A Visit to the Synagogues of Piedmonte
Most tourists to Italy visit Rome, Venice, Florence -- sometimes also Naples. Few visit the Northwestern Province of Italy called Piedmonte -- "the Foot of the Mountains." Very few know that Piedmonte is a veritable treasure chest of magnificent, albeit abandoned Jewish synagogues. When I heard about them I decided to take time out from a business trip to Milan for a "cultural safari" to this almost forgotten corner of our Jewish past. I invited my daughter Karie to accompany me on this trip. We traveled to Milan where we met our Jewish tour guide, Mrs. Annie Sacerdoti, the author of several books on Jewish antiquities in Italy.
We left Milan and after a 45-minute drive west soon reached Casale-Monferrato. There we were in for a wonderful surprise. After we reached the ghetto, the synagogue was opened up for us. This synagogue is a sparklingly beautiful Baroque structure, built in 1595.
The ceiling in the synagogue was adorned with a few Hebrew words. All around the walls there are many biblical verses as well as historical texts. We couldn’t see or photograph enough of this beautiful edifice.
Afterwards, we inspected the little narrow alleys of the old ghetto, and even saw the hinges of the gate that once had shut off the Jews from the outside world every evening.
In order to find the wife of the president of the community we walked a few blocks to a movie house where the cashier turned out to be the wife of the president. Mrs. Ottolenghi had studied at the University of Wisconsin and spoke very fluent English. She told us that there are only 12 Jews in the city. Her own 24-year-old son had become quite religious and wanted to perpetuate the traditions of the family in Casale-Monferrato.
We continued the ride through the Italian countryside, now reaching hilly sections covered by vineyards and poplar trees beautiful in their different shades of green.
Our target was Moncalvo, a city so dear to my heart because of the important manuscript of its Jewish community’s machzor (holiday prayer book), handwritten in 1799, which I own, and about which I have corresponded for some time with Dr. Carlo DiBenedeth, head of the Olivetti industrial empire whose family had created this machzor.
We proceeded to a hill outside town where a very stately, aristocratic manor is owned by a Jewish family who are in the wine business. We were immediately received as members of the family, as they showed us their wine cellar and wine manufacturing areas.
We returned to town and visited the beautiful, large city square on top of the hill. Interestingly enough, the town synagogue was placed at the center of that square, instead of the usual church. Unfortunately, the synagogue is closed, having been totally stripped of all its interior, which had been sent to Israel and partly installed in the Bnei Brak Yeshiva.
Next we drove to Asti. Asti is one of the three Jewish communities covered by the abbreviated expression "Apam," standing for Asti. Fasano and Moncalvo. The machzor in my possession covering the rite for all three communities is called "Minhag Apam" or "Minhag Tzorfat," since its Jews came across the Alps as refugees from the pogroms in the French Province in 1391.
We drove into the center of Asti, and parked the car near the central city square. After meeting Mrs. Sacerdoti, we proceeded on foot to the old Jewish ghetto. We were told that the Jews of Asti, as a one-time exception, were allowed to have windows in the outside building of the ghetto, which faced the Christian part of the city, but that as a result of this, the Christians invoked the rule that a Madonna had to be attached to that building, which they were forced to look at. This Madonna is still there!
After passing some very old courtyards and the large wooden doors that led into those courtyards, we reached the Via Ottolenghi -- a street named after one of the outstanding Jews of the Asti community -- where we finally arrived at the magnificent synagogue. This synagogue which was completed in 1809, reflects a much later period than the one we had seen in Casale-Monferrato. The large building is mainly characterized by tall marble pillars, and the ark is beautifully gilt-laid.
We concentrated on the ark, and I had the non-Jewish guardian of the synagogue help me take out one Torah scroll after the other. To my surprise, almost all of them were written on brownish leather in typical North African script.
We went upstairs to the women’s section where we saw a framed document hanging on the wall referring to the "Israelite University," which I understand refers to a Hebrew school.
In this synagogue a small museum had been organized, with very neat and clearly marked objects. These were mostly handwritten, short prayers, printed prayer books from Venice and Livorno with handwritten annotations, besides any array of scrolls, Torah mantles, and historic documents. A number of mimeographed publications had been prepared for visitors, as well as an unusually beautiful and colorful, printed brochure.
Mrs. Sacerdoti had presented me earlier with a very rich folder of historical facts on the Asti community, including a complete chronology of the historical highlights covering the period 1812 to 1984, approximately 110 years. Sadly, there is a repetitive sequence of expulsions and reinstatements of the Jews in this community.
We now headed for the cemetery. The cemetery itself was rather depressing in that it was filled with rather garish and somewhat gaudy tombstones, often holding a photograph of the deceased, or even sculpted busts. There were mausoleums and monuments very similar to the ones seen at the Mosseri compound at the Basatin cemetery outside Cairo.
The guide proudly pointed to the tombs of outstanding Jewish officials, including an Isaac Artom, who was the principal advisor to Cavour, the hero-prime minister of the first United Italian Government back in 187.
One man whose tomb we saw was the inventor of the study of fingerprints. Another man, whose very prominent tomb held his bust, was the inventor of a marine communications device for ships.
The name Ottolenhgi dominated the cemetery. As expected, with such an assimilated community, Hebrew inscriptions were in the decided minority. I noticed a peculiarity: "The day of his death" was given as "Yom Halfato," ("The day of his turning over,") instead of "Petirato," ("His passing") as would be expected. When I asked Mrs. Sacerdoti about this later, she said that I was right in my assumption that this could be considered a translation from an Italian expression for death, such as "he changed his life."
It seems that originally cemeteries were inside the city boundaries, but that Napoleon, about 18 years ago, ordained that all cemeteries must be moved far outside the cities for hygienic reasons. As a result, the Jews were forced to "gather the bones" of old graves and move them along to the new cemeteries. In Asti there was one communal grave that held all the bodies collected from the old cemetery, all placed under one large stone.
As scheduled we arrived in Mondovi. 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 a Jewish visitor.
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 1848. The other stones were completely dominated by two families: Levi and Mongliano.
It was a very moving sight to see Mr. Levi tend to 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 the three graves. As the only surviving Jew, and only surviving chiles -- 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 were wondering 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 on the second floor, houses a beautiful old synagogue. 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 other ones: 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 medakah boxes; one Queen Esther 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 was facing 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 matzot. 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 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 "Foat," 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 Moncalvao, 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 midrosh 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 inspirations to thought.
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