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You do not spot the simple, regular sandstone blocks above the entrance to the ritual baths in Speyer’s medieval Jewish quarter straight away. But these stones have a real story to tell.
The original architects of the mikveh in Speyer derived its characteristic design from the Romans. “Stonemasons from northern Italy brought this construction technique to the Rhine. These were well paid specialists who were involved in the construction of the cathedral at the same time as designing the synagogue and the mikveh. It was a joint Christian and Jewish project,” explains Cornelia Benz, who has been giving guided tours of the city for 17 years. “The second phase of conversion of the cathedral was completed in 1106, and the synagogue was consecrated two years earlier.”
The close timing is no coincidence. The largest Romanesque church in the world and the stone witnesses to the heyday of Jewish culture on the Rhine are neighbours in the centre of Speyer. They are both on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The imperial cathedral was added in 1981 and the Jewish quarter in July 2021 alongside the other ShUM cities of Mainz and Worms.
ShUM. The word is made up of the first letters of the Hebrew names for the cities, with shin (sh) for Shpira (Speyer), vav (u) for Vermayza (Worms) and mem (m) for Magentza (Mainz). These are the birthplaces of European Judaism, the Jerusalem of the Rhine. The community shaped not only religion, but also law-making, architecture and culture for the Jewish people of the Middle Ages. “For many of our international guests, ShUM is very much alive. Schapiro, Schapira and Spira are common Yiddish surnames which are very widespread in the USA and Eastern Europe. So Speyer has a presence all over the world,” reports city guide Ms Benz.
And the Jewish centre in Speyer for more than 900 years, what is left of it now? The walls of the medieval synagogue, the women’s college and the almost entirely preserved mikveh, the oldest and largest remaining ritual baths in Central Europe. The building set the style for much of Germany and Europe.
The most important Jewish scholars of the time were based on the Rhine and in Speyer. Their spiritual legacy lives on: “The prohibition of polygamy in European Judaism, the beginnings of the privacy of correspondence and the reform of divorce law to strengthen the position of women all have their roots in the scholar community of ShUM,” explains Cornelia Benz.
The establishment of the Jewish community in Speyer was made possible by a Christian. Bishop Rüdiger Huzmann invited persecuted Jews to settle in Speyer in 1084. He is quoted as saying: “When I made the village of Speyer a city, I thought I would massively improve the reputation of the place by attracting Jews here too.” He granted the budding community rights and privileges, and allowed them their own administration and judiciary. In return, he received taxes: gold, silver, pearls, valuable materials and luxury goods. Many of the new citizens of Speyer were successful merchants with well-established contacts extending as far as the Middle East. Cornelia Benz summarises: “Speyer benefited. The rural village of the early Middle Ages developed into one of the most important cities in the empire spanning huge swathes of Europe, partly thanks not only to the cathedral but also to the Jewish community.”
With its Christian and Jewish history, Speyer is still a cultural highlight for visitors from all over the world.
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