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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Italy

This city is the gateway to Italy, the money maker of this republic, the industrial and commercial capital of this nation of 62 million people. This European trading center boasts international fairs, a silk market, nearly 1,000 banks, 32,151 firms and 26,981 manufacturers. It is a city that produces and sells everything.

Within this thriving and throbbing metropolis is also a vital Jewish community of 10,000 people, about one-third of the entire Jewish population of Italy. Jews and Jewish sites are visible everywhere. There are about 10 synagogues, five kosher butcher shops, Talmud Torahs and a day school. Jewish and Italian cultural and social activities are intertwined in a complex mosaic.

For instance, next to the world famous Ambrosiana Museum of Piazza Pio XI Square, which contains Judaica and features the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, is “Coen’s Butcher Shop,” operated by Jews from Egypt. Along with typical Italian street names are also streets such as Piazza Tel Aviv and Via Sally Mayer which is named after Sally Mayer who was a noted Jewish industrialist and philanthropist. There is a Jewish day school at 4/6 Via Sally Mayer.

In shops and outdoor cafes of the famous Galleria, the center of political and social life of the city and situated near the Milan Cathedral and the La Scala Opera, he can hear men and women speaking Arabic. Some of them are Jews from Libya. Several thousand Libyan Jews came here in 1948 because they spoke Italian. Until the middle of World War II, Italy controlled Libya.

LIFE STYLE OF MILAN JEWS

There are also about 1,000 Iranian Jews here. They maintain their own synagogue and club, for young people. They are excellent businessmen, skilled in the diamond and carpet trade. They are very pro-Israel and are actively involved in behalf of the Jewish State. Many Egyptian Jews also settled here, the result of the emigration from Egypt after the 1956 and 1967 wars. Jews from Nazi Germany also settled here. They fled Hitler in the 1930’s.

The diversity of the Jewish community in Milan is also characterized by the presence of many Ashkenazim, who in the last century found their way to this city as they moved into Southern Europe. In the past few years Milan has also become the home for a small number of Soviet Jews and Israelis.

The headquarters of the Jewish community and the Documentation Center on Italian and World Jewry is at Via Eupili 6. At the Documentation Center this visitor saw Jews studying the history of the Holocaust as well as the history of Jews in Italy before the 20th Century.

The Lubavitch movement maintains a synagogue and a yeshiva at Via Carlo Poerio 35 and has made progress in imbuing the Jewish community with a measure of religious consciousness. Jewish leaders, however, point out that the Lubavitch are not part of the mainstream of Jewish life and that the separation between them and the highly assimilated Italian Jews remains to be overcome. There is a great deal of assimilation and mixed marriages, but Italian Jewry survives by the immigration of new groups which replace those who have become assimilated.

Milan Jews are engaged in professions rather than as entrepreneurs or small businessmen, as are the Jews of Rome. Jews here are conscious of the need for acquiring higher education. While higher education is not free in Italy, 90 percent of the Jewish youth attend college where they study medicine, engineering, chemistry, business and architecture.

Part of the reason Jews settle in Milan is the cultural life and the diversity of social activity. It is after all, the home of the legendary La Scala opera house, the home of Verdi and Puccini. It is also the center of fashion shows and of taste and tastebuds. Many Jewish businessmen told this visitor that Milan is actually “a famous fortress of delicious cuisine.”

JEWS AND NON-JEWS INTERMINGLE

There is an easy intermingling of Jews and non-Jews. Kosher food can be obtained at the senior citizens home as well as through the Lubavitch center. Jews hold kosher banquets and Bar Mitzvahs and weddings at the Hilton Hotel. Many Jewish businessmen gather at the Hotel Executive on Viale Surzo, which caters to commercial and government personnel from around the world.

Although Italians are a politically involved people, they are more interested in “la dulce vita” (the good life), in vacationing, in getting away to the shore, in indulging their palates, in visiting the numerous cafes and in visiting the museums and the opera. Italian Jews are not immune to the pleasure principle.

But politics does intrude, and there are controversies and discussions. During the war in Lebanon, Israel’s popularity slipped. However, there was no visible sign of any anti-Israel feeling among Italians here. There was an attempt by a small subversive, illegal leftist group, Communists Organized for Proletarian Liberation (COLP), to bomb the Jewish community center on the night of September 29, but this was severely condemned by officials and the public.

The official Communist Party itself undertook a propaganda campaign against Israel and every night sent out a sound truck blaring anti-Israel statements. As the truck travelled through the city, nobody seemed to listen; nobody seemed to care. The war was far away and there were pleasures at hand to attend to.

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