Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

13 Teves 5760 - December 22, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Italian Jewry -- Impressions from a Journey

by Udi Mor

Part One

A guidebook sums up the history of the Jews of Florence in these few words: "The first Jews settled in the city in the thirteenth century. The community witnessed many ups and downs, reaching its peak in the fifteenth century. The Jews were forced into the ghetto from the sixteenth century onward. The synagogue was one of Europe's most beautiful (see description below)."

True, the picturesque Florence synagogue does merit a detailed description later on in the chapter. It even appears in a list of "must-see" sites. But without even being aware of it, the author has touched upon a sensitive point. From the glorious heyday of Italian Jewry there remains only "a glorious past." I wrote as much with pain in the synagogue's guest book. I later regretted what I had written, and came back and added the words, "May it be His Will that this [glorious] past pale in comparison to a glorious future."

What would bring a chareidi Jew to Florence? Not much. Perhaps no more than to visit one synagogue during a trip to Italy, falling under the category of "empty synagogues": bereft of prayer, bereft of Jews, bereft of content.

We visited 4 Prini Street, home of the synagogue and other Jewish communal institutions.

We spoke with the Secretary of the Community, Mr. Emanuel Viterbo, in a room in one of the Community buildings. Eliyahu (Mario) Pinsky, a member of the Community, also joined our discussion. In contrast to the Secretary, who wore no head covering, Eliyahu had a beard and wore a knitted kippa.

"The Florence Community," said Viterbo, "which was the fourth largest in Italy -- after Rome, Milan and Turin -- is not merely a community of Jews of Florence, but it unifies Jews from other cities in the province of Tuscany as well. However, the majority of the Jews in the community do live in Florence. Today, we number 960."

We got straight to the point and asked: Are prayers currently held in the synagogue?

"There is a minyan on Shabbos night and on Shabbos morning. Usually about 150 people attend, including women. The women pray in a women's section, since it is an Orthodox synagogue. All Italian rabbis and synagogues are Orthodox," Viterbo clarifies.

However, any Orthodox Jew visiting these communities would find no semblance of Orthodoxy as he knows it. Let's put it this way: If I would have to categorize Italian rabbis according to Israeli terms, I would place them in the category of the most lukewarm "modern" types, in a pejorative sense.

"In Italy," the Secretary says, "the categories are not the same as what you have in Israel." It is certainly to the Italian community's credit that the Reform and Conservative movements have no foothold in Italy.

"We are speaking rather of various levels of religiosity," explains Viterbo. "Some are chareidim and some have never crossed the threshold of a synagogue, yet you will find no distortions of Judaism."

The Florence Jewish community has two synagogues. One, the famous one, is in Florence, while the other is in Seino. "Seino is a small town with only sixty Jews," he relates. "We organize minyanim every rosh chodesh."

Viterbo continues: "Sometimes also on Monday and Thursday, when we read from the sefer Torah. We also hold minyanim for yahrtzeits.

"We get many Israeli tourists here," Viterbo says and then, in an abrupt turnabout, begins to give us details about the community. "Food: Florence has one kosher vegetarian restaurant [Note: kosher if you rely upon the community hashgocho]. There is also a schochet, a kosher butcher and a kosher bakery. Our children study in kindergarten and a talmud Torah."

It is, of course, not talmud as we know it and not Torah as we know it in the chareidi communities, but it can be called a Jewish elementary school. Varied activities take the place of the patriotic Israeli organizations that have already been sacrificed in Israel as holy cows. "We have a mikveh, a rav and a chazan," the secretary lists the rav as if he were a puppet. Perhaps he really is.

Are most of the members religious? we ask.

"They are not shomrei mitzvos," he answers, with the last two words in Hebrew. "There are very few mitzvah observers. But a large proportion respects tradition, comes to the synagogue on Pesach and on Yom Kippur. We hold a seder here on the first night of Pesach. However, many people drive to the synagogue." R"l. We later received a copy of the Florence Jewish community monthly bulletin. Viterbo also told us about a photography store near the central train station that sells exclusive pictures of the former Florence ghetto. But, just as you, the reader, must feel at the end of this interview, we also left with a feeling of parchedness, and not because of thirst. After all this activity there is, in essence, nothing Jewish about it.

One doesn't have to dig very deep to reveal that the new spirit that the new synagogue represents, after hundreds of years in the ghetto, is a distorted one. The former community rav, Rav Shmuel Tzvi Margolis, set up a rabbinical seminary in Florence, and one of his two talmidim was none other than one of the biggest kofrim: Cassuto. He served as rav of the Florence community and was killed in the Holocaust. The local school is named after him.

The Florence Ghetto no longer exists. Its borders were the Piazza della Republica and the Piazza Delolio. Memories of the ghetto however, remain in photographs and pictures, in street names and in squares. One square is called "Mikvaos Square." There is a street called "Street of the Permit," calling to mind the permit granted to Jews to engage in banking. In an inscription on the entrance to the ghetto we read that in this way the Jews have been separated from the Christians, but were not expelled. Today, only the inscription remains. A hint of what happened we find only at the end, in an inscription over an arch in the Piazza della Republica, where we read: "The old center of the city has been restored and renovated after being neglected for many years [meaning, made into a ghetto]."

Not long ago, there were still small houses of prayer in the ghetto area, as well as Italian and Sephardic synagogues sharing the same building, outside of the ghetto. The Italian one has not been used since before World War Two. The second synagogue was used by a group of Jews who fled Germany and came to Florence after the war. When the building was sold, all its contents were sent to Israel, and concurrently a small synagogue was opened in a school, which was the only one in the entire community until the large modern synagogue was built.

The Great Synagogue of Florence is truly one of the most beautiful in Europe. Its construction during the years 1882- 1884 was funded by Baron David Levi, president of the Jewish community at the time. The synagogue "came into use" following an official visit by the king of Italy.

I may be off in some details but it doesn't matter much. Generally speaking, it has a great green dome leaning on a base of sixteen windows. Two smaller turrets with green domes also grace the facade. The facade is built with reddish granite rock and an ornate colonnade. The synagogue is decorated with copper decorations and wall paintings. In the courtyard there is a memorial plaque with the names of 248 local Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

The building was bombed in August 1944 by the Germans and was badly damaged. The destruction of a number of supporting columns caused part of the ezras noshim to collapse. The Nazis also stole treasures from the synagogue and brought them to Northern Italy. After the war, the treasures were returned. The synagogue was restored, but again suffered damage during the great flood of 1966, when the Arno River flooded its banks, flooding the synagogue with two meters of water, mud and heating fuel.

The damage was tremendous. Furniture, instruments, frescos, the historic library, and most importantly -- ninety sifrei Torah, some very old. Restoration began immediately with the help of many Jewish communities from Italy as well as outside of the country. But as luck would have it, the three architects who planned the restorations were not Jewish. After they were directed to devise a "tempio" (temple) they gave the synagogue elements that did not belong in a house of prayer, such as a balcony to which one climbs up on a narrow staircase, an organ, and a wide, semi- circular stone stage in front of the aron hakodesh. Another wooden bimah was added later, and was placed in the center of the synagogue, as is customary.

The nusach of prayer in Italy is the "Italian nusach," which is similar to nusach Ashkenaz. The rav uses the balcony when the synagogue is completely full. This does happen, explains our guide. On the yomim noraim, when the local Jews devote three days to prayer -- the three days that grant them and other like them the sobriquet of "Three- Days-A-Year Jews."

@SUB TITLE = "Foreign" Workers

A flight of stairs leads from the entrance to the synagogue to the Florence Jewish Museum. The Museum, located in part of the ezras noshim, displays a collection of old Jewish artifacts, including a wooden miniature of the ghetto. We, however, were amazed to see that some of the explanatory material prepared for Museum visitors was completely distorted.

Well, no, they do not distort history, but. . . believe it or not, it turns out that the information has been prepared neither by Jews nor even children of Jews, but by university students who studied Jewish history. This did not seem at all strange to another couple there, evidently Jews from the United States. To us, however, this was another piece of the destruction that had taken place.

On the other side of the entrance lobby a shop sells souvenirs. Innocents would perhaps claim that one of the purposes of such a store is to remind us of the past, but we know that memories are the only thing that remains.

There is an entrance fee to the synagogue and to the Museum. Because of strict security arrangements in Florence -- common to all Jewish buildings outside of Israel -- we were not allowed to bring cameras into the synagogue. In any case, we were told, there are a number of cameras connected to the security system at the entrance. A prism-shaped security booth made of reinforced glass protrudes into the street, serving as guard post for constant surveillance. And that is what we are left with.

@SUB TITLE = Venice: Judaism Sinking Into An Abyss

At the entrance to the old Jewish ghetto there is a kosher restaurant. Once, this was not what you met at the entrance. But a bit deeper into this ghetto -- which is no more than a mere alley, a square and another alley -- there are two synagogues. After you have crossed the bridge you are in the new ghetto. A few youths join you in this immense plaza, named "New Ghetto Square."

The Jewish Museum is here, where many of the synagogue's beautiful tashmishei kedusha are kept. There are another three synagogues here, too. Souvenir stores are strewn throughout the ghetto, selling Judaica, Venetian glass and combinations of the two. A simple Jew wanting to pray, or to learn, however, has no chance of gaining entrance into one of the synagogues. Guided tours to the four synagogues set out throughout the day, sponsored by the Venetian Museum.

Our guide had an earring in his ear and a chain with a Mogen David around his neck. One of his favorite pastimes was to throw in jokes about Jews during the course of the tour. He forbid our taking photographs, saying, "It's really stupid, but we retain all rights. If we allow tourists to take pictures to their hearts' desire, we won't be able to sell any postcards!"

This repeated itself later at the Jewish cemetery on the island of Lido. At least in Florence the prohibition against taking photographs was clothed in "reasons of security." At any rate, our fervent desire to unearth any spark of Jewish innocence was almost completely suppressed in Venice. There, just as in Florence, a souvenir store stood at the back of the Jewish Museum.

Venice is the only city where the ghetto has remained, nearly unchanged. Here, for hundreds of centuries, Jews lived out their difficult lives, closed within their own small world: with prayers, minhagim, synagogues -- almost a state within a state. They were united around five large synagogues that also served as community centers, with rabbonim and communal institutions. The poor: peddlers, tailors, shoemakers, the wealthy: moneylenders, contractors for ship building. During the day, they could move freely about the city, but at sunset they all returned to the ghetto. There guardsmen, paid by the Jewish community itself, stood watch over the entrances and the tunnels. Jews could leave the ghetto only with daybreak.

In the morning, a trumpet call heralded the time for prayer in the various synagogues: each according to his family custom, each to his regular place of prayer. They would hear the rav lecture on various Torah topics or his answers on questions that had arisen. It was not rare, although amazing, that non-Jews also participated in these shiurim.

Following the morning prayers, each man went his own particular way to work; the youth to yeshivos and botei midrash, where the most outstanding teachers and rabbonim educated the next generation.

Today, one can visit the beis medrash known as "Midrash," where HaRav Yehuda Arye (Leon) de Modena (1571- 1648, 5331-5408) gave his shiurim. Across from it, one can see the beis midrash of HaRav Yaakov Vivanti. Well, one can't really visit botei midrash. Much to our dismay, nothing remains of them but Judaica stores. When we went into one, following a sign to the side of the door, we found the following inscription on the entrance floor (why on the floor?): "Midrash Vivanti." Perhaps because every aficionado of Judaica, Jew or non-Jew, can't help but come in and. . . trample upon the inscription, protesting, as it were, the fact that once this was a House of Torah. Perhaps even more astounding is that fact that on holidays -- especially Purim -- many Christians walk around through the ghetto alleyways and take part in the Jews' celebrations. . .

@SUB TITLE = A Collective Fate

The streets of those times bustled with life all day long: people chatting in the unique idiom of the Jews of the ghetto, comprised of Venetian, Spanish, Italian and Yiddish. It was a small world, with its quintessential characters, where everyone knew everyone else: a place where arguments and jealousy among neighbors was infrequent. Everyone was united in a common fate.

In the evening, when the gates of the ghetto were locked and guards stood at the entrances, everyone went home to his small, crowded home, built up one atop the other due to the limited space, leaning on each other and subject to the danger of collapse and fire and so vulnerable to the spread of diseases.

But in spite of the law requiring Jews to wear an identifying symbol, the heavy tax levies, a complete lack of civil rights, no possibility of purchase of land or property, no possibility to conduct normal trade or vocation -- they still lived there for hundreds of years, shielded from the violence and riots which plagued other cities. History shows that the non-Jewish citizens of Venice never displayed outward animosity towards their Jewish neighbors.

The ghetto was an area that was considered unhealthy on the outskirts of the city made up of pieces of three of the city's quarters. The ghetto to which the Jews were first made to enter in 1516 (5276) was a part of the S. Girolamo quarter. It was known as the geto nuovo which means "new foundry." The "old ghetto" (geto vecchio), from 1541 (5301), came from the adjoining S. Jeremiah quarter. The newest ghetto was added in the year 1633 (5393) from what is know today as the S. Alovisa quarter.

The areas had formerly been used as an iron foundry -- which is the literal meaning of the word "ghetto" -- for the manufacture of weapons for the Italian Republic. The site was neglected in the fourteenth century and subsequently sealed. Over a bridge and through a gate one could reach the areas where refuse from the forged iron could be found. The Jews adjusted to this place within three days, wherein they occupied the existing houses and set them up to fit their needs. Like Egypt, the ghetto served the Jews as a crucible.

Today on both sides of the entrance to the old ghetto one can still see rusty hinges of the gates that were locked at night, as well as the two small windows -- now shuttered -- through which the guards peered. One then enters a long passageway that hardly ever sees any daylight: Calla di ghetto Vecchio. Tall buildings on both sides of the road practically suffocate the alley.

In spite of repeated renovations, the atmosphere has not changed. In 1541 the Jews from the Levant, and the "ponentini (Westerners)," who had been expelled from Spain, were placed here. The first group from 1516 were mostly of Italian and German origin.

A bit past the wharf there is a small plaque with a barely readable inscription from 1704 (5464) which reads that outsiders are strictly forbidden to have anything to do with the ghetto-dwellers. In addition, it lists the punishments for anyone breaking the laws of the ghetto and the rewards for the guards who ensure that the laws are kept in full. The restored building to the left was formerly the ponentini talmud Torah.

A long alleyway leads to the "Campiello delle Scuole" (School Square), a large area on whose northern and southern sides are the Levantini and the Sephardic synagogues. The plaza used to be square, but its shape changed when the Levantini synagogue was enlarged, and the well that was supposed to be in the middle of the square seems out of place. In the east and west are houses, which look like skyscrapers compared to the tiny streets.

A bit after the entrance to the ghetto, just at the entrance, we stop at a small grocery. Was this a kosher store? A large sign in the window greeted us: "Dulce Ivreichi," meaning, "Jewish Sweets." So it must be a kosher store. Let's go in. . .

Just a minute. We were stopped at the threshold by a young man whose appearance left no doubt in our minds that he was a secular Jew. "Where do you think you are going?"

We were flabbergasted by his tone of voice. When we found our voices at last, we asked, "Why? Doesn't the sign say `Jewish Sweets'?"

The young man smiled. "I really don't think that you want to buy Jewish sweets in this store," and as he spoke, pointed to the refrigerator which hosted a variety of sausages. "This is meat. . ." Before we could digest our terrible error, the young man vanished into thin air.

Nevertheless, the fact remained that here in the Jewish ghetto, in 1999, non-kosher "Jewish sweets" are sold. The shock we experienced from this episode accompanied us to every Jewish site we visited. Anything Jewish seemed to be accompanied by decay, rotting inside.

We paused for a moment in the center of the ghetto, searching for something Jewish: something in addition to the indubitable fact that this was, indeed, the Jewish ghetto. Suddenly we found it. On one of the walls was a small square, hidden by a tree branch. It was time-worn and barely discernible. A small square, an ama by ama. Not the ama by ama that we leave unpainted in our homes, but, rather, an external square, engraved with the words, "In Memory of the Churban."

We later learned that this had been one of the walls of the Italian synagogue. All the colorful tourists, plodding along, following their guide from one synagogue to the next, do not at all fit in with the landscape. Do they realize what a terrible place this is? For them it probably is just a visit to another museum, or another old synagogue.

The fact that such a small ghetto contains four magnificent synagogues attests again and again that "one may find the glory of the King in many ways." This fact, however, served merely as material for one of our guide's rusty jokes, when he repeated the worn line, "Whenever you have two Jews, you have three synagogues."

We didn't laugh. For when one ponders for another minute, one realizes that it was specifically this dedication to one's particular tradition that allowed Judaism to survive. So it really didn't matter how many different types of synagogues there were in a small ghetto.

Today, most of the inhabitants of the former ghetto are non- Jews. The guide told us about passageways connecting the synagogues to the ghetto's homes, but we could not visit them. The neighborhood people are not particularly interested in visitors. Especially not Jews.

@SUB TITLE = The Levantini Shul

In the new ghetto there are three synagogues and two others in the old ghetto. But aside from the fact that one crosses a small bridge, one can't tell where one starts and the other ends. This facility reflects the easy passage of the Jews of today's Venice from the old to the new spirituality.

In the old ghetto's square we visited the Levantini synagogue of Turkish and Greek Jewry. It is situated opposite the Sephardic synagogue, the most typical of the Venetian synagogues, and quite elaborate both inside and out. Unlike the other buildings, it was not converted from something else into a synagogue but was built specifically for this purpose. According to local tradition, the synagogue was built in 1538 (5398) by the Levantine Jews when they were still living freely in the area. It has been remodeled a number of times.

The entire building is a model of harmony and symmetry. The facade had a number of decorative frames. Today, the left frame has been replaced with a memorial plaque for the Jews who perished in the First World War.

A plaque over the entrance reads, "Blessed are you when you come and blessed are you when you depart." However, the chilly museum air did nothing to give us a welcome feeling. The original entrance is now the entrance to the small Luzzatto synagogue. The entrance lobby is lavishly decorated with ornaments and ancient plaques. One of the plaques reminds the community of the importance of charity and mutual help. Another, from the year 1875 (5635), recounts the visit of Sir Moses Montefiore. The walls are lined with piyutim praising the Creator, many as acrostics based on the name: "Elia Aron Chazak."

The sanctuary itself is quite magnificent. The ceiling is made of engraved wood in a geometric pattern. Here, too, the bimah and aron are at the front of the synagogue on elevated platforms, reached by alighting stairs on either side of the bimah. The posuk, "How awesome is this place, it is none other than the House of G- d," is engraved on pillars in front of the aron hakodesh. In front of the bimah we read, "Pischu li sha'arei tzedek, ovo vom odeh Koh" and "Zeh hasha'ar laHashem tzadikim yovo'u bo." But these pesukim seem to be meaningless to most of those present today. Above the aron, in gold on black in a small frame, we read, "Da lifnei mi ato omeid (Know before Whom you stand)." The banister is made of marble and closed with a copper gate, where we read it was donated by "Rabbi Menachem di Maimon Vivanti."

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