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Introducing non-Jewish Europeans to Jewish life

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, JTA

August 31, 2010 | 10:44 am

In Italy, where there are only about 25,000 affiliated Jews in a population of 60 million, most Italians have never knowingly met a Jew.

“It’s unfortunate,” said the Italian Jewish activist Sira Fatucci, “but in Italy Jews and the Jewish experience are often mostly known through the Holocaust.”

Fatucci is the national coordinator in Italy for the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, an annual transborder celebration of Jewish traditions and creativity that takes place in more than 20 countries on the continent on the first Sunday of September—this year, Sept. 5.

Synagogues, Jewish museums and even ritual baths and cemeteries are open to the public, and hundreds of seminars, exhibits, lectures, book fairs, art installations, concerts, performances and guided tours are offered.

The main goal is to educate the non-Jewish public about Jews and Judaism in order to demystify the Jewish world and combat anti-Jewish prejudice.

“What we are trying to do is to show the living part of Judaism—to show life,” Fatucci said. “What we want to do is to use culture as an antidote to ignorance and anti-Semitism.”

Some 700 people flock to Culture Day events each year in Pitigliano, a rust-colored hilltown in southern Tuscany that once had such a flourishing Jewish community that it was known as Little Jerusalem.

Most local Jews moved away before World War II, and today only four Jews live here in a total population of 4,000. But in recent years the medieval ghetto area has become an important local attraction. The town produces kosher wine, and a new shop sells souvenir packets of matzah and Jewish pastries.

Culture Day events here include kosher food and wine tastings, guided tours, art exhibits and an open-air klezmer concert.

“There’s a lot of ignorance, but a lot of curiosity about Jews,” said Claudia Elmi, who works at Pitigliano’s Jewish museum, which opened in the 1990s and now attracts 22,000 to 24,000 visitors a year—the vast majority non-Jews.

“But the Jews were seen as closed, or even physically closed off,” she said. “The open doors of the Day of Culture are very important.”

Tourists line up to tour the Jewish museum and the synagogue, a 16th-century gem that fell into ruin following World War II and was rebuilt and reopened in 1995.
They make their way down steep stairs into the former mikvah and matzah bakery, which are located in rough-hewn subterranean chambers carved into the solid rock.

“We didn’t know anything about Judaism before coming here,” said Rosanna and Paolo, tourists from Padova who visited Pitiligano’s Jewish sites a week before Culture Day. “We learned a lot here, particularly about the religious rituals and kosher food.”

Now in its 11th year, Culture Day is loosely coordinated by the European Council of Jewish Communities, B’nai B’rith Europe and the Red de Juderias, a Jewish tourism route linking 15 Spanish cities.

Countries participating this year include Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Holland, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. This year’s theme is “Art and Judaism.”

Each country makes its own programs, and depends on local resources and volunteers to host, plan and carry out activities. Thus in some countries, only a few events take place: Norway will have a klezmer concert and lecture in Oslo; Bosnia has only an art exhibit in Sarajevo.

Elsewhere, a varied feast may stretch for several days. In Britain, this year’s activities last until Sept. 15 and include dozens of events in London and more than 20 other cities.

Jewish art “is both distinctive and universal” said Lena Stanley-Clamp, the director of the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture. “It certainly speaks to and is enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.”

Italy is by far the European Day of Jewish Culture’s most enthusiastic participant. Thanks to Fatucci and her army of volunteers and communal organizers, it has grown to become a high-profile fixture on the late-summer calendar, with events and activities up and down the Italian boot.

Last year’s events attracted 62,000 people—about one-third the total number who attended Jewish Culture Day events around the continent and about twice the number of Jews in Italy.

This year, activities are being staged in 62 towns, cities and villages, including many places—like Pitigliano—where few or no Jews live.

“There is a great curiosity about Jews and Jewish culture here, so the opportunity to engage in a Jewish cultural activity is very attractive,” Fatucci said. “The Day of Jewish Culture became a reference point for this.”

Part of the success, she said, was due to the fact that Culture Day in Italy is so well organized and publicized. Jewish communities work closely with public and private institutions, and the event receives government support and recognition.

But, Fatucci added, Jewish heritage in Italy encompasses a remarkably rich and varied array of treasures—Roman-era Jewish catacombs in Rome, medieval mikvahs, Baroque synagogues, and the historic ghetto and centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Venice.

“Italy is the country of art, par excellence,” Fatucci said. “But in many places, people have lived side by side with fragments of Jewish culture without knowing anything about them—or even knowing they were there.”

For a program of European Day of Jewish Culture events, visit Jewisheritage.org.

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