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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Italy

December 27, 1982
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It is not difficult to find the Jewish community of Florence. Head for Via Luigi Carlo Farini No. 4, not far from San Marco Square. Located in a large single compound is probably the most beautiful synagogue in Europe, a Jewish day school, the offices of the Jewish community, the headquarters of B’nai B’rith and other organizations, and a kosher restaurant.

The synagogue, now 100 years old, has been designated a historical landmark — “a la citta degli uffizi.” The construction is pure Moorish style capped by three green cupolas. The walls inside are completely covered with frescoes. There are mosaics around the ark.

Within the synagogue there are also memorials to Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Italy during World War I. There is also a memorial to the 242 Jews who in 1943 were dragged from their homes by the Nazis and who never returned from the German concentration camp to which they were taken.

Still visible are the bayonet marks the Nazi soldiers left when they tried to defile the Aharon Kodesh (Holy Ark), Also visible is the high water mark of the flood levels of 1966 which destroyed Torahs and rare books, many of them commentaries on Italian Jewish history.

Some say that the Moorish architecture of the synagogue recalls the Golden Age of Spain. Many who have visited it compare it to the main synagogue in Moscow. Everyone is impressed. Several hundred visitors, Jews and non-Jews come to the synagogue each day. Many of them are young students.

There are guided tours, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Saturday and Sunday. No fees are charged, but American Jews help with their donations, according to Ariel Massimo Bacelli, the executive director of the Jewish Center. Last year, donations amounted to 40 million Lira, or $28,572.

A MONUMENT TO EMANCIPATION

Florence is one of the few places in Europe where the synagogue is conspicuous, unlike in many European cities where it is difficult to distinguish the synagogue from other structures. This temple was built to be seen, to fit in with the architecture of the city, such as the Duomo or the Signoria.

The Jews began to think about building a new synagogue for Florence just after they were freed from the ghetto in 1848. They wanted is to be a monument to their emancipation. After all their repression, the Jews created this temple to show their liberation at last.

The money for the synagogue was put up by David Levi. He was the president of the Council of the Jewish University and in his will, dated March 15, 1868, he requested that his assets be utilized to build a monumental temple worthy of Florence. More than a million dollars of his money went into the building which was inaugurated on October 24, 1882.

In many ways, the Jewish history of Florence was the history of a people living in the ghetto. The Jewish community in this city of art was established in 1437 when some Jewish financiers were invited to open loan banks. During the time of Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), Jewish intellectual life corresponded to the rich attainments of Florentine culture. The Medici in Florence were well disposed toward the Jews.

HISTORY OF ITALY’S JEWS

The 15th and 16th centuries were fruitful periods for Jewish literature and poetry and other branches of Jewish learning, even though there were no more than 100 Jewish families. Later, the establishment of the ghetto restricted the Jewish renaissance. In 1759 Napoleon and his army freed the Jews in Italy, but when the former left, there again was a period of repression.

In 1859, when Tuscany (the province in which Florence is located) became part of the Kingdom of Italy, the Jews were recognized as citizens of the new kingdom which was and still is the cradle of Italian art and civilization.

Italy is among other things, a museum. And Florence is perhaps the greatest collector of human artistic achievement. Florence is the city of art, the city of the lily, the city of the flower, the city where in one year alone, 1505, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli and Raphael were working at the same time within a few blocks of each other.

As the Italians have said for centuries: “Italy is the garden of Europe, Tuscany is the garden of Italy, and Florence is the flower of Tuscany.”

Today, Jews are active in the cultural events and life of Florence. And most of the famous museums — the Accademia, the Pitti Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, and more — contain art on Jewish themes.

There are presently some 1,200 Jews in Florence. Only about one-third are active within the community, which is strongly assimilationist and where mixed marriages are numerous. Only 33 to 34 youngsters attend the elementary Jewish school. It is difficult to obtain a minyan, although one is scheduled. On Saturdays, only a part of the large synagogue sanctuary is used. However, on holidays it is packed.

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