Jewish Journal

Italy Jewish History Richer Than Gelato

by Ruth E. Gruber

Posted on Jan. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Twenty years ago, an Italian television channel hired Annie Sacerdoti, a Jewish writer and editor in Milan, to produce a documentary about Jewish history in Italy's northern Lombardy region.

At the time, Sacerdoti had long been an active member of the 10,000-strong Jewish community in Milan, the Lombard capital.

But what she found while researching the program changed her sense of identity as an Italian Jew and in many ways changed her life. In small provincial towns around the region, she found Jewish cemeteries abandoned to the elements and deserted synagogues standing empty or used as carpenter shops or other places of business.

"It was then that I realized that the story of Italian Jewry was not just written in the big ghettos, such as Rome or Venice," she recalled. "It was also written, just as richly, in numerous hidden places, little centers and hamlets almost totally forgotten by Italian Jews themselves."

Those first discoveries sent Sacerdoti on a quest to discover and publicize the wealth of Jewish heritage in Italy, which has continued to the present. They enabled her, she said, to follow a subtle thread that reconnected her with the past. Sacerdoti wrote a Jewish guidebook to Italy in 1986 and, throughout the 1990s, edited a series of separate guidebooks dedicated to Jewish heritage in individual Italian regions.

In fall 2003, Sacerdoti -- the editor of Milan's monthly Jewish magazine, Il Bollettino -- published a new, revised and updated "Guide to Jewish Italy," which combined tourist itineraries with an overview of contemporary Jewish life throughout the country, including addresses of kosher restaurants and other useful information.

"This book really caps 20 years of work," Sacerdoti said at a launch for the book in Rome. "Discovering Jewish history and culture this way became something of an addiction -- you find something, then keep going on and on, trying to discover more, and one discovery leads to another, then another."

Some 30,000-35,000 Jews live in Italy today, out of a total population of 60 million people. More than two-thirds of Italy's Jews live in Rome and Milan.

Jewish history in Italy dates back to ancient Roman times, however, and at one time or another over the past two millennia, Jews lived and often left their traces in hundreds of towns, cities and villages up and down the peninsula. Synagogues and Jewish quarters were abandoned when Jews were expelled from cities and regions over the centuries, but also -- as in the United States -- when Jews moved from small towns to big cities as part of demographic shifts. About 8,000 Italian Jews were deported to their deaths in the Holocaust.

Richly illustrated with color photographs, Sacerdoti's book -- which will appear in English early in 2004 -- looks at 2,000 years of Jewish heritage and culture from top to toe of the Italian boot.

The aim, Sacerdoti said, was to present a real tourist guide, including only sites that could easily be visited. It covers sites in 45 towns and cities, ranging from ancient catacombs in Rome to a medieval mikvah in Sicily and more than a dozen glorious baroque synagogues in the northwest region of Piedmont, most of them in towns where few or no Jews live today.

"Piedmont is unique. I don't think that there is any other region in Europe with such a wealth of well-preserved synagogues," Sacerdoti said.

"Italy has about 70 synagogue buildings, including the ruins of two from ancient Roman times," she said. "In addition, there are Jewish museums throughout the country that display precious ritual objects, books, documentation and other items from all epochs."

As Sacerdoti points out, however, most Jewish heritage sites in Italy, despite their splendor, are little-known to outsiders, or even to many Italian Jews.

"It was really quite an experience for me to travel up and down the country and to photograph them in depth," said Alberto Jona Falco, whose pictures illustrate the book. "I feel it was a mitzvah to photograph them."

Sacerdoti's book falls within her activities over the past few years in actively promoting Jewish heritage sites as attractions for mainstream tourists and bringing knowledge and appreciation of Jewish culture into the mainstream.

Among other things, Sacerdoti has been one of the organizers of the annual "European Day of Jewish Culture," which promotes awareness of Jewish heritage in two-dozen European countries. It was started in 1999.

The initiative has a particularly high profile in Italy and annually draws more than 40,000 visitors on a single day to Jewish museums, synagogues, cemeteries and special events in several dozen locations around the country. There also have been several other Jewish heritage promotional initiatives in various parts of Italy in recent years. These include the establishment of specific Jewish heritage itineraries sponsored by local tourism authorities in the northeast region of Friuli Venezia Giulia.

In Rome, a new foundation is working to expand the Jewish community's museum, and plans are under way for celebrations next spring to mark the 100th anniversary of Rome's Great Synagogue, an ornate structure with a distinctive square dome that towers above the Tiber River at the edge of the old Jewish ghetto.

The Rome synagogue, along with the old ghetto in Venice, which comprises several restored synagogues and a fascinating museum, and the magnificent Moorish-style synagogue in Florence, are Italy's three best-known Jewish heritage sites. All three draw tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Recently, the Jewish Heritage Grants Program of the New York-based World Monuments Fund awarded the Florence synagogue, built between 1870-1882, a $50,000 grant toward structural work to help repair its roof.

"I hope that my work will spark interest in other Jewish sites in Italy and enable them to open to the public," Sacerdoti said. "Tourism can bring new life to these places -- even in places where there is no longer a Jewish community."  

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