Travels in Piedmonte,
the Northwestern Province of Italy
I started the day by taking a walk across the huge piazza of Cuneo, before we all started out.
Our first stop was at the shop of Mr. Cavaglion. It turned out that he dealt in Persian and Oriental rugs and art objects, and we very quickly bought some amulets and similar ornaments written in Hebrew that had come from Persia.
Mr. Cavaglion turned out to be an extremely friendly and lively person, as was his wife and the other members of his family. He had invited his brother and his brother's wife—who turned out to be a professor of Italian Jewish literature at the Hebrew University, whose maiden name is Ben Zimra of Gibraltar origin—as well as his own wife, who was very quick in telling us that she came from Vincelli, a place known for its huge synagogue, which we unfortunately could not include on our itinerary this time.
A great deal of talk ensued between everyone present. Mr. Cavaglion then produced a number of Hebrew manuscripts coming mainly from Yemen, and I selected a few for purchase. At the same time, he gave my daughter Karie a present—two fragments of a sacred Torah written on red leather!
Finally, we were ready to move in two cars toward the old ghetto in town.
On this trip I have discovered something I never knew about the Italian ghettos. All the ones we visited were extremely small, sometimes covering just one street or just one courtyard into which hundreds of Jews were herded. This is a far cry from the ample ghetto in Venice! Perhaps the situation was different in each place. Here in the Piedmonte area, the Jews—lured by the permission granted them by local rulers to carry on money—lending activities in many of the Piedmonte towns—accepted the closed-in life of the crowded ghetto. On the other hand, in Venice Jews always lived in large numbers and were an important part of the thriving commerce of that republic and therefore could not be restricted, even if the Church wanted them confined.
The ghetto in Cuneo actually consisted of just one courtyard and the small buildings around it. There were four gates leading into this crowded courtyard, one of which is still visible in its original form.
As we entered the courtyard, we stepped into the rooms connected with the synagogue, which was on the second floor. At the street level was a community room in which quotations from Pirkei Avot were still visible. As we walked up the staircase, we came into the large synagogue, which was most unadorned, except for the ark, which was completely gilded. Mr. Cavaglion later pointed out how much of a sacrifice it must have been for the very small community of poor Jews to raise the money to buy the gold for the ark.
We all marveled at one phenomenon: In a comer of the outside wall there was a hole that indicated a spot where a cannonball had hit the synagogue during one of the sieges of town, while children were studying inside. Miraculously, the cannonball never entered the synagogue. This historical event was celebrated every year as a "Cuneo Purim"!
On the floor above was a small room that was once used as a school for children. I also saw piles of Hebrew books that were in a miserable state of decay. They were of no particular interest but showed that some learning had been going on in this community.
Cuneo is very near the French border. During the days of the Avignon popes, the Jews were liberally tolerated there, but in later times the Jews were expelled from the Provence and came across the Alps at the border into Italy. They brought with them their French rites and old melodies. I arranged with Mr. Cavaglion to record some of these melodies in the afternoon!
We now proceeded to the Jewish cemetery, which is located inside a large Catholic cemetery. We walked though large areas of Christian tombs before we came to another enclosure to which Mr. Cavaglion had the keys. As we entered the Jewish cemetery, I noted certain families were predominant there, particularly the Cassin family, whose name in the few Hebrew tombstones was spelled "Qatzin." Of course, this is the family of the famous Cassin who was Gen. de Gaulle's adviser during the war and who received the Nobel Prize for authoring the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
The tombstone of one rabbi mentioned in Hebrew the name of his rabbinical teacher. There had near been any yeshivot in these small Italian towns, so those young men who wanted to study for the rabbinate had to visit Padua, Venice, Florence or Rome.
Afterward we went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and proceeded to the home of the Cavaglions for our recording session. I was very happy and satisfied at taping one or two typically Provencal melodies, which must be strictly endangered species. There are no Jews left in the Provence in France, and those on the Italian side of the border are clearly dying out. The melodies that he sang were said to be of local character from Cuneo and may constitute an important contribution to Jewish musicology.
Mr. Cavaglion kept saying to me in French that "this is a feast day for me, as I have Jewish guests!" I must say at times I was moved to tears over his exuberant enthusiasm at our presence. His wife joined him and she was even more exuberant than he. She comes from Vincelli and showed me portraits of her rabbinical ancestors. She too contributed some melodies, mainly from the Seder, always telling with great enthusiasm what her father sang and what he didn't sing.
After having a drink in the family living room, we left and Mr. Cavaglion escorted us all the way out a few miles into the countryside to make sure that we were heading the right way.
About an hour later we arrived at Cherasco—a small, provincial town with no Jews left at all. This is where Napoleon had signed the treaty that gave him control of most of Italy and France, where he emancipated the Jews. However, the owners of the house in which the old synagogue is still housed had come specifically from Turin to be on hand and show us around. First we met Mrs. Silvana Segré who turned out to be fluent in Hebrew since she had been trained at a teacher's institute in Jerusalem. She was now teaching in a Jewish school in Turin, which had about 120 students and 14 Italian-born Jewish teachers. She showed us the very small compound that contained the ghetto, including the house at which the synagogue was located. We walked up the narrow steps of the synagogue until we came to a water fountain that had been donated by the members of the community, according to a fine inscription on top of it.
As we entered the small synagogue hall I noted that its bimah was similar to the one we had seen in Mondovi the day before. On top of each window a poem had been written composed evidently around the personal names of members of the synagogue. It was the first synagogue we had visited where that the walls were not decorated with quotations from either the Bible or the Talmud.
Of course, we checked the Torah scrolls. One was written on leather and the rest were on parchment with no special peculiarities.
The staircase leading up to the women's gallery was too weak to hold us. On the other hand, we found the room that had been used as a schoolroom.
As in the case of other synagogues we visited in Piedmonte, its entrance was from inside the ghetto so that the Jews did not have to go outside the ghetto to reach the synagogue.
After a while, Mrs. Segré drove us out of town to see the Jewish cemetery. We saw the monuments, which were well kept and preserved. Here the name Segré, which indicates the Spanish origin of the family, predominated the cemetery. However, a beautiful, large, black stone with very clear, golden, engraved letter—the only one with a complete Hebrew text—was the grave of a Mrs. Hendele Rothstin. Mrs. Segré had no idea who she had been. (In the Cuneo cemetery we had seen three graves of Viennese and Hungarian Jews who had been executed by the Nazis only three days before the war was over.)
We said good-bye to Mr. Segré and Mrs. Segré—after they had shown us their apartment in the remodeled ghetto building—and were off for the last leg of our trip leading back to Milan. On the way we stopped over in Fossano; I wanted to be sure that I had visited each of the three cities that made up the famous APAM "tri-state" community!
Fossano, too, is a typical medieval town perched on top of a hill. Unfortunately the synagogue has disappeared. No one could tell us the location of the cemetery, which was still supposed to be in existence. We returned to our hotel in Milan a bit after 10:00 p.m. after an exhausting but totally gratifying and revealing cultural safari into the past of the rich Italian Jewish heritage!
On the way back to Milan, Karie talked about the great importance of having personal experiences such as this one, which make everything Jewish come so much to life, especially past history and our rich Jewish heritage.
In the morning we barely managed, each on his own, to return to the city.
Our trip through Jewish Piedmonte taught a great deal about Jewish history. By the 13th century, the Church realized that it had failed to eradicate Judaism in France, the land of the great yeshivot of the Provence and of the descendants of Rashi and his successors. The Church had tried to achieve success by burning precious Hebrew manuscripts, beginning in 1243 in Paris, when tens of thousands of copies of the Talmud were thrown publicly into the flames.
Next, the ferocious onslaught by the Church on Judaism was tried through public disputation and forced conversion. This, too, failed. That is when the Church decided to massacre the French Jews and deport the surviving Jews.
So in 1391 the great bloodbaths perpetrated by the Church took place. France was emptied of its once majestic Jewish centers. Those who could escape crossed the Alps into Italy. They took the rites with them, called "Minhag Tzorfath" to this day.
The communities of Piedmonte are therefore the transplanted French communities that had survived the outrages and pogroms of the Church. The Machzor Apam that they left us is a monument to the strength and resilience of the Jewish spirit.
Our visit to Piedmonte was therefore our way of paying homage to the memory of our great Jewish heroes.
[ HOME ] [ BIOGRAPHY ] [ ARTICLES ] [ BOOKS ]
[ SPEAKERS ]
[ CONTACT US ] [ ORDER FORM ]
[ MISSING ITEMS FROM THE COLLECTION ]