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20 Teves 5760 - December 29, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Italian Jewry -- Impressions from a Journey

by Udi Mor

Part Two

The first part of this journal of a trip to Italy told of Florence and Venice. In Florence, two officials of the Jewish community there told of the services and activities of the small community there. Although, as was obvious, not all the Jews are observant, the official observed that there was no distorted Judaism there: everything was based on traditional Judaism which people either did or did not observe.

In Venice the author found remnants of a rich history, but nothing in the present. Typical was a store whose sign advertised "Jewish Sweets" but whose contents were non-kosher meats. This part continues with a description of some Venetian synagogues and the cemeteries.

The Sephardic Shul

The Sephardic synagogue is the largest synagogue in Venice and apparently the only that has been in continual use since its founding. It was built in the last half of the sixteenth century (1555 or 1584--5315) by Sephardic Jews and perhaps marranos immigrating to Venice.

In 1635 (5395) and again in the nineteenth century, the synagogue underwent extensive renovations, always in keeping with the theme of understated beauty. The building is free standing, although from the outside it looks like any other building, as was the practice at the time, except for its vaulted windows inserted into the walls at set intervals. Today on the building's facade there is a memorial plaque for the two hundred Venetian Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

The Synagogue That Was Saved

On the arch of the entranceway we read the posuk, "Ashrei yoshvei veisecho od yehalelucho seloh." There is also an arch over the aron kodesh, inscribed with the words, Da Lifnei Mi Atoh Omeid. The doors of the aron have an inscription of the words, shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid, alongside a picture of the luchos habris and "1755(5515)." A small plaque on the bimah notes that on erev Rosh Hashanah in 1848 (5608), an Austrian bomb fell on the synagogue. The synagogue was unharmed. The bimah and aron hakodesh are raised, and stairways on either side lead to it. The ezras noshim was built around the main sanctuary. The walls of the synagogue are decorated. This synagogue, however, is closed to visitors.

Let's move on to the new ghetto. We first encounter the simpler and more modest Italian synagogue. The last synagogue to be built in the ghetto was built in 1575 (5335) by Italian Jews, whose meager monetary resources echoed their small numbers. One sees neither signs of remodeling nor of any changes made throughout the years. The synagogue looks exactly as it did when HaRav Leone di Modena held his shiurim there. Outside, except for a small balcony, one can barely detect the presence of a synagogue, since it blends in so well with the surrounding buildings. But five arched windows with a small dome adjacent to the line of the building reveal what is hidden inside. Above the center window there is a small decoration, which reads, "Italian Kehillas Kodesh in the year 1575." In the entrance, with dark, narrow stairs, there is a small piyut about a modest, righteous person who always turns to his G-d in prayer. How symbolic is its placement!

In the hall, there is a small plaque in memory of HaRav Izko (Yitzchok) Pacifici, and another telling of the renovation of the synagogue foundations in 1740 (5500) by benefactors named Cohen, Nitza and Osimo. There are also many piyutim signed with the name "Avrohom." The hall is quite simple, except for the aron and the raised bimah, which is the raised dome we see from outside meant for illumination. The doors of the aron are etched with unusual craftsmanship: with the luchos habris as well as many others. Four steps surrounded by an etched wooden banister lead to the aron. We can read the inscription, "Work donated by Menachem Y. Gulilmi."

A Family of Bankers

The next synagogue is the "Canton," one of Italy's most beautiful and well-preserved. Its name may have its source in the Canton family, a family of Jewish bankers that built it as a private Ashkenazi synagogue. Or perhaps it received its name because of its location: "Canton" means "corner" in Venetian. It was built during 1531- 1532 (5291) but underwent restoration many times, as one can see by studying the numerous dedication plaques.

One can not discern its presence from the outside, except for a small elevated dome on a small, enclosed balcony: the bimah (if one stands with one's back towards the entrance to the museum and one looks up to the left, one can make out the bimah). Here, too, the dome is for purposes of illumination.

In one of the synagogue's two entrances, a piyut is hung calling upon all mortals to come pour out their hearts and turn to Hashem. The aron hakodesh is beautifully gold-plated and engraved, and on a plaque on the left side we read the motzei Shabbos prayer "Ato chonantonu."

The bimah, on the other side, adds a specter of glory to the aron hakodesh. The adornments here are completely original, and differ from those found in other synagogues. They include drawings of Moshe, the Red Sea, Jerusalem and others along the walls. A strange marble relief is the sole decoration on the ceiling. The gold-plating was concluded in "the month of Elul 1780 (5540)," as we read above the entrance as well as along the entire length of the sanctuary.

The ezras noshim balcony is along the entire length of the synagogue. The Museum of the History of the City's Jews is located in this synagogue.

Finally, we reach the great German synagogue, the first to be built in the ghetto, built by German and other European Jews in 1529 (5289). Because of overcrowding, it seems somewhat asymmetrical, exhibiting, perhaps, even a lack of planning. Here, too, only five windows visible from the outside allude to the synagogue within.

The entrance is quite modest. Above it, we read, "Beis Knesses Hagodol Shel Minhag HaAshkenazim." There are no pillars inside, but the architect added numerous decorations. On both sides of the aron hakodesh there are candelabra as well as chairs for dignitaries. The bimah is absolutely charming, surrounded by a small gold-plated balcony and a golden chuppah atop pillars. Above the sides of the chuppah, we see gold-plated pitchers. The ezras noshim is built under the ceiling on an elliptic balcony surrounding the sanctuary. So beautiful, yet so empty.

Official-looking ropes cordon off the area where tourists are not allowed to tread. No sitting and no touching allowed. A chareidi family from an English-speaking country was there. Only the elderly father was allowed to sit on one of the ancient wooden benches. An insignificant incident, you say? We thought that a Jew like him should be allowed to sit there. He, not the apathetic tourists, deserves to be able to touch, to connect, to continue the Jewish chain from the past to the present.

Throughout the years, whoever persisted in clinging to the past and to Jewish life continued to speak in the Venetian Jewish dialect. The dialect was used for a long time and reflected a resolute mentality and way of life.

Tensions in the second half of the nineteenth century found their way, as usual, to the Jews. Many were forced to leave the city. Many Jews of the community left together. The Nazis, sparing neither old people, women nor children, brought about a fifth of Venice's Jews to concentration camps and death, bringing the Venetian Jewish community to its tragic end.

Afterwards, in the way of Jews throughout the history of the golus, the Jewish community was revived. In its return to Venice; in jubilation upon becoming free -- free, also, from the binds of religion -- with all of them united in their memory of the ghetto, Jewish institutions and organizations were set up.

This cycle always repeats itself. Jewish spiritual life always flourished when external conditions declined. When an opening to the "free world" even merely the size of a needle is unlocked, as it were, Jews immediately neglect their Judaism. They began to enjoy economic success throughout the country. To their credit, however, we must record that their lives always remained centered around these same alleyways and synagogues, the sole remnant in the world of their glorious past.

We asked the guide how we could get to the Isle of Judka, the so-called "Isle of the Jews." But he told us that, "The conjecture that the Isle of Judka got its name because of the Jews who lived there for so many years has no basis in fact. In addition, it is unclear whether the word `judaka' comes from the Venetian `yudga,' meaning, `to be judged.' In any case, there is nothing to see there."

The Cemetery

How is it that Venice doesn't simply sink under the weight of so many summer tourists? When we visited the Jewish cemetery, however, we became oblivious to the heat, the crowds and the suffocating air. In the shade of the trees, surrounded by overgrown, untamed plants, we tried to read the old tombstones. Some are ancient, the engraved names barely discernible. We can only express our amazement over the fancy ohalim above some of the graves. Using them as an aid, we try to imagine a time when Jewish life was thriving. But the cemetery was quiet. The song birds added to the tranquil feeling of eternity.

Unfortunately, it was only in a place like this that we were able to feel the warmth of Judaism we were seeking all along.

A strip of land next to the cemetery separates Venice from the Adriatic Sea. One can reach it with the "Vaporto," a "sailing bus," number 1. The line has stations all along the great canal. One can board the Vaporto across from the train station. Near the Jewish ghetto, a station is marked "Ghetto" in Hebrew and in Italian.

After about an hour you reach Lido, the last stop. As you leave the station, turn left. Walk for about twelve minutes along the promenade, called Riviera Elizabeta. You can see the old Jewish cemetery at the corner of Via Chipro. Because of renovations taking place at the time of our visit, the gate was locked. Those buried in the cemetery are undoubtedly tossing and turning in their graves at the soporific spiritual state of Italian Jewry. Age-old cypress trees attest to the age of this very old cemetery. These trees evidently marked the edges of the cemetery when it was still in use.

Completely Deserted

We were about to leave, but instead, decided to take a walk along the wall. After about a minute we reached a non-Jewish cemetery. The gatekeeper directed us to walk for another minute until we reached the Old-New Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was completely deserted. The gatekeeper made sure that we put away our cameras. "Rights," he explained. We must note that he was a likeable fellow, although we were not sure of his national origin. In any case, he gave us the name and phone number of someone who was supposed to be knowledgeable about this cemetery as well as the others.

Within the walls, everything is of the past. Silence reigns here, and filtered light coming through the foliage adds its own, unique quality. The proximity of the canal contributes to the charm of this particular cemetery. Imagine, if you would, a funeral accompanied by a procession of gondolas, with the minimum minyan accompanying the deceased. Chessed shel emes, performed with true mesirus nefesh by the chevra kadisha. This is not mere hyperbole. Who among the niftarim made his final worldly trip along the canal? Who among them hoped that this was only a transit stop on the way to the Holy Land? Who among them knew that this world is a mere transit stop for the World to Come?

The Jewish Cemetery on the Isle of Lido

On September 25, 1386 (5146), the Venetian government granted the Jews a parcel of land on the Isle of Lido for the purpose of burying their dead. No one knows why that location in Lido was chosen as the fitting place.

The authorities' choice was evidently influenced by the fact that the island was somewhat isolated from Venice, and was barely developed at the time. It contained a beach front, vineyards and gardens belonging to a family of nobles, and there were a number of churches in the port. The Jews were given a vineyard adjacent to the monastery. In the contract, the land is described as "bleak" and "empty;" undeveloped land suited for agricultural use. No former landowners are named, nor is any payment mentioned. The exact measurements, however, are listed: seventy paces by thirty paces.

The plague in the years 1630-1631 (5390-91) struck the ghetto later than other sections of the city because of its isolated location. Many, however, fell victim to the plague. A column with the legend, "Jews 1631" tops a communal grave.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the area of the cemetery became smaller and later, under French rule, rocks suspected of being land mines were removed and the surrounding wall was destroyed. The end of the eighteenth century brought an end to burial in this cemetery.

The Jews then received a new plot, farther from the beach front, on Via Chipro, described above. In 1816 (5586), the English Consul, riding along the beach, described his impressions: "The place where we usually ride was a Jewish cemetery whose walls were destroyed and whose stones had been overturned by the French. . . ."

In the summer of 1834 (5594), a stormy argument broke out in the cemetery between two well-known figures. One of them writes that the other left Lido in a fit of anger and ran, "jumping from grave to grave." In the mid-nineteenth century, a visitor notes that he found the place so completely neglected that children were playing between the scattered, broken headstones. Neglect reigned, and overgrown foliage and sand hid it from passersby. Erosion and shifting sands also contributed to the gradual disappearance of the graves.

Throughout the years, gravestones and parts of gravestones, caskets and simple stones came to light. Like the stone engraved with the name of the cemetery in Italian and in Hebrew which was found at the end of the central walkway, although it was almost completely hidden by untamed foliage. Caskets and monuments, partially still thrust into the ground, some scattered, peek through a maze of clover and ivy. Many of them are crumbling, but they have remained white because they were carved out of Istrian, or "masegna" stone.

The place is strewn with dedications and friezes. There are coat-of-arms signs belonging to the Sephardic and Portuguese noble families who continued to use them even after they were exiled from their homes and fled to Venice. A two-headed crowned eagle belonged to the Habib (or Habiblio) family, while a lion standing on his two hind feet belonged to the Yeshurun-Diaz family. Some gravestones bear names decorated with turrets or palaces with firing crevices, with forts and with charging lions sitting on guards. These evidently belong to Castillian exiles, and they symbolize cities or states, not particular families.

There are also Jewish symbols. On the gravestones of cohanim we see engraved hands, lifted in brocho; on those of the levi'im, a pitcher and a basin. Is the harp in memory of Dovid Hamelech or simply denoting the deceased's love of music? Is the shofar announcing the Redemption? Do the lulav or date tree symbolize blessing? Is the crown symbolizing keser Torah? Some of the gravestones are also engraved with stars or the sun. . .

In 1929 (5689) the graves of HaRav Leone di Modena and HaRav Elia Lewita were uncovered practically simultaneously. Adolfo Otolenghi described the discovery: "I felt a need to speak to him [Rav Modena] since his gravestone in the old cemetery in Lido was only lately discovered. A wild undergrowth of grass had completely covered it. The stone is a very modest gravestone. Upon it we read the words that he, himself, prescribed while still alive. To find this gravestone, together with that of the great grammarian Elia Lewita who, in line with many other famous personages was thought to have disappeared forever in the depths of the earth, lit in me the desire and duty to mention this talented author. . . . "

An additional gravestone is that of HaRav Simone Luzzato, who served as rav after the death of HaRav di Modena. The well known HaRav Shmuel Aboab was also buried here, although his holy remains were later transferred to Eretz Yisroel.

Venice has an abundance of water, but the wellspring has dried up. We asked our guide where we could pray mincha. "No place," he answered.

"Do you want to tell me that these synagogues are not used for prayer?" we asked.

"Only on the yomim noraim," he answered, "and only in one particular synagogue, which is closed to visitors."

Five synagogues and none open for a Jew to pray?

Ostia Antiqa -- the Oldest Synagogue in Europe

So all that remains of Italian Jewry are historical and archaeological sites. The Jews take an active role in their preservation, taking advantage of every bit of history to exploit the tourist trade. If not to keep Torah and mitzvos, at least to take advantage of their external trappings like, for example, the ancient synagogues. Throughout the course of our trip -- in Florence, in Venice -- anything Jewish or formerly Jewish was a place to pay an admission fee.

But the synagogue Ostia Antiqa, which means "Antique Ostia," stood out from all the other synagogues we visited. No prayers are held today in this synagogue, but the reasons are different and completely understandable. Here, your memory will not embarrass you. Through it, one can return to Jewish life at the time of the Beis Hamikdosh. Can you understand such power? For Jews coming from Genoa, Ostia seemed to be the end of the world. Not only did they have to cross Italy from north to south, they had to leave the cold of Europe to join the Mediterranean warmth with all it entails, for better and for worse.

Ostia is a small town at the mouth of the Tiber, the river that connects Rome with the sea. From the capital city Rome, just a short voyage and you are at the breathtaking remains of Ostia. A few minutes, and you are touching history. No, not history, but our nation's soul. You study the artifacts, which at first glance seem mere well-preserved archaeological findings. Well, maybe this is how they appear to your ordinary tourist. But not to Jews who know about Jewish life from "long ago." Even if there is absolutely no shade, and the bothersome, hot southern, summer sun threatens to break the thermometer -- one can stand there for a long time and feel a part of true Jewry.

The synagogue is the oldest known synagogue in Europe and perhaps in the entire world. It was discovered in 1961-1962 during two nearby archaeological expeditions. Its identification was in doubt until two decorative strata with well-known Jewish symbols were discovered. Except for what is obviously the sanctuary, the building consists of a number of rooms which parallel the life of a Jew: a study hall, an oven to bake matzos, a mikveh, and a smaller room which served, perhaps, as a beis din. The walls were constructed through several varied means and show that the building (from the fourth century) had been built on top of an earlier building with a similar layout. The lower building dates from the first century of the common era, almost two thousand years ago and the time of the final years of the Second Beis Hamikdash and its destruction.

As proof, a dedication pertaining to the original building was found in the newer building. From this we learn that the earlier building was also a synagogue. The complex spans an area of over 1000 square meters.

The synagogue is located on the outskirts of the city, near the ancient river bank, and the entrance is from Via Severiana ("Coastal Road"). It is somewhat parallel to the old harbor and to the main street of Ostia. It was built according to the minhag of locating a synagogue near a source of water to enable the water to reach the mikveh by natural means. This custom was especially strong in the Diaspora. Near the entrance there is a small well. It faces east-southeast, in the direction of Yerushalayim.

Other ancient synagogues also tried to be set apart from the city, so as not to become involved with the lives of non- Jews, for reasons of religion as well as for security. Since no aron kodesh was found from a later period, it was evidently a portable one. We ascertain this also from the dedication on the aron hakodesh, engraved on a marble plaque. The plaque was later set into the floor of the newer synagogue. The plaque says, "To the health of Caesar. I created and erected at my own expense the aron that was placed for the holy Torah from Mindis Faustus." The first line is written in Latin while the rest is in Greek. In the dedication, the Greek word meaning aron is "kibutus," which means "wooden closet," usually portable. This dedication tells us for certain that the building served as a synagogue; it even gives us the name of its donor. But the name is the only thing remaining today from the Ostia community.

In 1986, the media reported that the ancient synagogue in Ostia Antiqa was vandalized and robbed. For us, this symbolizes the destruction of Italian Jewry at the hands of the Jews themselves. The Jews were pained at the act of vandalism, but for other reasons. "The pillar on the left side of the building, that served as the aron kodesh, was thrown to the ground. The upper part of the right pillar suffered the same fate. The two pillar tops were removed, thus damaging the layers over the pillars ending in protrusions with their engraved pictures of menoras, a lulav, esrog, and shofar. The pillar capitals were stolen, while the protrusions were left behind. The thieves, it seems, were evidently knowledgeable in archaeology, for they realized that the two capitals were copies of an original to be found in the museum in Rome; they took original works only. The horrible act took place three or four months ago. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities has presented the Office of Italian Cultural Artifacts photographic documentation of the site before and after the robbery. The Union demands that all necessary steps be taken to apprehend those responsible for the damage and for restoration of the site. The Italian Jewish community is in shock over this act. The question of preservation of the historical, religious, and cultural tradition -- especially when dealing with archaeological findings -- of the most ancient Jewish Diaspora community, like the two burial caves in Rome, has come to the fore. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities, representing Italy's thirty-five thousand Jews, is prepared to take upon itself the responsibility of the care of such sites." This was the immediate response of the Jewish community.

As we have noted, it is not sufficient that most Italian Jews have turned their backs on the tradition of their forefathers, but they also want to use their forefathers' legacy for the purpose of making a profit.


I'm a bit uncomfortable. This whole long piece about my travels has been none other than a long eulogy about the Jews of Italy.

It's a very sad article. And if you want to feel even sadder. . . . the ancient Ostia Antiqa synagogue, well, essentially, only the ruins of it that remain, is the only place where we could feel a living spirit, although no prayers take place there. But, we should remember that this survey of deserted Italian synagogues is a representative sample of a fading golus. This is the face of golus at the beginning of 5760.

In the Midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta, chapter 25) we read that Moshiach Ben Dovid is sitting across from the entrance to Rome and changing bandages, without pause. Of course, we cannot understand the true meaning of this Midrash. But the mention of Rome -- even if the reference is not to the actual city of Rome -- seems warranted.

But after all, the gemora says that Rebbe Akiva laughed when his fellows cried about the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh (Makkos 24a). For he showed that redemption can spring out of destruction.

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