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Florence’s wonderful Jewish culture

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The interior of the Grand Synagogue in Florence. (Toby Saltzman photo)

For all the glories of Florence today, while meandering through the labyrinth of narrow alleys that open to grand piazzas graced by gorgeous sculptures, I reflect on how time has transcended history here, on the site of an ancient Etruscan settlement that grew into the historic core of Tuscany.

Lingering in the early morning of Piazza della Signoria – watching tourists flood in, jostling for photos in front of David’s statue before dashing into the Uffizi for glances at treasured art and artifacts, or veering toward the Ponte Vecchio for souvenir baubles – I wonder if tourists sense what life was like here, from the flourishing times of Renaissance under 15th and 16th century Medici rule, and through two world wars to the present.

Familiar with Florence after many visits, I had saved the city as a personal respite following a whirlwind tour of historic Etruscan villages scattered along Tuscany’s rugged, mountainous coastline. Little did I anticipate – while imbibing fruity wines and delectable Tuscan dishes – that conversations would digress to my Jewish heritage, and lead to mentions of tiny village communities that had served as havens for Jews over the centuries. I learned that – after all the historic insensitivity to Jews – Italy’s government is recognizing that Jewish heritage is intrinsic to its Italian heritage.

Briefly told, Italy’s Jewish population dates to 168 BCE in Rome, with migrations increasing after the fall of Jerusalem in 63 BCE and growing over time. Following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 – when Naples was under Spanish rule – all Jews from Sicily, Calabria and Naples were forced to leave southern Italy. Italy’s persecution of Jews increased by 1545 at the height of the Catholic Reformation when the Council of Trent exiled Protestants as well as Jews. In 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered all Jews to be segregated in ghettos.

This view of medieval Ponte Vecchio is from the windows of the Ulfizzi Gallery. (Toby Saltzman photo)

In 1570, Cosimo I de’Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, created ghettos in Florence and Siena. He spared Jews in Livorno – which the Medicis operated as a free port – and nearby Pisa – which they were developing as a trading hub. In 1593, Ferdinando I de’Medici , Cosimo’s successor, enticed Portuguese Marrano Jews with protection from the Inquisition and economic incentives. By the 1800s, some 5,000 Jews thrived in Tuscany, most speaking Bagitto, a mix of Italian, Spanish and Yiddish. Jewish communities in Livorno and Pisa dwindled in Napoleonic times, and few survived the Second World War. Livorno’s modern synagogue standing at 31 Via Benamozegh was built in 1962, on the site of the one bombed during the war. Pisa’s neoclassical-style synagogue, originally built in 1594, was reinforced and enhanced in 1863.

Meantime, by 1622 most rural Jews, including those near San Gimignano, had gravitated to Florence ghetto. Others – mistakenly anticipating return to their homes – fled to Pitigliano, an ancient Etruscan village situated on the southern border of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, nearer to Rome than Florence.

Pitigliano Jewish culture was so vibrant, it was dubbed “Little Jerusalem.” After emancipation, most of Pitigliano’s Jews left for the cities. Sparse remnants of their medieval existence include a  cave-like oven used to bake Passover matzah called “forno delle azzime.” Today, visitors to Pitigliano can find a medieval synagogue that was restored in 1995. Local shops sell traditional delicacies laced with honey and walnuts, and local kosher wine labelled “Bianco de Pitigliano.”

Siena’s Italian Jewish community – also called “Little Jerusalem” for its lively clutch of scholars, rabbis and bankers – faced anti-Semitic attacks from Siena dukes long before the influx of Spanish Jews in 1492. Segregation in the ghetto near Piazza del Campo lasted almost 300  years from 1571 to 1859. Still standing, the synagogue at 14 Via delle Scotte opened in 1786 on the site of an earlier synagogue.

Florentine Jews – once lauded by the Medici as money lenders – were confined to a ghetto spanning from Via Roma to Piazza della Repubblica to Via Brunelleschi and Via Tosinghi. It encompassed two synagogues, one Italian and one Spanish or Levantine. (Apparently the Spanish synagogue arc was given to Israel’s Yavne Kibbutz in 1956.) Though the House of Lorraine succeeded Medici in 1738, the ghetto lasted 278 years. In 1848 – after almost three centuries of segregation – Jews were liberated. The ghetto was razed and all evidence of ghetto life cleared.

Florentine Jews thrived culturally and economically into the late 19th to 20th century. Rabbi Samuel Zvi Margulis led the creation of the Florentine Rabbinical College, and Jewish publications flourished.

READ: THE JEWS OF VENICE

The Grand Synagogue, completed in 1882, symbolized their liberty. Designed in Moorish style inspired by Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, and built of gleaming blocks of white and pink stone, the Synagogue at 4 Via Farini is awesome at first impression.

Set back from the city behind wrought-iron fence and railings, it is graced by small domed towers at each corner, and a central dome crowning a concrete drum marked by vertical windows. On one side of the garden, two plaques commemorate Florentine Jews: one for those who died in the Second World War, the other for 248 Jews deported to concentration camps.

Entering the synagogue’s lavish interior – embellished with mosaic floors, carved doors, walls detailed with arabesques and brilliant flourishes of red, ochre, sienna and gold – evokes a privileged sense of entering the world of a vibrant community dedicated to celebrating the survival of their culture. Standing on the bimah and looking down from the women’s gallery, one can only imagine the joys and horrors this building has seen.

After fighting alongside Italians in the First World War, Jews did not anticipate anti-Semitism, but in  1938 fascist Italian leader, Benito Mussolini aligned with Nazi ideology for a “pure Italian race” and exiled 5,000 Jews. In 1940, Italy joined Germany in the war. By 1943, 8,500 Jews had been deported to concentration camps.

Meantime, the Nazis – who had used the synagogue to store military vehicles – mined it with bombs before leaving. The women’s gallery survived intact. The interior was restored to exact specifications. Unfortunately, the Arno River flooded in 1966, destroying 15,000 books and 90 Torah scrolls.

Rav Amedeo Spagnoletto is chief rabbi of the Florence Jewish Community. He stands here outside the Grand Synagogue

On an early Friday afternoon, Rav Amedeo Spagnoletto welcomed me to the Grand Synagogue, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm and voice reflecting palpable love for his metier. Born and educated in the Rabbinical College in Rome and trained as a sefer Torah scribe, he was teaching at Rome’s Jewish high school and working part time as a scribe in 2017 when he was approached to be the Chief Rabbi of the Florence Jewish community.

By then, he and his wife – whom he had met at Jewish B’nai Akiva Camp and the Federation of Jewish Youth in Italy – had four children. They figured that commuting on the one-hour train between Florence and Rome would facilitate inspiring lives. She could continue to practise law in Rome, then spend weekends in Florence. Together they would ride to Rome on Mondays, where he could work for two days before returning to the synagogue.

Digressing momentarily, Rav Amedeo noted his wife’s family hails from the tiny Jewish community of Pitigliano. Her grandfather, Azeglio Servi survived the Second World War. He served as the last rabbi of Pitigliano until1960 when the synagogue closed and he moved to Florence with his family, including his then 13-year-old son, her father.

Today, Pitigliano’s synagogue rarely opens, except for a bar mitzvah for a grandson of a surviving villager.

As Italy’s only qualified scribe with the professional artistry, religious skills and compendium of knowledge to touch or write tefillin, mezuzot or the Torah, Rav Amedeo laughs that he has Italy’s scribe market wrapped up. Currently he is focusing on restoring ancient Torah scrolls found in small communities. Skilled in restoring ancient parchments, he explained it’s crucial to  maintain the integrity of the original scroll and the letter fonts without using new ink. As medieval scribes documented ink formulas, he can reproduce ink exactly.

Rav Amedeo described the thrilling moment of discovery when he visited the Sinagoga Di Biella Piazzo in Italy’s Piedmont region. There he found the world’s most ancient scroll that was still fit for reading. Written in the mid-13th century, it was miraculously intact with all its original parchments. After two years of restoration, the precious masterpiece is on display in the Jewish Museum in Ferrara.

Asked about Florence’s Jewish community, Rav Amedeo said, “We are very peaceful, beautiful and thriving because we have a high level of togetherness with 800 synagogue members. Florentine Jews try whole-heartedly to transmit their Jewish heritage to their children, as they suffered during  the Second World War. Although we follow Orthodox rituals, we stand together as a strong, united community that is not split between Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.”

Working closely with two Chabad rabbis, Rav Amedeo aims to foster integration and co-operation between the two “Jewish souls” of Florence. While Chabad focuses mainly on welcoming visiting tourists with Shabbat meals and services, he focuses on community members. Together they combine activities, lecture at each other’s services, and the Chabad rabbis’ children attend his Talmud Torah.

Rav Amedeo explained the hardest struggle facing Florence’s Jewish community in the last 40 years is intermarriage and loss of Jews. His ambition is to create a network with other Jewish communities in Italy, in Europe and the world.

“I push teens and young people to create friendships with Jewish people outside the community, because finding a Jewish partner and building a Jewish family is the most important thing for Jewish culture to survive.”

Meantime, he welcomes visitors from all walks of life. “We do not care if they keep kosher or keep Shabbat, whether they are gay, lesbian or feel other sexual orientation. This is the house of everybody.”

Asked about anti-Semitism, Rav Amedeo said, “Although it is rising everywhere, Florence is a unique island in that midst. Of course, we must be careful and aware. But Florence citizens have a strong sense of civil rights, and all are intent on preventing anti-Semitism. In two years as chief rabbi, I never felt anti-Semitism rising in Florence, or experienced anti-Semitic incidents.”

Leaving the Grand Synagogue, I walked two blocks to my hotel thinking how liberated, free and integrated Florentine Jews must feel today in light of the past.

Later that evening, I was privileged to celebrate Shabbat in the elegant home of a remarkable Florentine couple whose Italian Jewish heritage is entrenched in tradition, and whose lives are dedicated to creating an enlightening legacy of Jewish culture.

As the sun faded over their garden, Sandro and Silvia Servi explained that “Italian Jews” typically refers to those whose ancestors came to Italy directly from the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago, and are not considered Sephardic or Ashkenazic.

Sandro’s paternal grandfather came from Pitigliano, his maternal grandfather from northern Italy. Silvia’s paternal grandfather was an Italian Jew, her maternal grandparents Ashkenazic. Both Sandro and Silvia were born in Florence.

Sandro Servi, who holds a doctorate of philosophy at Florence University, is editor-in-chief of the Babylonian Talmud Translation Project, overseeing a team of scholars and translators in one of the largest Italian translation projects ever made. The Babylonian Talmud is a fundamental text of Jewish culture that characterizes every aspect of human knowledge from jurisprudence, science, philosophy to everyday life. Produced jointly by Italy’s National Research Council and the Italian Rabbinical College, with funding from Italy’s Ministry of Education, University and Research, the commented translation – including original texts in Hebrew and Aramaic – speaks volumes of the Italian government’s interest in validating the Jewish presence with evidence that it has influenced and enriched Italian cultural heritage for over a thousand years.

As Sandro Servi commenced working on the translation in 2011, Silvia Servi wonders if he will finish in their lifetime. Apparently the American edition took 40 years to complete.

Silvia Servi herself is a veritable force in promoting Jewish culture to all of Italy. After experiencing the Limmud program in England, she initiated the non-profit program in Florence. Now in its seventh year, she has also run Limmud Italia days in Jerusalem, Venice and Parma.

Precisely by sundown we entered the dining room for lighting of the Shabbat candles, blessings over challah and glasses of delicious Blanco de Pitigliano kosher wine. As we feasted on lasagna, salmon and vegetables I asked if they sense a rise of anti-Semitism in Italy. “Florence is calmer than other Italian cities,” Sandro Servi said. “Not being an industrial city, it has few foreign workers and less unemployment, both possible triggers of trouble. Florence University faculty of architecture runs an exchange program with the Israel’s University of Ariel in the occupied territories that [so far] runs vibrantly with no disputes or anti-Israel protests. However, I wouldn’t want to sound too optimistic. We have become Israeli citizens and now live part of the year in Jerusalem.”

Leaving their embracing Shabbat hospitality behind, I thought of Sandro and Silvia as a modern Renaissance couple whose love of Jewish culture is destined to enrich Florence and all of Italy.

 

If you go: Ruth’s is the only kosher restaurant in Florence. It is located beside the Grand Synagogue.
Two hotels are located within a five-minute walk from the synagogue in the calm residential area of Florence. Hotel Regency Firenze www.regency-hotel.com offers sumptuous accommodations and excellent dining. 
Four Seasons Hotel Firenze www.fourseasons.com/florence occupies a spectacular Medici-era palazzo and park with sculpture gardens. It offers kosher dining on request. The property includes a private 37-room villa that is frequently rented by Italian Jews for kosher stays during Passover, as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs. 

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