As my husband and I drove through the Tuscan valley last October, on the winding road that climbs up to the town of Pitigliano, I could not believe my eyes.
The little town on a tuff hill, known as La Piccola Gerusalemme, with its steep cliff and wall-like row of buildings that seem as if they grow from the stone, looked like the Jerusalem of my dreams.
Maybe it seemed this way because Pitigliano is an isolated town you need to climb up to, or maybe it was the suddenly cloudy skies that added to the awe, but it gave me a sad nostalgia for the real old city of Jerusalem, where new fancy hotels and shopping malls obstruct the view and try to compete with its beauty.
It isn't only the view that that earned this Italian town its name of Little Jerusalem – that moniker is mainly thanks to the strong and prospering Jewish community that resided there since the 16th century.
The community gathered from Florence, Sienna and later, Rome, all hoping to escape the ghetto life in their original cities by finding refuge in this more tolerant town.
Together they built a community that at its height counted 400 Jews, comprising up to 20 percent of the population. They built two libraries, a school - which some Christian children would attend as well - a tzedaka (charity) organization, and a full system of public institutions that enabled the community to live a full Jewish life.
In the Jewish quarter, a steep staircase built in tuff stone leads you to an underground set of rooms including one that used serve as the kosher communal oven.
This bakery was used for Passover only in its last years. Although the bakery is dug into the tuff stone, there is a window overlooking the green valley, and bright light shines inside the white room.
Two marble top stone tables stand on both sides of the room, and in the center lives a large and heavy wooden stick attached to the wall that helped with the kneading of the dough.
The stove itself is built into another wall, and next to it, long paddles that were used to ease the baked goods in and out of the oven.
Once a year, all of the Jewish families would roll up their sleeves and the bakery would be opened, cleaned and prepared for the intensive yearly Passover baking.
After carrying all the ingredients down the steps, each family would bake its own matzoh, as well as sweet matzoh with anise and kosher for Passover cookies.
“We would give some matzoh to our goyim neighbors, those families who liked it,” Elena Servi, an 81-year-old woman who was born in Pitigliano and lived there for most of her life, told me. “They, in return, would give us the first savory pizza right after the holiday was over.”
I met Elena in what used to be a series of underground rooms that included an old wine cellar, a slaughter house, a mikveh, and the bakery. These rooms were restored with the help of the association of the Friends of Little Jerusalem, and became a museum of the Jewish life in Pitigliano.
On the day of our visit, Elena was busy talking to a group of children from a school in Tuscany. The museum not only describes the lives of the Jewish community in town, but has a lot of what seemed to us as a trivial collection of Jewish artifacts. It turns out that for many of the kids, this is their first encounter with Jewish life.
To my delight, the interview was conducted in Hebrew, since Elena, who doesn’t speak a word of English, lived in Kibbutz Netzer Sereni in Israel for 10 years. Her Hebrew is fluent.
“In Pitigliano we learned how to read and write Hebrew in school,” she said “But only in Israel, I learned how to speak the language.”
The beautiful synagogue adjacent to the museum was built in 1598, just at the edge of the cliff.
From the balcony right next to it, there is a gorgeous view of the valley and the old Jewish cemetery. The synagogue was restored a few times over the course of the years, and after the last round of restorations in 1995, it has fully returned to its glory.
When the fascist regime in Italy enacted the racial laws of 1938, the kosher oven was forbidden from use, and the families had to buy their Passover foods from Rome.
At that point, there were only about 70 Jews in town, and when the Nazis arrived to the area towards the end of World War II they all hid in the farms of their neighbors in the valley until the war was over. Elena and her parents, two sisters and a boyfriend of one of the sisters were all hiding together, including a few months of hiding in a cave in the area.
Only four Jews now live in Pitigliano, including Elena, her son and her nephew.
For kosher for Passover food, Elena must shop in Livorno. The Passover oven is now only a historic reminder of Pitigliano’s Jewish golden age.
Edda Servi Machlin, who grew up in Pitigliano before the war and now lives in New York, published in 1981 a cookbook called “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews.”
Along with an important documentation of Italian and Pitigliano cooking, Edda lively describes her memories as a child.
As in other communities in the Diaspora, the Italian Jews used the bountiful of spring produce for their seder, including artichoke and spinach, and also young lamb and kid (baby goat, silly!) The recipes and Passover menu I created are inspired by these, and by Elena’s memory of a spinach and matzah soup.
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