High Holiday Feature: Italian Town with No Jews Hosting New Year Festival

There is no Jewish community any more in Reggio Emilia, a town in northern Italy famous for its Parmesan cheese.

During the High Holidays this year Reggio Emilia is co-host, along with neighboring Parma, of a three week arts festival aimed at providing Italians with complex insights into the deep and continuing influence Jews have had on Italian and global culture.

The festival kicks off Sept. 19, the day before Rosh Hashanah begins, with a five-hour celebration of the holiday featuring Jewish theater, music, dance – - and food, involving Israeli and Italian performers and personalities.

“It should be a lot of fun,” said Francesco Spagnolo, director of a Milan-based study center on Jewish music, who will take part in the event.

The festival will continue through Oct. 10, with a series of theater performances, readings, concerts and exhibits. Among the scheduled participants is the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua, who will launch the Italian edition of one of his books.

Venues include the 19th century synagogue in Parma, which is still used for High Holidays services by the few dozen Jews who live there, and the former synagogue in Reggio Emilia, which is now owned by the city and used for cultural events.

The festival illustrates the growing importance placed on the contribution of Jewish culture in Italy, where today about 35,000 Jews live — only slightly fewer than the number of Jews who lived in Italy before World War II.

Many books on Jewish themes are published in Italy and there are a number of Jewish studies programs at universities. Conferences and arts festivals on Jewish themes are held regularly.

Indeed, the joint festival in Parma and Reggio Emilia coincides with another, even more ambitious, festival in the northeast city of Trieste. Both are sponsored by city authorities or other public institutions, with only minor input from local Jews.

The Trieste cycle of concerts, exhibits, performances, film presentations, guided tours and other events began at the end of July and runs well into November under the heading, “Shalom Trieste.”

Dedicated, organizers say, to “the precious contribution offered by the Jewish people to European culture and to that of Trieste in particular,” it may represent the most wide-ranging series of cultural events linked to Jewish themes ever to be held in Italy.

Trieste, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, was for centuries the leading port and gateway into the Austro-Hungarian Empire before it became part of Italy after World War I.

Exhibits that form part of Shalom Trieste examine the city’s Jewish history, as well as the place of Trieste and its Jews within the intellectual and cultural history of Central Europe.

“There are some very interesting exhibitions,” said Ariel Haddad, director the museum of the Trieste Jewish community, which from Sept. 15 to Nov. 8 will host an exhibit on the thousands of Jewish emigrants who set sail for Israel and other destinations from Trieste — known as “the port of Zion.”

Shalom Trieste’s principal exhibition is a wide-ranging look at the relationship between Jewish intellectuals and European culture between 1880 and 1930.

Called “The Ways of the World,” it centers on Jewish cultural and intellectual life in five great Central European cities: Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Trieste.

It uses paintings, books, photographs, documents, objects and other materials to explore the influence and importance of Jewish artists and intellectuals on the development of the arts and intellectual thought in Central Europe.

In doing so, it touches on themes of identity, of assimilation versus tradition, of shifting borders and loyalties, and of the development of movements such as modernism and abstractionism.

Towering figures such as Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka, according to Jewish historian Riccardo Calimani, who curated the show, “are just the tip of a much vaster iceberg and of psychological and existential connotations that were contradictory and surprising.”

The Shalom Trieste program also offers guided tours of the former Jewish quarter of Trieste. The city, which currently has about 1,000 Jews, has a magnificent monumental synagogue built in 1912 and a large cemetery with many ancient tombstones.

Shalom Trieste also includes a Yiddish film series, and various theatrical presentations and concerts.

A related event will be a monthlong exhibition on the evils of anti-Semitism and, in particular, the anti-Semitic racial laws imposed by Italy’s fascist government in 1938.

This will take place at the museum at Risera di San Sabba near Trieste — site of the only Nazi death camp to have been established in Italy during World War II.

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