Again and again, visitors of Berlin’s Jewish Museum are struck by a giant plastic garlic bulb that greets them at the beginning of the exhibition. When opened up by hand into single sections, the clove turns out to be an image of the medieval Rhineland Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz (or Shpira, Warmaisa, and Magenza), collectively known as Shum (Hebrew for garlic) after their initials. “The east Frankish cities, located in the Rhineland, are teeming with Jewish communities,” reports a 12th century chronicle, the Annales Egmundani, of this illustrious center of Jewish life and learning.
The earliest clear documentary evidence of a Jewish settlement in Mainz dates from 906 CE, while the Jewish presence in Worms can be traced back to 1034. When the Jews of Mainz were expelled in 1084, they were welcomed with open arms in Speyer. It was Rabbi Isaac b. Moses b. Isaac b. Shalom (1180−1250), also known as Or Zarua after his main work, who attested to the close association between the three neighboring Jewish communities on the river Rhine, distinguishing between the leading role of the Kehillot Shum and those “in all the land of Ashkenaz.” He explained that “verily our teachers in Mainz, Worms and in Speyer belong to the most learned among the sages.”
The Kalonymos family, Rabbi Yehuda ben Meir and his pupil Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah (the “Light of the Diaspora”), Isaac Halevi, and Jacob ben Yakar are among the scholars who are to this day associated with Shum, and it is the Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (1040−1105), whose commentaries on the Torah and Talmud spread from here throughout the Jewish world. In 1146, the rabbis of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were accorded the highest authority in halachic questions. Their enactments, Takkanot Shum, had an impact on the religious life of European Jewry that lasted centuries.
There is also evidence of a violent history. Time and again, periods of prosperity and peaceful coexistence had been shattered, first by marauding crusaders, then by the fury of mobs who accused the Jews of poisoning wells and spreading the plague. Expulsion alternated with re-admittance, and in 1471, the Jews were forced to abandon the territory of the archbishops of Mainz for a whole century. The Jewish communities which eventually settled again in the Shum cities were no longer able to revive the great tradition of the Middle Ages. Today, the rich history of Jewish life on the shores of the Rhine cannot be separated from memories of its destruction during the Shoah.
Tracing Jewish history today
Standing in front of the graves of Meir von Rothenburg and Alexander von Wimpfen, and recalling the lasting legacy of the Rashi, one may remember one of the most famous and frequent visitors to Worms, Martin Buber. The old Jewish cemetery made him muse about the historical site as a pathway to the entirety of Jewish history. In 1933, he wrote “I have stood there, connected with the ashes and, through them, the ancestors. This is the memory of God’s acts that is given to all Jews.”
In 2012, the unique significance of the Shum communities and the influential role they played, were taken up by the municipalities to apply for inclusion in the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. The Jewish landmarks which are playing the pivotal role in this application are the Judenhof (Jews’ Court) and synagogue of Speyer, the synagogue garden and the cemetery of Worms and the cemetery of Mainz: The synagogues and ritual baths in Speyer and Worms attest to the new, trend-setting architectural forms of their time. The Judensand cemetery in Mainz is home to the oldest known gravestones north of the Alps. Meanwhile, the sheer age, size, and relatively intact condition of the cemetery in Worms make it unique in the world, as does its constant use for almost 1,000 years. The distinguished status of the prominent Jews buried there make it an important place of remembrance for Jews worldwide. In addition, many other significant physical reminders, mainly archaeological artifacts, are to be found in the three cities’ museums. The medieval Rashi Shul of Worms was rebuilt from scratch and opened in 1961.
The recognition as World Heritage would transform these Jewish zones into international tourist sights. The proposal is also supported by the state governments of Rhineland-Palatine and North Rhine-Westphalia and the respective Jewish communities which today are mainly comprised of Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. The application is still pending. Hanno Loewy, President of the Association of European Jewish Museums, concludes: “The Shum communities once were a whole Jewish world: Ashkenaz. And like Sefarad this diaspora heritage has an effect still today.”