Candles and Pomegranates – Ilyse Steiner

Friday night vacationing in an unknown city usually lends itself to late–night dining and strolling through bustling squares. Yet, in Florence, Italy, I was determined to attend a Friday night Shabbat service at the Sinagoga Di Firenze.

My husband Rich and I had completed a week-long bike trip through the rolling hills of Umbria and Tuscany. After seven days, we said “ciao” to our guides and the couples we had bonded with over wheels and wine. Before our trip became a deep-dive into Italian art, culture and Catholicism, I wanted to connect to the country’s Jewish culture and attend a service. Ever prepared for such an occasion, Rich packed a kippah just in case. We relinquished a few hours of vacation to some religious observance.

Theoretically, I should have been able to understand the Hebrew-based service. As an American Jew, I spent my childhood in Hebrew School and my life attending holiday services. My adult life consisted of marrying under a chuppah, sending my children to Hebrew school, planning their bar mitzvahs, hosting holidays and instilling the rituals and values my husband and I were taught by our parents. Unfortunately, I experienced Jewish mourning rituals and customs after my mom passed away over Thanksgiving weekend in 2014. For many, the idea of vacationing means abandoning the structure and regular obligation of home. Jewish history–especially in Italy–was so deep and entwined with its Roman Catholic counterpart, I felt an obligation.

We had visited the Moorish–styled building earlier in the afternoon to inquire about services and tour the museum sections no longer in use. After leaving our phones in lockers and passing through security, we had entered. I had never seen pomegranate trees before yet the courtyard was lined with them and their red orbs glistened not quite ripe enough to be harvested.

The first Jews settled in Italy prior to the Christian-Roman period and their history tumultuous. During Medieval times, two synagogues existed in the Jewish ghetto that held the Jewish community for two 278 years. While free Jewish life was possible under Cosimo de’ Medici, in an effort to gain favor with Pope Pius V, Medici installed a ghetto in Florence forcing the Jews to live and work within its walls. He also forced them to wear identifying markers that indicated they were Jews when traveling outside the gated walls. While the ghetto wasn’t created to force Christianity upon the Jewish population, it was seen, “to segregate but not expel.” In 1848, the Jewish community was freed from the locked-in and overcrowded space, and they wanted their new synagogue far from the ghetto’s original walls. According to the book, The Synagogue The Jewish Museum of Florence, the building was completed in 1882 after seven years of construction and debate determining the site, style and religious practice among the Jewish community.

During WWII, Nazis occupied the synagogue and used it as a garage for military vehicles. When the Germans fled, they attempted to demolish the building by lining it with explosives. Miraculously, only one area blew up, leaving the structure intact. Although not completely destroyed, the women’s section on the second floor was no longer safe for occupancy. During the 1960’s, the Arno River flooded killing 101 people and destroying millions of rare books and art. The synagogue was not immune, suffering a loss of ancient artifacts, furnishings, as well as more structural damage. Italian-Jewish institutions, donations from Jews around the world, and the Italian government paid for and repaired the building. Today, the congregation consists of 1000 people, according to the Jewish Community of Florence’s website.

We had wandered past encased ritual objects from children’s notebooks to prayer shawls from the previous synagogues displayed in the narrow hallway, some dating as early as 1570. Though not as crammed with tourists as the churches we toured, many people admired this mighty synagogue not only for its strength of structure but the vigor of the community devoted to it. Like it’s Catholic counterparts, it also had pink stone from the nearby town of Assisi within its foundation.

After hours of exploring Florence, dining on gelato and consuming the best sandwich I have ever eaten at All’Antico Vinaio, we changed our clothes and returned to la Sinagoga. Near the iron gates, the other Jewish couple we rode with on our bike tour joined us. Waiting in line, my mind returned to the ghetto. Today, a square complete with an Apple store and trendy boutiques overflowing with tourists and peddlers hawking Pinnochio marionettes stood where the Florentine ghetto once existed. Although the ghetto was razed in 1800, we searched for a marker or monument or acknowledgment but found nothing. How had the Jews managed to survive among conquerors and popes with varying senses of tolerance? Gradually, college students sauntered down the sidewalks, digging into their pockets for kippot. Couples joined in line too. Israeli, American, British and French Jews wished each other a “Shabbat Shalom,” which was universal regardless of one’s primary language.

A woman wearing a wig and dark clothing approached my friend and me.

“I am Sarah. Come with me. Please, all the women. Follow me for lighting candles,” she said.

I left my husband and followed the gathering to the corner near a storefront with an enormous menorah in the window. Traditionally, the female of a household lit candles and recited the prayer welcoming the sabbath at dusk on Friday evenings. Once the candles burned, Shabbat had officially begun for the week. After services concluded, a prayer for wine and bread was said.

“Oy,” I said under my breath. I was a bit uncomfortable passing the Jewish symbol and immediately remembered that The Great Synagogue in Rome was bombed in 1982 by Palestinian militants killing 37 people including a toddler. I had an eerie feeling passing the Chabad storefront walking down a grimy, narrow street wondering how Jews lived during Mussolini’s enactment of race laws in 1938. Like American Jews today, the Italian Jews not to mention Jews throughout Europe of that time were fully integrated into their country’s society. It could shatter in a heartbeat.

Sarah passed the store a few doors down to her apartment in an unadorned, gritty, building. As we entered, there were two long tables set with paper plates and wine glasses. She gave the single women one mini candle each and married women two. I rolled my eyes as she asked for my marital status and handed me two. I was too progressive for this orthodox strand of Judaism, which was more concerned with women fruitfully multiplying than my social-justice seeking, egalitarian, liberal-American branch.

We sang the prayer in unison welcoming Shabbat. My gratefulness for this task, something I’ve done infrequently over the years, surprised me. I thought of my mom who passed away five years ago. So many Italian women reminded me of her. Although I did not have Italian ancestry, my olive skin, dark eyes and hair, allowed me to immediately blend in. The moment we landed, people spoke Italian to me, and I felt as if I had returned from a long absence. On the bike trip, my Italian-American guide was married to a Jewish woman and he crossed his fingers over each other and remarked, “Jews and Italians are so similar in our cultures, mannerisms and love of family!”

Once the prayer ended, Sarah announced, “You’re all invited to join us after services for a free, kosher, Shabbat meal.”

Dinner wasn’t served until after the service, but my mouth watered smelling the garlic and chicken permeating Sarah’s home. I thought about Italian Jewish food and the fusion of incorporating Italian elements in traditional Jewish dishes and regretted our decision to book a reservation elsewhere and not attend Sarah’s dinner. For many, especially religious people, this was the only way to eat a proper meal on a Friday night. Although I am not as religious as the Orthodox-Jewish Hasidic organization would prefer, I appreciated their gesture and placed my candles next to the others. We returned to our spouses, boyfriends and groups, who waited outside the synagogue for us, repeated the security screening and entered.

I joined others in the women-only section, and my friend tagged behind me. When the service began, I followed along although the prayer books were in Italian and Hebrew. Then my friend, whom I had only known for a week, confessed that their trip was in part to heal her rocky marriage. She whispered, unloaded and acknowledged her motivations for their trip. It was if she had been holding her breath for a week and was finally able to exhale. Her husband’s estranged father had died the month prior and knowing we were attending the Friday night service motivated them to join us. The service was now lost to me. There I was, sitting halfway around the world, listening to woman talk to me as if I was home and we were old friends.

Leaning towards her, hoping others weren’t disturbed, I gave up on the service and listened.

I had come to the synagogue to pay my respects and connect my Judaism to Italy’s. Yet, listening to this woman confess, I realized she was like the synagogue because she was little bit broken, but not crushed and hoping to be healed. Part of Judaism is the concept of Tikkun Olam, or repair the world. We sat in a space that had seen damage and still persevered and maybe she would too.

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2 thoughts on “Candles and Pomegranates – Ilyse Steiner

  1. Phyllis Steiner

    A remarkable walk through Jewish history in Italy and the awakening of a modern American Jewish woman!


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