November 4, 1999
Beyond the Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s
Italian Jewish communities are making a come-back
Sounds like part of the communal agenda in almost any American city, but in this case the concerns are those of the historical Jewish community of Florence, one of Italy's most beautiful and storied cities.
"We have an intermarriage rate of around 50 percent," Rabbi Josef Levi told a scattering of American and Israeli visitors at a kiddush, following a recent Friday evening service. "During the past year, we celebrated five bar mitzvahs, but regrettably no weddings. It is not easy for us to live in a Catholic country, but we are surviving."
Levi, a handsome man in his forties, had just conducted a Sephardic Orthodox service in the magnificent Moorish-style Florence synagogue, which opened in 1882 and has survived Nazi desecration and dynamiting, as well as the city's disastrous 1966 flood.
The synagogue -- built on a scale to accommodate well over a thousand --had drawn some two dozen men, including numerous foreigners, and some 18 worshipers in the separate women's section.
Earlier in the day, we had talked to Dr. Hulda Liberanome, a journalist and vice president of the Comunita Ebraica di Firenze, the Jewish Community of Florence, and, like Rabbi Levi, born in Israel.
She knew precisely the number of Jewish community members, 935, because Italian Jews have to formally register to belong to the community and must support it with taxes. She estimated that there were an additional 150 unregistered Jews in the city.
Throughout Italy, there are some 30,000 registered Jews, and approximately 10,000 unregistered ones, with the two largest concentrations in Rome (15,000 registered) and Milan (10,000). The remaining 5,000 are scattered throughout such cities as Leghorn, Turin and Venice, down to 11 Jews registered in Parma.
Before the anti-Jewish laws introduced by Mussolini in 1938, Italy had 45,000 Jews. Some 8,000 perished in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and an equal number emigrated after the war, mainly to Israel.
Despite a low birth rate, the Italian community has recouped some of these losses, mainly through immigration of post-war displaced persons, and Jews from Libya and Iran.
Though Florentine Jews are few in number, they are proving once again that it takes only a small critical mass to trigger a chain reaction of activities and organizations.
Florence has chapters and lodges of the B'nai B'rith, Anti- Defamation League, WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization), Maccabi, and the Italian-Israel Friendship Society. There is even a small organization of about 100 "Anglo-Saxon" Jews, consisting mainly of businessmen, retirees, and spouses who married Italian partners.
"Many families have lived here for centuries," said Liberanome. "Everybody knows everybody."
There used to be a Jewish day school, up to 8th grade, with some 70-80 students, but it closed a few years ago. "Unfortunately, young couples leave for better economic opportunities in Milan, Rome and abroad," said Liberanome.
The community, however, continues to maintain a kindergarten, a Talmud Torah through bar mitzvah age, and a Sunday school.
Besides taxes, the community derives some income from tourism, with the encouragement of the municipality, which last year paid for repairs to the synagogue's majestic dome.
Tour tickets of the synagogue and the historical Jewish Museum on the first floor come to 10,000 lira (about $5.50) per person, and the gift shop does such a lively business, even during the off-season, that the cashier is hard put to keep up.
As in most Italian synagogues, the one in Florence follows Sephardic rites and ritual, meaning Orthodox observance, but in practice more relaxed than in Ashkenazi congregations.
For instance, most congregants will drive on Shabbat, said Liberanome, and the synagogue has recently initiated a form of bat mitzvah services.
There are also divergences, some old and some new, from Sephardic practice. One synagogue in Rome, and another in Turin, observe the Old Italian rites, similar but not identical with Sephardic practice.
Rome and Milan have Ashkenazi congregations, as well as those consisting of Iranian and of Libyan Jews. Chabad has established presences in Florence and Bologna and a synagogue in Milan.
Jewish congregations throughout Italy retain considerable local autonomy, illustrated by current "big battles over how to treat children of mixed-marriages," said Liberanome.
The relatively liberal-minded Rabbi Levi in Florence has ruled that such children be accepted if their mothers are raising them as Jews. But in Milan, for instance, such youngsters are excluded from the community.
In another, perhaps even more sensitive, area, Italian Jews are beginning to fight for separation of church and state in the pope's own backyard.
At the front desk of the Florence community center, housed in the synagogue, there are printed petitions to the government, asking for the abolition of all religious instruction in public schools.
Such instruction, meaning Roman Catholic catechism, used to be mandatory for all students, but is now voluntary. Still, said Liberanome, "We are now asking that public schools not be linked to religion in any way."
Not only Jews are lobbying for such a change. "Italy is becoming a more mixed society, with a growing number of Muslims and Buddhists," she added.
The petition, in any case, indicates a growing self- assurance by the Italian Jewish community in the heartland of Catholicism, where 30,000 to 40,000 Jews are engulfed by 57 million Catholics.
Liberanome shows a similar attitude in answer to a question: Are Italian Jews, like many French Jews, embarrassed by the activist stance of American Jewish organizations in demanding Holocaust restitution from Italy's huge Generali insurance company, among others, and in opposing the canonization of the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII?
"Now, we're not embarrassed," Liberanome responded. But in evaluating the record of the incumbent Pope John Paul II and his relationship to the Jews, the issue is more complicated.
"We can't over-simplify, and we can't ask the pope to be a Jew," she said.
Looking at the long-range demographics of Italian Jewry, Liberanome noted that an active nucleus of volunteers in such cities as Florence "is working very hard to keep things going," she said. "But I'm afraid that in the very small communities, Jewish life won't survive for very long."