Beyond Masada / Jewish Italy in Jerusalem

Around the corner from the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall are an 18th-century Italian synagogue and a companion museum.

Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem may play second fiddle to the more tourist-frequented, parallel Ben-Yehuda Street, with its shops, cafes, and restaurants. But neatly tucked into its northern side is a jewel of a small museum and synagogue. This diminutive complex evokes the atmosphere of the Jewish religious life that evolved over the past two millennia in Italy.

The compact but splendid museum contains lovingly chosen exhibits celebrating this illustrious past, while the synagogue is a religious hub of Jerusalem's still-vibrant Italian Jewish community.

The synagogue’s design reflects the circumstances and aspirations of Italy's Jewish communities in the late Medieval and the Renaissance periods. Printing presses in Italian cities published large numbers of Hebrew religious texts that were eagerly purchased both locally and throughout Europe. Jews were active in business, medicine and the arts as well as in the more traditional Talmudic pursuits.

The Italian states were relatively tolerant toward Jews, although there were occasional bouts of violent anti-Semitism. Italian synagogues tended to the plain or even drab on the outside, to avoid drawing unwelcome attention, but were lavishly ornate within.

That is true of both the museum and the synagogue, which are housed in a former German-Catholic convent. Part of the synagogue's stunning gold-leaf-adorned Torah ark dates to the early 16th century. It was designed to resemble the façade of the Temple in Jerusalem, which in King Solomon’s time contained the Ark of the Covenant. It also incorporates elements from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with their characteristic gables, columns, and Corinthian capitals. This epitomizes the general attitude of that community: loyal to its sacred traditions, yet sensitive and appreciative of local contemporary styles in arts and crafts.

The ark, reading desk and other synagogue furnishings are from Conegliano, a small Italian town between Padua and Venice. The synagogue was in use in this location until 1918. The last service, on Yom Kippur, overflowed with Jewish soldiers in the Austrian army, which had just conquered the region.

With only seven Jews left in the town after World War I, the synagogue fell into disuse; after prolonged negotiations, in 1951 the building's interior was dismantled and shipped to Israel.

Its contents were augmented by an extremely valuable collection of Italian-crafted Jewish ritual items brought over the next few years by Dr. Umberto Nahon, for whom the museum is named. Its present location and the synagogue’s return to regular use are a crowning triumph of the partnership between the Jewish communities of Italy and Israel.

Adjacent to the synagogue are the museum rooms. Observe the rich embroidered curtains, reading-desk covers and Torah mantles, an expression of the prayer in the Roman-Jewish liturgy blessing “every daughter of Israel who makes a mantle or cover for the Torah.”

There are also some remarkable examples of wood- and metalwork, many of them bearing the coats of arms of the donor families. Look especially for the Chairs of Elijah, used in the brit milah circumcision ceremony. They are rather high, however.

One friend recalls an occasion where the very small sandak (the godfather, who holds the infant during the procedure) had to scramble hard to mount the seat. The man's tallit, however, made from the Shanghai silk of his war-refugee years, was the envy of the ladies of the congregation.

The Shabbat liturgy used in the synagogue is unique in Israel. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, it follows the Italian rite extant in Rome and is a source of great pride for the community.

The cantillation melody for the Torah reading includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardi nuances, but is a distinctly Italian blend. And some of the accompanying readings from the Prophets are not to be found in any other congregation in Israel.

For example, the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17: 1-34) is read together with the Torah reading in Deuteronomy about going to war, though it disappointingly stops short of David’s slingshot marksmanship. And as the cantor reaches the priestly blessings, fathers poignantly place their hands on their sons’ head with: “May the Lord bless you and take care of you.”

Indeed, the art, woodcarvings and golden opulence of the Jerusalem Italian synagogue interior comes to life during the Saturday morning service, when the largely Italian-born regulars convene for prayer and community life from all over Jerusalem.

Though the visitor will pick up plenty of Italian from the regulars and a smattering of English from the tourists, the service and sermon are entirely in Hebrew. The synagogue is Orthodox, with men downstairs and women high up in the gallery, and they all come together for the kiddush afterward. The atmosphere is welcoming, pleasant and rather laid-back. In short, you feel at home.

The Conegliano Veneto Synagogue and The U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art are located at 27 Hillel St., Jerusalem. Open Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday 10 A.M.-5 P.M; Thursday noon-9 P.M.; Friday 10 A.M.-1 P.M. Entrance fee to synagogue and museum. Saturday morning service 8:30 A.M. Tel. (02) 624- 1610.

Jacob Solomon
Jacob Solomon