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Remembering Rashi in France

Set out on the Rashi trail in Troyes to find Jewish heritage in the heart of Champagne

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Rashi and babygros are rarely mentioned in the same breath but in Troyes, just south of Paris, the great Torah scholar and stretchy sleepsuits are inextricably linked.

After the Second World War, the once-thriving Jewish community of Troyes had been all but extinguished. Its fortunes were largely restored by two rabbis who helped draw Jewish families to the area with the offer of jobs in the successful sleepsuit factory that one of them ran.

When the factory started to lose business, the community once more struggled to survive, but it has been reinvigorated by the recent development of the impressive Rashi trail.

The town is rightly proud of the fact that Rashi — perhaps the best-known Jewish commentator — was born and lived in the area. As we drove into Troyes, the first tourist board placard we spotted was one celebrating the Rashi House.

The precise sites where Rashi, or Rabbi Solomon Bar Isaac, was born in February 1040, the house where he lived, taught students and wrote his Torah commentary, are still not known. When he died in July 1105, he was buried in Troyes but, again, the exact location of his grave is a mystery.

Although the town is frequently described as medieval, most of the buildings were destroyed in a great fire in May 1524 and their attractive wattle-and-daub replacements actually date from the 17th century; they still impressed our sons who thought they looked like something from Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

The cobblestones from Rashi’s days are still intact though, so it is safe to say that if you stroll through Troyes, you’ll be stepping on some of the same stones that Rashi walked on.

Our wanderings over those cobblestones were mostly led by our kids following the historical trail marked out by golden arrows with the image of a Templar Knight — which would become more significant late on in our holiday.

The Maison Rachi, which includes not only a shul but a multimedia exhibition, library and study rooms, is housed within one of those 17th-century buildings and is proudly run by the Jewish community itself. The study room boasts a complete digital Torah that you can search and scroll through on an electronic touch table.

A guide will show you the shape of the town as Rashi will have known it, a reconstruction of a medieval beit midrash (study hall) and a couple of beautifully made informative films explaining Rashi’s place on the Jewish bookshelf, including how Rashi’s commentaries both reflect and reveal his medieval French context — and as a bonus, his in-depth knowledge of the technologies of wine production of the time.

There’s a slim chance that if you drink a glass of champagne in Troyes — which is not hard to do, given that the city sits in the heart of the Aube-Champagne region — you could even be enjoying a vintage from vineyards known by Rashi himself.

Troyes is a key centre of stained-glass and has a mind-boggling 9,000 square metres of it to admire, including at the Maison Rachi.

Here an attractive stained-glass artwork depicts Rashi’s family tree in as much detail as the historical record reveals: true to the stories of Rashi’s three daughters, a significant proportion of the names are women.

Aside from the Rashi House (and indeed the vineyards of Champagne), Troyes and the surrounding area has plenty to offer.

The old city of Troyes is — if you took a bird’s eye view — in the shape of a champagne cork, originally bounded by the defensive walls but now by attractive green gardens that provided welcome shade for picnicking during the heatwave.

The city is stuffed full of shops, museums and galleries but it was the surprisingly brilliant Maison de l’Outil (Tool Museum) that held our kids’ attention longest: it houses more than 12,000 17th, 18th and 19th- century tools divided into wood, iron, animal and mineral.

Many of the tools come from crafts and trades that are almost obsolete and there are 65 beautiful displays with interesting explanations and interactive features.

Further afield in the Aube en Champagne region, the Forest of Orient and its surroundings hide more historical gems.

The Espace Faune is a wildlife park with a difference: housed on a peninsula jutting out into the beautiful Lac d’Orient, the elk, bison, deer, wild horses and wild boar would have roamed the forests right up until Rashi’s time.

The Espace only keeps the number of animals that can sustain themselves without human intervention (apart from in deepest winter) and despite the large wild enclosures the brilliantly designed hides with informative panels enabled our children to spot the animals with ease — and kept them haring around the 89-hectare site with cunningly-placed clues to a forest mystery to solve.

Out of the forest in the open countryside, the Commanderie d’Avalleur tells the story of the Knights Templar — set in one of the houses of the Order founded in Troyes by Hugues de Payens in 1129.

The kids were reeled in by a treasure hunt worthy of Umberto Eco or Dan Brown but were then, to our total amazement, kept spellbound for two hours by our engaging young guide Jade.

She superbly recounted the full history of the Order, taking in Jerusalem, the Crusades, pilgrimages, indulgences, the Pope, the Divine Right of Kings, the trial of the Templars under Philip the Fair and the myths and legends that followed.

She also took us up into the 800-year-old roof of the chapel to see the numbers carved on the beams by medieval carpenters putting the building together like a giant Lego set.

Seeing a seven and nine-year old’s faces alive with historical fascination must be one of the most rewarding experiences a parent can have on holiday.

Meanwhile, the Windmill at Dorsches gave a rather more practical insight into historical life.

The windmill is a reconstruction using entirely historical techniques, crafts and tools — including those showcased in the Maison de l’Outil in Troyes — of the windmills that used to dot the countryside in every town and village until the advent of steam-powered mills rendered them obsolete before the First World War.

Our sons were able to grind their own wheat using handmills, sieve out the bran, and that night use the resulting flour to make some flatbreads to use as challah for shabbat. Without question, the best challah I’ve ever eaten.

Getting There

Fares for a return ferry crossing between Dover and Calais with DFDS start from £136 for a car and up to four people, with priority boarding options from £10 each way. dfds.com

For more information visit troyeslachampagne.com

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