In the synagogue of Bordeaux

I enjoy discovering the places of worship of religions I know not much about. Especially when they are beautiful historical monuments. Here is how I experienced the tour of the synagogue of Bordeaux.
The great synagogue of Bordeaux has a Portuguese style.

I find this place attractive because I’ve never been to a synagogue. Plus, it’s one of the largest in Europe. Finally, I’ve learned Hebrew for a few months. I enjoy decrypting inscriptions in this language.

The synagogue of Bordeaux: a monumental historical building

I’m in front of the entrance door in the rue Sainte-Catherine. The door looks banal. I couldn’t have imagined that a synagogue would be there. Inside, I see right away several large tables in a big room. Then, I notice next to the entrance an office, where a woman is sitting. Her welcome is dry. She doesn’t seem pleased to see a visitor. As if she worked at the reception desk in a public administration. She shows me the way to the temple which is located on the other side of an inner courtyard.

Inside, the silence is reigning. When I realise that I have this large area all for myself, I feel privileged to be the only visitor. On the other hand, I’m disappointed to not meet other people. Then, I notice a pleasant smell of cleaning solution for wooden floors melted with a smell typical for musty old objects.

The main entrance on the facade is located in a small street joining the rue Sainte-Catherine to the cours Pasteur. I go out through the front gate. I notice a grating which separates the sidewalk from the forecourt and prevents entering the synagogue of Bordeaux from outside.

I see passersby in the street walking without giving attention to the monumental building. Some of them must think it’s a church. At first, one could take it for such as it has three big wooden doors topped with a gantry. Moreover, stain-glass windows let the sunshine in. However, there are engraved David stars and a 7-branch candlestick. As I look up to the top of the pediment, I notice two stone rectangles symbolising the tables of the Law, a specificity of synagogues.

The facade of the synagogue of Bordeaux.

Inside again, I admire tiles adorned with geometrical and coloured designs. I notice the date “1882” on the floor. That’s when the construction of the synagogue of Bordeaux finished. It’s the original tiles, which impresses me. I wouldn’t have guessed that it’s that old.

It’s a “Portuguese synagogue.”I listen to the explanation of my audio guide about this adjective that intrigues me.

Where does the phrase “Portuguese synagogue” come from?

When Spain expelled Jews in 1492, the year of the taking of Granada, some of them flew to Portugal. A few years later, the King of Portugal declared that Jews have to convert to catholicism, otherwise they would have to flee. A small proportion of them moved to Bordeaux. We say, “Portuguese Jews” for the ones who come from Spain or Portugal. At the beginning of the 19th century, they represented the largest part of the Jewish community in the city. The synagogue of Bordeaux’s decoration is typical for Portuguese synagogues.

As I hear these historical facts from the audio guide, I say to myself that this people had to flee many persecutions throughout the centuries.

A beautiful Jewish place of worship with a cold atmosphere

Then, I step into the main room again. I admire large white pillars that rise until the first floor full with seats. That’s where women sit during the religious service. Light pink pillars reach the ceiling, on which I see 7 elegant arches. 

I step by wooden seats located on both sides of a small platform, the tebah. That’s where somewhere usually psalmody the Torah during the services. I see in the center of this area a kind of lectern dedicated to the holy text. In front of the tebah, there is a lighted seven-branch candlestick, the menorah. I’m impressed by its huge size. I go to the back of the temple where I see a majestuous arch inspired by eastern decoration. I like the careful and generous layout and decorations, as well as the light colours.

Suddenly, a woman, who must be a practicing person regularly coming here, appears. She’s smiling but seems surprised to see me here. She asks me who I am. I answer that I’m visiting the synagogue.

This encounter makes me think that there rarely are visitors. Plus, I’m disappointed by the cold atmosphere. I would have thought that the people of the community would be enthusiastic to meet an outsider. But that’s not what I feel. What’s more, I was hoping to meet people who regularly frequent the place to understand what it’s like to be Jewish in today’s France. Maybe this community is closed off. As I think about the persecutions that Jews faced, I tell myself that it would be understandable.

The Ashkenazi synagogue: an intimist environment

I’m motivated to visit the Ashkenazi synagogue as I think that it must be rare in France. I stare at the small building in front of me. The latter contrasts with the big Portuguese synagogue on the other side of the courtyard. I come in and discover a room where I first notice old books lined up on shelves. The presence of the books and the small size give a studious aspect which I like. I see austere wooden seats in front and on both sides of the tebah, which remind me of a classroom.

While looking at the careful and simple decoration, I say to myself that the synagogue resonates with the alleged seriousness of the Jewish people from Eastern Europe.

There is a small Ashkenazi synagogue next to the great synagogue of Bordeaux.

On a wall, a poster in Hebrew catches my attention. I admire the elegant shapes of the colourful letters which I decide to read even though I don’t understand the sentences. I loudly pronounce one line, and after opening Google Translate on my smartphone, I read it again. The vocal translation tool says something in French that must be correct. “Praying in silence.” I’m satisfied as I managed to decrypt a few words in a language I recently started to learn.

I leave the room and pass by a group of chatting women sitting on the large tables I saw earlier. In the rue Sainte-Catherine, as I see the flow of people, I think that only a few of them are aware that one of the largest synagogues in Europe is located a few meters away.

Have you ever visited a synagogue? What did you think about it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

The address of the synagogue of Bordeaux is 6 rue du Grand Rabin Joseph Cohen, but one enters through rue Sainte-Catherine.

You can visit it from Monday to Thursday at 2 pm, 3 pm or 4 pm, by appointment.

You’ll find all the information here to prepare your visit.

For further information, I recommend this documentary on Arte about synagogues, even though it doesn’t mention the Bordeaux synagogue.

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