A guidebook sums up the history of the Jews of Florence in
these few words: "The first Jews settled in the city in the
thirteenth century. The community witnessed many ups and
downs, reaching its peak in the fifteenth century. The Jews
were forced into the ghetto from the sixteenth century
onward. The synagogue was one of Europe's most beautiful (see
True, the picturesque Florence synagogue does merit a
detailed description later on in the chapter. It even appears
in a list of "must-see" sites. But without even being aware
of it, the author has touched upon a sensitive point. From
the glorious heyday of Italian Jewry there remains only "a
glorious past." I wrote as much with pain in the synagogue's
guest book. I later regretted what I had written, and came
back and added the words, "May it be His Will that this
[glorious] past pale in comparison to a glorious future."
What would bring a chareidi Jew to Florence? Not much.
Perhaps no more than to visit one synagogue during a trip to
Italy, falling under the category of "empty synagogues":
bereft of prayer, bereft of Jews, bereft of content.
We visited 4 Prini Street, home of the synagogue and other
Jewish communal institutions.
We spoke with the Secretary of the Community, Mr. Emanuel
Viterbo, in a room in one of the Community buildings. Eliyahu
(Mario) Pinsky, a member of the Community, also joined our
discussion. In contrast to the Secretary, who wore no head
covering, Eliyahu had a beard and wore a knitted
"The Florence Community," said Viterbo, "which was the fourth
largest in Italy -- after Rome, Milan and Turin -- is not
merely a community of Jews of Florence, but it unifies Jews
from other cities in the province of Tuscany as well.
However, the majority of the Jews in the community do live in
Florence. Today, we number 960."
We got straight to the point and asked: Are prayers currently
held in the synagogue?
"There is a minyan on Shabbos night and on Shabbos
morning. Usually about 150 people attend, including women.
The women pray in a women's section, since it is an Orthodox
synagogue. All Italian rabbis and synagogues are Orthodox,"
However, any Orthodox Jew visiting these communities would
find no semblance of Orthodoxy as he knows it. Let's put it
this way: If I would have to categorize Italian rabbis
according to Israeli terms, I would place them in the
category of the most lukewarm "modern" types, in a pejorative
"In Italy," the Secretary says, "the categories are not the
same as what you have in Israel." It is certainly to the
Italian community's credit that the Reform and Conservative
movements have no foothold in Italy.
"We are speaking rather of various levels of religiosity,"
explains Viterbo. "Some are chareidim and some have never
crossed the threshold of a synagogue, yet you will find no
distortions of Judaism."
The Florence Jewish community has two synagogues. One, the
famous one, is in Florence, while the other is in Seino.
"Seino is a small town with only sixty Jews," he relates. "We
organize minyanim every rosh chodesh."
Viterbo continues: "Sometimes also on Monday and Thursday,
when we read from the sefer Torah. We also hold
minyanim for yahrtzeits.
"We get many Israeli tourists here," Viterbo says and then,
in an abrupt turnabout, begins to give us details about the
community. "Food: Florence has one kosher vegetarian
restaurant [Note: kosher if you rely upon the community
hashgocho]. There is also a schochet, a kosher
butcher and a kosher bakery. Our children study in
kindergarten and a talmud Torah."
It is, of course, not talmud as we know it and not
Torah as we know it in the chareidi communities, but it can
be called a Jewish elementary school. Varied activities take
the place of the patriotic Israeli organizations that have
already been sacrificed in Israel as holy cows. "We have a
mikveh, a rav and a chazan," the secretary
lists the rav as if he were a puppet. Perhaps he really
Are most of the members religious? we ask.
"They are not shomrei mitzvos," he answers, with the
last two words in Hebrew. "There are very few mitzvah
observers. But a large proportion respects tradition, comes
to the synagogue on Pesach and on Yom Kippur. We hold a
seder here on the first night of Pesach. However, many
people drive to the synagogue." R"l. We later received
a copy of the Florence Jewish community monthly bulletin.
Viterbo also told us about a photography store near the
central train station that sells exclusive pictures of the
former Florence ghetto. But, just as you, the reader, must
feel at the end of this interview, we also left with a
feeling of parchedness, and not because of thirst. After all
this activity there is, in essence, nothing Jewish about
One doesn't have to dig very deep to reveal that the new
spirit that the new synagogue represents, after hundreds of
years in the ghetto, is a distorted one. The former community
rav, Rav Shmuel Tzvi Margolis, set up a rabbinical seminary
in Florence, and one of his two talmidim was none
other than one of the biggest kofrim: Cassuto. He
served as rav of the Florence community and was killed in the
Holocaust. The local school is named after him.
The Florence Ghetto no longer exists. Its borders were the
Piazza della Republica and the Piazza Delolio. Memories of
the ghetto however, remain in photographs and pictures, in
street names and in squares. One square is called
"Mikvaos Square." There is a street called "Street of
the Permit," calling to mind the permit granted to Jews to
engage in banking. In an inscription on the entrance to the
ghetto we read that in this way the Jews have been separated
from the Christians, but were not expelled. Today, only the
inscription remains. A hint of what happened we find only at
the end, in an inscription over an arch in the Piazza della
Republica, where we read: "The old center of the city has
been restored and renovated after being neglected for many
years [meaning, made into a ghetto]."
Not long ago, there were still small houses of prayer in the
ghetto area, as well as Italian and Sephardic synagogues
sharing the same building, outside of the ghetto. The Italian
one has not been used since before World War Two. The second
synagogue was used by a group of Jews who fled Germany and
came to Florence after the war. When the building was sold,
all its contents were sent to Israel, and concurrently a
small synagogue was opened in a school, which was the only
one in the entire community until the large modern synagogue
The Great Synagogue of Florence is truly one of the most
beautiful in Europe. Its construction during the years 1882-
1884 was funded by Baron David Levi, president of the Jewish
community at the time. The synagogue "came into use"
following an official visit by the king of Italy.
I may be off in some details but it doesn't matter much.
Generally speaking, it has a great green dome leaning on a
base of sixteen windows. Two smaller turrets with green domes
also grace the facade. The facade is built with reddish
granite rock and an ornate colonnade. The synagogue is
decorated with copper decorations and wall paintings. In the
courtyard there is a memorial plaque with the names of 248
local Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
The building was bombed in August 1944 by the Germans and was
badly damaged. The destruction of a number of supporting
columns caused part of the ezras noshim to collapse.
The Nazis also stole treasures from the synagogue and brought
them to Northern Italy. After the war, the treasures were
returned. The synagogue was restored, but again suffered
damage during the great flood of 1966, when the Arno River
flooded its banks, flooding the synagogue with two meters of
water, mud and heating fuel.
The damage was tremendous. Furniture, instruments, frescos,
the historic library, and most importantly -- ninety
sifrei Torah, some very old. Restoration began
immediately with the help of many Jewish communities from
Italy as well as outside of the country. But as luck would
have it, the three architects who planned the restorations
were not Jewish. After they were directed to devise a
"tempio" (temple) they gave the synagogue elements that did
not belong in a house of prayer, such as a balcony to which
one climbs up on a narrow staircase, an organ, and a wide,
semi- circular stone stage in front of the aron
hakodesh. Another wooden bimah was added later,
and was placed in the center of the synagogue, as is
The nusach of prayer in Italy is the "Italian nusach,"
which is similar to nusach Ashkenaz. The rav uses the
balcony when the synagogue is completely full. This does
happen, explains our guide. On the yomim noraim, when
the local Jews devote three days to prayer -- the three days
that grant them and other like them the sobriquet of "Three-
@SUB TITLE = "Foreign" Workers
A flight of stairs leads from the entrance to the synagogue
to the Florence Jewish Museum. The Museum, located in part of
the ezras noshim, displays a collection of old Jewish
artifacts, including a wooden miniature of the ghetto. We,
however, were amazed to see that some of the explanatory
material prepared for Museum visitors was completely
Well, no, they do not distort history, but. . . believe it or
not, it turns out that the information has been prepared
neither by Jews nor even children of Jews, but by university
students who studied Jewish history. This did not seem at all
strange to another couple there, evidently Jews from the
United States. To us, however, this was another piece of the
destruction that had taken place.
On the other side of the entrance lobby a shop sells
souvenirs. Innocents would perhaps claim that one of the
purposes of such a store is to remind us of the past, but we
know that memories are the only thing that remains.
There is an entrance fee to the synagogue and to the Museum.
Because of strict security arrangements in Florence -- common
to all Jewish buildings outside of Israel -- we were not
allowed to bring cameras into the synagogue. In any case, we
were told, there are a number of cameras connected to the
security system at the entrance. A prism-shaped security
booth made of reinforced glass protrudes into the street,
serving as guard post for constant surveillance. And that is
what we are left with.
@SUB TITLE = Venice: Judaism Sinking Into An Abyss
At the entrance to the old Jewish ghetto there is a
kosher restaurant. Once, this was not what you met at
the entrance. But a bit deeper into this ghetto -- which is
no more than a mere alley, a square and another alley --
there are two synagogues. After you have crossed the bridge
you are in the new ghetto. A few youths join you in this
immense plaza, named "New Ghetto Square."
The Jewish Museum is here, where many of the synagogue's
beautiful tashmishei kedusha are kept. There are
another three synagogues here, too. Souvenir stores are
strewn throughout the ghetto, selling Judaica, Venetian glass
and combinations of the two. A simple Jew wanting to pray, or
to learn, however, has no chance of gaining entrance into one
of the synagogues. Guided tours to the four synagogues set
out throughout the day, sponsored by the Venetian Museum.
Our guide had an earring in his ear and a chain with a
Mogen David around his neck. One of his favorite
pastimes was to throw in jokes about Jews during the course
of the tour. He forbid our taking photographs, saying, "It's
really stupid, but we retain all rights. If we allow tourists
to take pictures to their hearts' desire, we won't be able to
sell any postcards!"
This repeated itself later at the Jewish cemetery on the
island of Lido. At least in Florence the prohibition against
taking photographs was clothed in "reasons of security." At
any rate, our fervent desire to unearth any spark of Jewish
innocence was almost completely suppressed in Venice. There,
just as in Florence, a souvenir store stood at the back of
the Jewish Museum.
Venice is the only city where the ghetto has remained, nearly
unchanged. Here, for hundreds of centuries, Jews lived out
their difficult lives, closed within their own small world:
with prayers, minhagim, synagogues -- almost a state
within a state. They were united around five large synagogues
that also served as community centers, with rabbonim and
communal institutions. The poor: peddlers, tailors,
shoemakers, the wealthy: moneylenders, contractors for ship
building. During the day, they could move freely about the
city, but at sunset they all returned to the ghetto. There
guardsmen, paid by the Jewish community itself, stood watch
over the entrances and the tunnels. Jews could leave the
ghetto only with daybreak.
In the morning, a trumpet call heralded the time for prayer
in the various synagogues: each according to his family
custom, each to his regular place of prayer. They would hear
the rav lecture on various Torah topics or his answers on
questions that had arisen. It was not rare, although amazing,
that non-Jews also participated in these shiurim.
Following the morning prayers, each man went his own
particular way to work; the youth to yeshivos and botei
midrash, where the most outstanding teachers and rabbonim
educated the next generation.
Today, one can visit the beis medrash known as
"Midrash," where HaRav Yehuda Arye (Leon) de Modena (1571-
1648, 5331-5408) gave his shiurim. Across from it, one
can see the beis midrash of HaRav Yaakov Vivanti.
Well, one can't really visit botei midrash. Much to
our dismay, nothing remains of them but Judaica stores. When
we went into one, following a sign to the side of the door,
we found the following inscription on the entrance floor (why
on the floor?): "Midrash Vivanti." Perhaps because every
aficionado of Judaica, Jew or non-Jew, can't help but come in
and. . . trample upon the inscription, protesting, as it
were, the fact that once this was a House of Torah. Perhaps
even more astounding is that fact that on holidays --
especially Purim -- many Christians walk around through the
ghetto alleyways and take part in the Jews' celebrations. .
@SUB TITLE = A Collective Fate
The streets of those times bustled with life all day long:
people chatting in the unique idiom of the Jews of the
ghetto, comprised of Venetian, Spanish, Italian and Yiddish.
It was a small world, with its quintessential characters,
where everyone knew everyone else: a place where arguments
and jealousy among neighbors was infrequent. Everyone was
united in a common fate.
In the evening, when the gates of the ghetto were locked and
guards stood at the entrances, everyone went home to his
small, crowded home, built up one atop the other due to the
limited space, leaning on each other and subject to the
danger of collapse and fire and so vulnerable to the spread
But in spite of the law requiring Jews to wear an identifying
symbol, the heavy tax levies, a complete lack of civil
rights, no possibility of purchase of land or property, no
possibility to conduct normal trade or vocation -- they still
lived there for hundreds of years, shielded from the violence
and riots which plagued other cities. History shows that the
non-Jewish citizens of Venice never displayed outward
animosity towards their Jewish neighbors.
The ghetto was an area that was considered unhealthy on the
outskirts of the city made up of pieces of three of the
city's quarters. The ghetto to which the Jews were first made
to enter in 1516 (5276) was a part of the S. Girolamo
quarter. It was known as the geto nuovo which means
"new foundry." The "old ghetto" (geto vecchio), from
1541 (5301), came from the adjoining S. Jeremiah quarter. The
newest ghetto was added in the year 1633 (5393) from what is
know today as the S. Alovisa quarter.
The areas had formerly been used as an iron foundry -- which
is the literal meaning of the word "ghetto" -- for the
manufacture of weapons for the Italian Republic. The site was
neglected in the fourteenth century and subsequently sealed.
Over a bridge and through a gate one could reach the areas
where refuse from the forged iron could be found. The Jews
adjusted to this place within three days, wherein they
occupied the existing houses and set them up to fit their
needs. Like Egypt, the ghetto served the Jews as a
Today on both sides of the entrance to the old ghetto one can
still see rusty hinges of the gates that were locked at
night, as well as the two small windows -- now shuttered --
through which the guards peered. One then enters a long
passageway that hardly ever sees any daylight: Calla di
ghetto Vecchio. Tall buildings on both sides of the road
practically suffocate the alley.
In spite of repeated renovations, the atmosphere has not
changed. In 1541 the Jews from the Levant, and the
"ponentini (Westerners)," who had been expelled from
Spain, were placed here. The first group from 1516 were
mostly of Italian and German origin.
A bit past the wharf there is a small plaque with a barely
readable inscription from 1704 (5464) which reads that
outsiders are strictly forbidden to have anything to do with
the ghetto-dwellers. In addition, it lists the punishments
for anyone breaking the laws of the ghetto and the rewards
for the guards who ensure that the laws are kept in full. The
restored building to the left was formerly the ponentini
A long alleyway leads to the "Campiello delle Scuole" (School
Square), a large area on whose northern and southern sides
are the Levantini and the Sephardic synagogues. The plaza
used to be square, but its shape changed when the Levantini
synagogue was enlarged, and the well that was supposed to be
in the middle of the square seems out of place. In the east
and west are houses, which look like skyscrapers compared to
the tiny streets.
A bit after the entrance to the ghetto, just at the entrance,
we stop at a small grocery. Was this a kosher store? A large
sign in the window greeted us: "Dulce Ivreichi," meaning,
"Jewish Sweets." So it must be a kosher store. Let's go in. .
Just a minute. We were stopped at the threshold by a young
man whose appearance left no doubt in our minds that he was a
secular Jew. "Where do you think you are going?"
We were flabbergasted by his tone of voice. When we found our
voices at last, we asked, "Why? Doesn't the sign say `Jewish
The young man smiled. "I really don't think that you want to
buy Jewish sweets in this store," and as he spoke, pointed to
the refrigerator which hosted a variety of sausages. "This is
meat. . ." Before we could digest our terrible error, the
young man vanished into thin air.
Nevertheless, the fact remained that here in the Jewish
ghetto, in 1999, non-kosher "Jewish sweets" are sold. The
shock we experienced from this episode accompanied us to
every Jewish site we visited. Anything Jewish seemed to be
accompanied by decay, rotting inside.
We paused for a moment in the center of the ghetto, searching
for something Jewish: something in addition to the
indubitable fact that this was, indeed, the Jewish ghetto.
Suddenly we found it. On one of the walls was a small square,
hidden by a tree branch. It was time-worn and barely
discernible. A small square, an ama by ama. Not
the ama by ama that we leave unpainted in our
homes, but, rather, an external square, engraved with the
words, "In Memory of the Churban."
We later learned that this had been one of the walls of the
Italian synagogue. All the colorful tourists, plodding along,
following their guide from one synagogue to the next, do not
at all fit in with the landscape. Do they realize what a
terrible place this is? For them it probably is just a visit
to another museum, or another old synagogue.
The fact that such a small ghetto contains four magnificent
synagogues attests again and again that "one may find the
glory of the King in many ways." This fact, however, served
merely as material for one of our guide's rusty jokes, when
he repeated the worn line, "Whenever you have two Jews, you
have three synagogues."
We didn't laugh. For when one ponders for another minute, one
realizes that it was specifically this dedication to one's
particular tradition that allowed Judaism to survive. So it
really didn't matter how many different types of synagogues
there were in a small ghetto.
Today, most of the inhabitants of the former ghetto are non-
Jews. The guide told us about passageways connecting the
synagogues to the ghetto's homes, but we could not visit
them. The neighborhood people are not particularly interested
in visitors. Especially not Jews.
@SUB TITLE = The Levantini Shul
In the new ghetto there are three synagogues and two others
in the old ghetto. But aside from the fact that one crosses a
small bridge, one can't tell where one starts and the other
ends. This facility reflects the easy passage of the Jews of
today's Venice from the old to the new spirituality.
In the old ghetto's square we visited the Levantini synagogue
of Turkish and Greek Jewry. It is situated opposite the
Sephardic synagogue, the most typical of the Venetian
synagogues, and quite elaborate both inside and out. Unlike
the other buildings, it was not converted from something else
into a synagogue but was built specifically for this purpose.
According to local tradition, the synagogue was built in 1538
(5398) by the Levantine Jews when they were still living
freely in the area. It has been remodeled a number of
The entire building is a model of harmony and symmetry. The
facade had a number of decorative frames. Today, the left
frame has been replaced with a memorial plaque for the Jews
who perished in the First World War.
A plaque over the entrance reads, "Blessed are you when you
come and blessed are you when you depart." However, the
chilly museum air did nothing to give us a welcome feeling.
The original entrance is now the entrance to the small
Luzzatto synagogue. The entrance lobby is lavishly decorated
with ornaments and ancient plaques. One of the plaques
reminds the community of the importance of charity and mutual
help. Another, from the year 1875 (5635), recounts the visit
of Sir Moses Montefiore. The walls are lined with
piyutim praising the Creator, many as acrostics based
on the name: "Elia Aron Chazak."
The sanctuary itself is quite magnificent. The ceiling is
made of engraved wood in a geometric pattern. Here, too, the
bimah and aron are at the front of the
synagogue on elevated platforms, reached by alighting stairs
on either side of the bimah. The posuk, "How awesome
is this place, it is none other than the House of G- d," is
engraved on pillars in front of the aron hakodesh. In
front of the bimah we read, "Pischu li sha'arei
tzedek, ovo vom odeh Koh" and "Zeh hasha'ar laHashem
tzadikim yovo'u bo." But these pesukim seem to be
meaningless to most of those present today. Above the
aron, in gold on black in a small frame, we read,
"Da lifnei mi ato omeid (Know before Whom you stand)."
The banister is made of marble and closed with a copper gate,
where we read it was donated by "Rabbi Menachem di Maimon