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The 2006 Olympics Symbol of City Hosting Games Was Supposed to Be a Synagogue

The symbol of the city hosting the Winter Olympics was originally conceived of as a synagogue. The building in question in Turin, Italy, is a towering structure with a steep, four-sided dome and soaring spire. Now called the Mole Antonelliana, it now forms the symbol of Turin, where the Olympics will take place from Feb. 10-Feb. 26.

Begun in the 1860s, the building was originally designed to be a synagogue whose lavish proportions would have celebrated the freedom, pride and prosperity of Turin’s newly emancipated Jews.

Unfortunately, the ambitious project nearly bankrupted the Jewish community, which ended up selling it to the city in 1877, well before it was completed.

A less imposing but still ornate synagogue with four turrets topped by onion domes was built in the early 1880s. Heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, it was reconstructed in 1949 and is still in operation today.

Today, the city’s Jewish community is small, with about 1,000 Jews, said community member Arturo Tedeschi, who called the community “tiny but lively” even though the membership is steadily dwindling.

Visitors to the Winter Olympics will be able to learn about the Jewish community, its history and heritage at a major multimedia exhibition mounted as part of a series of cultural events being staged in Turin alongside the Games.

Called “Discovering Jewish Life and Culture,” the exhibition explores the music, traditions and sites of Piedmontese Jewry, using projected images and videos, narrative voices and sound alongside displays of documents, ritual objects and pictures.

“It is not just an exhibition of photographs or a display of objects, but a real journey through the customs and traditions of the Jewish people,” said curator Riccardo Mazza, whose audiovisual installations are centerpieces of the exhibition.

The exhibition centers on three key symbols of the Jewish experience in Piedmont — the ghetto, the synagogue, and the life and work of Primo Levi, the Turin-born writer and chemist who survived Auschwitz and evoked the Holocaust and its horrors in his writings.

Another local Jew, Rita Levi-Montalcini, escaped fascist persecution to the United States and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Visitors to the Olympics can also visit a score of towns and cities in Piedmont where extraordinary examples of Jewish heritage illustrate the sweep of Jewish history in the region.

These include former ghetto areas, evocative Jewish cemeteries and splendidly ornate synagogues.

Several of the Piedmont synagogues have been restored recently, and a dozen can be visited.

An industrial city famed for its Fiat auto works, Turin is the capital of Italy’s Piedmont region, sandwiched between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Besides Turin, there are two much smaller Jewish communities in the region, in Vercelli and in Casale Monferatto.

Jewish history in Piedmont can be traced back to the fifth century.

Historically, much of Piedmont was ruled by the House of Savoy. Jews were segregated from Christians as early as 1430, and formal ghettos were established in Turin and elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In many places, Jews were forced to pay special taxes, wear special identifying badges and submit to other severe restrictions. But ghetto life was still less restrictive than in other parts of Italy. Jews could carry out a variety of professions, and there was frequent interaction between Jews and their Christian neighbors.

Piedmont was the cradle of the Risorgimento, or unification, movement that led to Italian independence, and many Jews were active in the struggle, linking their own aspirations for freedom to those of other Italians. In 1848, Savoy King Carlo Alberto issued the landmark Edict of Emancipation that granted Jews full civil rights.

Piedmont Jews assimilated into Italian society, so much so that in the decades before World War II, many Piedmont Jews supported the fascist regime. The anti-Semitic laws passed in 1938 devastated the community, and many local Jews became anti-fascist partisans.

About 1,400 Jews lived in Piedmont before World War II. A monument at Turin’s Porta Nuova station commemorates the approximately 400 who were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz.

The most magnificent synagogue in Piedmont is in Casale Monferrato, south of Turin. It was originally built in 1595 in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto, but over the following two centuries it was enlarged, redesigned and redecorated in a rococo style.

The opulent decor boasts huge gilded chandeliers, and white, cobalt and gold-colored walls on which Hebrew inscriptions are framed by gilded stucco work. The ark, where the scrolls of the Torah are kept, features fluted Corinthian columns and an elaborately carved frieze and cornice.

In 1969, after a full-scale restoration carried out by the state, the synagogue was declared a national monument and opened to the public as a Jewish museum, where the tiny local Jewish community sponsors concerts and other cultural events.

The Turin Jewish community has an informative English-language Web site with contact numbers to arrange kosher food and information on Jewish heritage sites in the region: www.torinoebraica.it/EN/comunita.php.

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