Marseille is France’s largest city and port on the Mediterranean and, with an 80,000 strong community, boasts the second largest Jewish population in France. The earliest presence of Jews in Marseille can be traced to the 6th century. The Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela reported that there were 300 Jewish families in Marseille in 1165. One of the letters sent by Maimonides was to the “Wise Men of the Congregation of Marseille.” Along with much of Europe, the 15th century brought persecution and expulsions. The modern Jewish community was re-founded in 1760 and in 1864 the oriental-style Temple Breteuil, opened. Built by Nathan Solomon, it remains an inspirational testimony of the legendary Jewish community of the port of Marseille.
At the beginning of WWII, Marseille was part of a “free zone” which ended in 1942 with Nazi occupation and deportations. Marseille had its own Raoul Wallenberg in the form of U.S. vice-consul Harry Bingham who issued more than 2,500 U.S. entry visas to Jews in danger, among them, the painter Marc Chagall.
Today the city is home to many synagogues, countless kosher grocery stores and restaurants, many Jewish schools and kindergartens. Today’s community is made up of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who moved from North Africa in recent decades, making for a lively mix in the metropolitan area. So whether one takes a walk along the Corniche – the spectacular coastal promenade – or takes an excursion in the Bay of Marseille to the Island of If, where the Château d’If was made famous by the novel The Count of Monte Cristo – there is much to do and see alongside Jewish Marseille.