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The Army of Crime

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It was a task to confiscate from a nation of readers a beloved ocean of a book that takes a lifetime to read, but the King of France and his monastic henchmen in their black cowls managed to haul twenty-four cartloads of manuscripts of the Talmud to the square outside Notre Dame de Paris. It was in what the Christians call “the year of grace” 1242 that they burned them all. It is estimated that there were ten thousand volumes. That is about the size of my personal library; but back then a library of a few hundred volumes was considered vast. True, it was not the worst atrocity against books: only a few decades before the Crusaders, a ragtag army of mainly French and German scum, had burnt the great library of Constantinople. It is because of that act of barbarism, far more than the destruction of the library at Alexandria, that so many works of the Classical tradition are lost.

The Talmud survived. So did the standard Biblical commentary of Rashi, whose vernacular passages are a major source of our knowledge of early mediaeval French.

A few decades after the pyres had stopped smoking, the Jews were expelled from France. That was in the year of grace 1294. Over the centuries, many quietly returned, or emigrated there escaping other fires— the auto-da-fes of the Inquisition at the end of the fifteenth century of grace. Michel de Montaigne, who invented the literary form of the essay (and no subsequent writer in the genre has surpassed him), seems to have been a Sephardi on his Mom’s side. Like me.

1789! Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! The rights of man and of the citizen! Napoleon granted us full civil rights. Despite the Dreyfus affair (year of grace 1894, not intentionally timed to coincide with the anniversary of the expulsion but Clio is sardonic), France was a beacon. My Grandma studied at an Alliance Israelite Universelle........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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