(This post also appears on my Jewish Heritage Travel blog)
Almost every week last summer, from early June through the end of August, the palm-shaded garden of the Florence synagogue was the scene of "Cafe Balagan" -- a sort of mini-Jewish culture and food festival aimed at opening up the Jewish community to the city -- and encouraging the city to recognize and embrace its Jewish history.
I took part in the last edition, at the end of August, engaging in a public conversation about Jewish culture and mainstream society, with Enrico Fink, the musician (and director of cultural affairs for the Florence Jewish community) who devised the event.
I wrote about it all for The Forward, in an article published this past week:
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Nov. 5, 2013
If you look out over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high above the Arno, two domes catch your eye. One is Filipo Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the immense ribbed dome of the Duomo. The other, off to the right, is much smaller but in its way also distinctive: It is the tall, bright green copper dome of the Florence synagogue.
“Anyone who looks at the Florence skyline sees the Duomo and the synagogue,” said Enrico Fink, a musician and actor who last December took up the post of cultural affairs director of the Florence Jewish community.
Dedicated in 1882, the synagogue is a monument to 19th century Jewish emancipation and a grand example of Moorish style architecture, with a soaring arched façade and two slim side towers.
But while the Duomo is one of the most famous attractions in Italy, visited by millions, the synagogue and the Jewish history of the city remain largely unknown to most Florence residents as well as to the vast majority of tourists.
Fink and other recently installed leaders of the 800- to 900-member Jewish community want to change this. Breaking with past policy, they have embarked on a plan to actively engage with mainstream Florence. They endeavor to make the Jewish community more visible and accessible, demystifying Jews and Jewishness for local non-Jews, while putting Jewish heritage on the local tourist map.
“We want people in Florence to understand who we are, and to understand that the Jewish community belongs to the city, that we are part of the fabric of the city,” community president Sara Cividali, an energetic woman with a mass of silver hair, told me over lunch at Ruth’s, a kosher vegetarian restaurant next door to the synagogue. “It isn’t assimilation; it’s different, it’s participation,” she said.
This new strategy was launched this summer with the Balagan Café, an unprecedented experiment in outreach that turned the synagogue’s palm-shaded garden into a mini-Jewish culture festival almost every Thursday night from June through August. Balagan, more or less, means “chaos” — and, said Fink, the idea behind calling the summer’s experiment “Balagan” was “an acceptance of confusion that’s not easy to define.”
Each Café featured music, lectures, discussions, performances and other events. There were free guided tours of the synagogue and stands selling books, CDs, Judaica and Balagan Café T-shirts depicting a full moon over the synagogue dome. Performers and featured participants included nationally known figures such as the rock singer Raiz, the Tzadik label klezmer jazz clarinetist Gabriele Coen, and the architect Massimiliano Fuksas, who designed, among other things, the Peres Peace House in Israel.
Meanwhile, food stands sold kosher meals and kosher wine to crowds eager to sample couscous, baked eggplant, beans with cumin and harissa, spicy chickpeas, Roman-style sweet and sour zucchini and other specialties. One evening saw a “competition” between Sephardic and Ashkenazic cooking; another featured a lesson in challah-making.