also dispersed the Jewish communities. There is no firm evidence of the continuity of Jewish presence along the Rhine in the 1st millennium.
The rule of Charlemagne allowed many Italian and French Jews to settle north of the Alps, where they took jobs of finance and commerce, including money lending and usury. This marked the beginning of a relatively peaceful period for Jews. Their profession, however, created an ambivalent attitude towards them: their capital was needed, but their business was seen as disreputable.
Along the Rhine, the presence of Jews is first attested in Mainz, in the first half of the 10th century. The Jewish community here was established by the members of the Kalonymos family from Italy, who later played a significant role in the development of Jewish learning in German lands. At the end of the 10th century an influential yeshiva was established in Mainz by Gershom ben Judah. Known among his followers as the ‘light of the exile’, he is widely considered to be the founder of a new tradition of Judaism, independent of those promoted by the Babylonian Talmud schools. His yeshiva was one of the main centres of the Jewish world at the time, attracting many students.
In the second half of the 10th century a Jewish community also existed in Worms. In around 1000 a rabbinical synod was held here, where Gershom adopted various groundbreaking laws, such as the prohibition of polygamy and the requirement of consent by both parties to a divorce. One of Gershom’s followers, Yaakov ben Yakar, established a yeshiva in Worms in the middle of the 11th century. It was here that Rashi, today widely considered as the greatest commentator of the Torah and the Talmud, studied in the 1050s and the 1060s.
Since the 1070s there are also records of Jews in Speyer. Many had escaped from Mainz and Worms after antisemitic pogroms. Others arrived after 1084, following the call of Bishop Rüdiger Huzmann, who had promised them a wide array of rights, which went well beyond the common practice anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire. The idea that Jews had the knowledge and capacity to enlarge trade and improve revenues was a major factor here.
The Jewish communities of Mainz, Worms and Speyer were the most important north of the Alps in the High Middle Ages. They formed a federation known as Kehillot ShUM (the ShUM communities), after the initials of the Hebrew names of three cities: Shpira (Speyer), Warmaisa (Worms), and Magenza (Mainz). The three communities enacted a body of regulations known as Takkanot ShUM, by affirming the decrees adopted by French Jews at a synod in Troyes in around 1160 and adding their own (in 1196, 1220, and 1223). These decrees addressed the relations within the Jewish community as well as with the Gentiles and came to be seen as binding by other Jewish communities in German lands. This made the three ShUM cities the central authority for German Jews in religious and legal matters. They have often been collectively called the Rhenish Jerusalem.
The ShUM cities are considered to be the cradle of Ashkenazi Judaism. It was in these cities that the traditions carried from the Holy Land, the Babylon, and the Mediterranean were amalgamated with the particularities of the European environment. A new culture was born, affecting not only the practice of religion and the administration of justice, but also fields such as architecture and literature. Yiddish emerged as a distinct language here, merging the various Jewish languages spoken in the 1st millennium with the medieval vernaculars of High German. The name ‘Ashkenaz’, which comes from the Hebrew Bible, was, in the Middle Ages, used to designate France and Germany, and later only Germany.
Jewish culture, however, flourished in the Holy Roman Empire only as much as it was allowed to, and discrimination of Jews was commonplace. The ShUM cities were not exempt from this, as shown by the Rhineland massacres in 1096, in which hundreds of Jews from Mainz and Worms lost their lives. Mainz, consequently, never regained its former status as the centre of Jewish learning and culture. Antisemitic pogroms also took place during the later crusades. The worst were the persecutions of Jews during the Great Plague in 1348-1351, which affected the Rhineland especially harshly and wiped out entire Jewish communities here. This, together with the later waves of expulsions, forced Jews to flee to the east, to the more tolerant Poland, where already in the 15th century the Jewish communities were counted as the largest of the diaspora. That area remained the heartland of Ashkenazi Judaism until the 20th century. Of the ShUM cities only Worms had a continuous Jewish presence through the early modern age.
Another city where there was a regular Jewish presence was Frankfurt am Main. Jews had lived here since at least the mid-12th century and their community increased significantly since the 15th century. The city soon gained importance as a financial centre, as the municipal authorities only allowed prosperous Jews to settle in, following their expulsion from other cities. Living conditions were, nonetheless, hard here, too. Jews, including rich ones (such as the Rothschilds), were forced to live in the ghetto and were subject to humiliating regulations by the generally antisemitic authorities.
The 19th century changed many things for the better for German Jews: they achieved equal rights with the rest of the citizens, became better integrated in the society, and had an increasing economic and political power. The split between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism also took place in the 19th-century Germany. The new heyday of Jewish life that started was abruptly ended by the access to power of the Nazis in 1933.
Below I will list and describe the most important Jewish sites in Mainz, Worms, Speyer, and Frankfurt. The portfolio covers the time span from the 10th century to today. In case of the Mainz, Worms and Speyer I will emphasise the medieval heritage, whereas in case of Frankfurt most of the sites that I will mention are from the 19th and 20th centuries. I took the photos in February and March 2020.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below:
Part One: Speyer
1. Jewish quarter in Altspeyer
The first known Jewish quarter in Speyer was in Altspeyer, east of today’s Hauptbahnhof. It was established by the Jews that settled in following the invitation of Bishop Rüdiger Huzmann in 1084. Some Jews may have lived in Altspeyer already before that. A synagogue was built here quite soon after.
2. Jewish Courtyard
Kleine Pfaffengasse 22
The second Jewish quarter was established near the Speyer Cathedral at the end of the 11th century. Its main street was the modern Kleine Pfaffengasse (Judengasse). The centre of the community was what is now known as the Jewish Courtyard (Judenhof). It contained a number of structures, such as a synagogue, a women’s synagogue, a mikveh, and a yeshiva. These were used until 1534.
Modern Judengasse – a side street of the historical Judengasse
1104; reconstruction – c. 1200; modification – c. 1250
The ruins of the synagogue of Speyer are the oldest visible remains of a synagogue north of the Alps. It was a single-nave building with high gables in Romanesque style, possibly constructed by the masters of the Speyer Cathedral. On the gable walls were two mullioned windows with an oculus between them. The single-nave plan was also common in Christian refectories and town halls, but the composition and proportions of the windows compared to the general volume of the structure made this plan specific for synagogues from now on.
The mullioned windows of the west wall, surviving from the original building or its reconstruction in c. 1200, are now in the Museum SchPIRA. Those that can be seen outside on the standing west wall are reproductions from 1899. The surviving windows on the east wall are from the Gothic period. The synagogue was redesigned in Gothic style in the middle of the 13th century, when the women’s synagogue was erected south of it.
Windows from the west wall of the synagogue (1104 or c.1200, Museum SchPIRA)
West wall of the synagogue (1899), as seen from the inside
East walls of the men’s (right) and women’s synagogues (left), as seen from the outside
The mikveh of Speyer is one of the best representatives of medieval Jewish heritage in Europe. It is the oldest visible remnant of a mikveh north of the Alps, and the second oldest that I have visited in Europe, after the ritual bath of Syracuse (established in c. 600). Its plan is really wonderful, choreographing, in a monumental fashion, the descent towards spiritual purity, like a processional way into the underground.
Entrance is through a long straight staircase leading through a Romanesque portal into an underground anteroom.
The anteroom possibly functioned as the changing room. It had a stone bench, four slender columns with ornate capitals at its corners (cf. the Speyer Cathedral), and windows overlooking the ritual bath.
Original mullioned window of the anteroom of the mikveh (Museum SchPIRA)
Original column capital from the anteroom of the mikveh (Museum SchPIRA)
To the left of the anteroom is a niche with a small seat. Its purpose has not been proven, but it could have been a depository of wet towels.
From the right of the anteroom a staircase leads down to the ritual pool. The groundwater pool, located at the bottom of an 11m-deep shaft, is accessed via steps from all the four sides.
The shaft is open on the ground, letting rainwater fall in in case of need.
2.3. Synagogue courtyard
Along the north wall of the synagogue, where the Judenbadgasse is today, was a courtyard used for discussing community affairs.
2.4. Women’s synagogue
c. 1250; first half of 14th century
South of the main synagogue was a special house of prayer for women (cf. the earlier women’s synagogue of Worms). It was a originally a single-nave building in Gothic style. It was connected to the main synagogue by a wall with six listening windows, through which women could hear the services. There were seats along the north, south and east walls. The entrance was from the west.
In the first half of the 14th century the synagogue was divided into four vaulted bays. The buttresses are also from this period.
East and north walls of the women’s synagogue, with two listening windows on the left
First half of 14th century
To the northeast of the synagogue was a yeshiva. It was a rectangular building covered by a cross vault.
3. Museum SchPIRA
Kleine Pfaffengasse 20
The SchPIRA Museum is a small museum next to the Jewish Courtyard exhibiting archaeological findings from Jewish sites in Speyer. The most interesting of these are gravestones from the Jewish cemetery of Altspeyer, dating back to the 12th to 14th centuries.
The cemetery was located at the western wall of the Jewish settlement of Altspeyer, in the area around the modern Bahnhofstraße, Schubertstraße, Richard-Wagner-Straße, and Prinz-Luitpold-Straße. It was established in the 11th or the 12th century and operated until the 17th century. It was not steadily used by Jews after the 1349 pogroms and since 1435 it was owned by Christians. The gravestones were used as construction material later on.
Gravestone of Isaak (1112 or 1283/84)
Some letters on this gravestone are missing, which is why it has been dated to either 1112 or to 1283/1284. The earlier dating would make it the earliest gravestone surviving from the Jewish cemetery of Altspeyer. The inscription counts the years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a tradition that was widespread among Italian Jews, which may be indicative of the Italian provenance of Isaak (and other Jews of Speyer).
Gravestone of Bluma (1365)
The name of the deceased is carved in the stone as an ornament. Bluma is described as ‘devout’ and ‘righteous’, adjectives that were very rare to describe a woman. There are mistakes in the text of the inscription, showing that the Christian stone carvers were not familiar with the Hebrew alphabet.
Gravestone of Jachent (1371)
This gravestone, originally coloured, shows the signs of the sun and the crescent, which can also be found on other gravestones in Speyer.
Gravestone of Genennchen and Moses (1380)
This Gothic stone marks the double grave of a sister and brother.
4. Old Jewish Cemetery
Ceremonial hall – St.-Klara-Kloster-Weg 10; eastern wall – Am Nonnengarten
The Jews of Speyer established a new cemetery on the grounds of the former Monastery of Saint Clare in 1828. It was used until 1888. Today its ceremonial hall survives (used as a garage), together with a part of its eastern wall. There are no gravestones left.
5. New Synagogue
Heydenreichstraße / Hellergasse
August von Voit, 1836-1837; expansion – 1866
A new synagogue was constructed on the site of the Church of Saint Jacob in 1837. It was built in Moorish Revival style and had a school and a women’s mikveh attached to it. It was enlarged in 1866. It was the main synagogue of Speyer until its destruction during the Kristallnacht.
6. New Jewish Cemetery
In 1888 the Jewish cemetery was moved to the southeastern part of the city cemetery of Speyer. It’s also active today.
7. Beth Shalom Synagogue
Alfred Jacoby, 2009-2011
The newest synagogue of Speyer was built on the site of the Romanesque-Gothic church dedicated to Saint Guido. Its architect was Alfred Jacoby, Germany’s leading synagogue architect. Its Torah ark is symbolically oriented towards the Speyer Cathedral, while the entrance is opposite the Church of Saint Bernhard, built in 1954 and dedicated to the reconciliation between Germany and France.
In front of the synagogue is a square named after the city of Yavne in Israel (a sister city of Speyer).