Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

Part II
Travels in Piedmonte,
the Northwestern Province of Italy

We arrived in Mondovi as scheduled. This is a beautiful medieval city perched up on a mountaintop, with the "modern" part of the city down in the river valley, where a rapid river flows under the main city bridge.

We looked up Mr. Marco Levi, the only surviving native-born Jew in Mondovi. He is a 74-year-old accountant who is exceptionally nice and of course happy to finally have Jewish visitors.

At first he took us to the cemetery outside the city. None of the tombstones in this cemetery dated further back than the early 1800s. Surprisingly, I found one stone with an English inscription, for an Esther Hardman, who died around l 848. The other stones were completely dominated by two families: Levi and Mongliano.

It was a very moving sight to see Mr. Levi tend his parents' graves, which held large, black marble gravestones in modern style. As slowly as the old man had been walking before, he now quickly ran back and forth between rosebushes and these graves, placing one long-stemmed rose in an urn in front of each of three graves. He is the only surviving Jew, and only surviving child—he is unmarried and leaves no family behind—I was very touched by this gesture of filial love for parents who had died over 40 years ago. Of course my daughter Karie and I wondered who would take care of everything Jewish in this town after Mr. Levi was gone. The community comes under the jurisdiction of the largest Jewish community in Piedmonte, which is in Torino; but will they continue to care?

We returned to town and proceeded up the steep hill going to the old medieval part of town. This was quite an experience.

As we reached the ghetto, we left the car parked and walked up slowly through the winding narrow alleys, until we came to one house that bore a plaque dedicated to one of the Ottolenghis. We entered this house, which houses a beautiful old synagogue on its second floor. It is of course much smaller than any other we had seen on this trip, but it had a certain intimate, warm atmosphere. Only the ark was gilt-laid and was practically a "walk-in closet." In the center of the synagogue we saw something we hadn't seen in any of the others: a bimah surrounded by columns and having in its center a beautiful, movable lamp made of mirrors. According to Mr. Levi, this lamp would be detached during Sukkot and placed inside the Sukkah so that the berachot, which were painted along the walls of the Sukkah, would be reflected in the mirrors.

We walked into the women's section and then into one small room that held a bench still left over from the days when this was a children's school. We saw various objects such as tzedakah boxes; one Queen Esther's crown used for Purim plays; a donor's silver lamp, which was due for repair; a plaque used for noting nedavot (pledges) by members who had gotten aliyot; and similar objects.

We noted that one window faced outside the ghetto into the wide fields and vineyards surrounding the city. As with the other ghettos we had visited on our trip, the synagogue was placed in such a way that the Jews could reach it by walking through different houses of the ghetto without venturing outside the ghetto.

Mr. Levi took us upstairs where we reached the attic—complete with its original medieval beams. We saw an oven that was used for baking matzos. It was a moving sight to see these crowded quarters in which Jews had been cooped up for so long.

After the visit to the ghetto, Mr. Levi took us to the highest spot in town. It seems that each of these mountain cities has a spot marked "Belvedere" (Beautiful View), mostly close to the city tower or fortification from where one has a fabulous view over the enormous expanses of vineyards, hills and fields surrounding the city. It must have been from here that the knights of old controlled the farming areas and villages around them, which they held in servitude.

We traveled next to Cuneo and checked into the hotel, which was comfortable and adequate. Cuneo struck us as a nice, large city, relative to the country area.

One family name that appears in most of the cemeteries of Cuneo is "Foa." However, on one tombstone in Asti, which we had visited earlier, I noted that the Hebrew transcription of that name was spelled "Foar," no doubt meaning "glorious" or something similar. Our guide had said that it was thought that the name came from a French town with a similar name. But that seemed to be wrong. Also the name "Jerach" occurs frequently in Asti. I correctly guessed these people must have been refugees from Lunel in southern France, a city known for its great Talmud academies! (A similar derivation of that city name is "Yarhi," the well-known medieval author.)

When one sees the crowded and oppressive conditions of the ghetto, one must marvel at the great Jews who lived there and who produced such fine works—in rabbinics, science and poetry! In Moncalvo, all the Jews lived—about 300 of them—in one, single street, shorter than an average New York City block. They were herded together here, from where they were allowed to do "banking" business in many of the surrounding villages and towns.

And it was here, in this little street, that the beautiful 1799 mahzor (holiday prayer book), which is in my possession, was written, and perhaps partly composed! I'm also thinking back to the small, murky beth midrash of the Rambam in Cairo, where I had similar thoughts about the great works of historic and monumental value, which he had written under such oppressive, crowded conditions. All this means that we are wrong if we think that we need rich, affluent and spacious surroundings to give us inspiration to thought.

 

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