There is something about being outside of New York that always makes me feel more Jewish. I don’t know exactly what that means, but when I lived in London being Jewish was actually something people asked me about. As if it were somewhat foreign or exotic. Neither of which I consider it to be. In New York of course everyone is Jewish – and I don’t mean that literally as in the largest population of American Jews live in New York City, I mean that whether you are Italian, Irish, African-American, whatever, you’ve got a little bit of Jewish in you because that is just one of the dominant flavors of New York. So eat your bagel, rent Annie Hall, take your kids to the museum on Rosh Hashanah because the schools are closed, vote for Bloomberg, watch Seinfeld, say “Oy vey” as if you heard it in the womb– you’re kind of sort of Jewish if you grew up in New York City.
Outside of New York this is a whole other thing entirely. Its hard to believe you can be sheltered by living in New York City but this is one of those instances where it is shocking to leave the city and discover what is being discussed or believed in the rest of the country and world. When people think about the persecution of European Jews they usually think of two major anti-Semitic events – The Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. Unfortunately those two major historical events are just part of an insane timeline of legal discrimination, segregation and genocide. I remember being 15 the first time I came to Spain with a group of teenagers and when they took us to the old Jewish quarter in Toledo one of the kids asked, “Where did the Jews go?” Without skipping a beat the tour guide said, “They just left” As if one day all the Jews looked around this city they had lived in for hundreds of years, the stores they ran, the schools they attended, the roots they had put down and said, “The neighborhood is really changing let’s move to Boca.”
That was the first time I had ever encountered that disconnect between what I knew and what was believed, or at least what was being propagated. I didn’t quite know what to do at that point. Do you challenge the tour guide and mention that little bit of Spanish history she seemed to gloss over (the Inquisition is not exactly just a blip) or do you keep quiet and move on to the next site and just get through the day? At 15 I chose the non-confrontational approach but it still nags at me obviously. And the funny thing is I am not religious at all. Neither is my husband. We are hard-core atheist Jews, but we are Jews just the same, and something about being in a place where the Jews just “disappeared” makes you appreciate that heritage even more.
So we ventured off to the Tuscan city of Pitigliano, once a bustling city where Jews settled after fleeing the ghettos of Florence and Siena (the first Jewish ghetto appeared in Venice in 1516 when Jews were literally locked behind the walls at night. To see an interesting and insightful examination of the etymology of the word ghetto click here). We went specifically to see the reconstructed temple from 1598 and meander the streets that work their way into the cliffs and through the town. At one point Jews made up one third of the entire town population, lived, worked and played in total freedom and had a thriving Italian-Jewish life in Pitigliano. Until 1939 there were still Jews in town and pictures of the last Bar Mitzvah held at the temple are displayed inside.
Pitigliano is a beautiful medieval city in its own right. Built into the cliffs with small alleyways, overflowing flower boxes, small fountain decorated piazzas and charming shops. Even if it weren’t for the synagogue it would be worth a trip.
But after all of the Duomo hopping we’ve been doing it was a relief to finally be able to show our daughters another side of Italian life. The trick of course was how to explain to two seven year olds what happened to the Jews that once prospered here without scaring the hell out of them. We have never discussed the Holocaust. That is not something that an adult mind can fully comprehend, and it is not something they need to think about right now. But, there is something removed enough about historical Jews in Italy that we could talk in general terms about persecution, segregation and discrimination in a way that was informative and gave them some perspective on their own cultural history without freaking them out.
The incredibly cool caves underneath that were divided into rooms enhanced the simplicity of the synagogue. One was for the ritual mikvah baths, two were for the preparation and baking of matzo, several others were for kosher butchering and wine collection and storage, and still more caves were created for the tanning of hides and the dying of fabrics.
Finally we climbed the steps to the entrance of the temple. The original walls of the temple collapsed down the cliff side in the late 50s, thankfully the arc had already been moved to a temple in Israel. They have since reconstructed that end of the meeting room. It was both thrilling to see the synagogue still standing, but also eerie. Inside the museum area below there are all of these written descriptions along the walls explaining the Jewish holidays and then display cases full of Jewish artifacts like Tallis and Kiddish cups. Honestly, its creepy seeing your current religion being detailed as if it were one more ancient relic of Italy’s past.
As I mentioned before my husband and I both consider ourselves Jewish and atheists. A lot of Jews who feel this way refer to themselves as cultural Jews – not religious, but still cognizant and proud of the tradition from which they stem. I, however identify more with what my grandma labeled herself to me many years ago – a culinary Jew. I like nothing more than cooking the holiday meals, think nothing says family like a sweet noodle kugel and a brisket. So it was with total delight that we bounded into the tiny kosher bakery that makes Jewish-Italian sweets just like they did in the 1500s including matzo in the shape of a pressed flower and our favorite, The sfratti.
The sfratti, which means “evicted” (that sums up the Jews’ experience in Europe) is like a foot long rolled homemade fig Newton. Its filled with a dried fruit and nut mixture much like a Sephardic Cheroset and covered in thin layer of pastry dough. The girls devoured it. I should’ve bought 2 more. They have become a regional Italian delicacy and many people don’t realize that they are a Jewish food that entered the Italian mainstream just as the fried artichoke did in Rome. I’m going to try the epicurious recipe for them this Rosh Hashanah.
After an unremarkable lunch due to the fact that the restaurant we had planned on eating at was closed we made the long beautiful drive back to Tuscania. Its amazing that for a country so proud of its ruins, whether they be Etruscan or Roman, there is so little mention in any tour book or map of the Jews that once tried to thrive here other than passing references to ghettos.
If you’re interested in reading about the Jews of Italy this book, The Guide to Jewish Italy by Annie Sacerdoti, is truly fascinating and a must have on your trip. And, because most synagogues aren’t on city tourist maps, this book can show you where to find some of the most beautiful and oldest temples in the major cities like Florence and Venice. Now if I can find a great Italian-Jewish cookbook I’ll be happy.
This is an original beccarama.com post