Fondazione De Benedetti - Cherasco 1547
Jewish Itineraries in Piedmont
The Jewish artistic heritage in Italy generates interest both for its distinctiveness and for the fact that it testifies to an uninterrupted presence of over 2000 years, marked by multiple and varied evidence.
The history of the Jewish community in Italy (and in Piedmont) is a history of precariousness: the presence of Jewish groups was always temporary and subject to mutable political and economic circumstances by the supposed host states. For centuries excluded from productive employment, the Jews were compelled to perform the task of money lending, an activity long forbidden to Christians.
The Synagogues of Piedmont
In Piedmont, formerly a land with a rich Jewish presence, one can still today trace Jewish assets in about twenty locations. Most notable are the synagogues, real gems, which served as centers of communal life, places of prayer and study, discussion and meeting.
The centuries-old presence of Jews in Piedmont finds its outstanding expression in the synagogues – testaments of faith, but also of complex and many-layered developments, a heritage to be transmitted to the future. Sixteen of the existing synagogues are located in the territories of the Turin, Casale Monferrato and Vercelli communities: Asti, Biella, Carmagnola, Casale Monferrato, Cherasco, Cuneo, Mondovì, Saluzzo and Vercelli have one each, Alessandria and Ivrea have two, Turin three.
Large or small, imposing or tucked away on the top floor of simple houses, they constitute the map of a single blueprint, which reconstitutes facts and occurrences in the life of a people that has never ceased to struggle for its existence. The visitor is struck by an appeal that combines spirituality and art, faith and harmony, into one whole, indivisible and often of great beauty.
In the Ghettos of Piedmont
It seems a long time ago, but still today in many cities of Piedmont, in the most populated centers as well as in tiny locations, even in hamlets, there are entire quarters, or only one or more houses, which access courtyards that bear ancient signs of barricades and traces of once sealed windows towards the street.
These are the ghettos of Piedmont, areas of segregation instituted by order of princes and rulers, who prohibited contact between the dwellings of Jews and those of Christians.
Staircases, upper-story galleries, iron gratings, as well as communicating alleys and courtyards, remain as evocations of the singular cramped atmosphere that for a long time characterized Jewish life in Piedmont, always in precarious balance between separation and proximity to the surrounding Christian world.
Jewish Cemeteries in Piedmont
Visiting cemeteries, and particularly Jewish cemeteries, does not mean going only to Prague, the Venice Lido, or Ferrara. The Piedmont too is rich in Jewish cemeterial remains, whose appeal merits better acquaintance.
As Primo Levi wrote in his 1985 foreword to the handsome volume La Comunità Ebraica di Venezia e il suo antico cimitero (Il Polifilo, Milano 2000), in Jewish cemeteries "there is no, or at least there does not predominate, a sense of mourning. Mourning is that immediate and stringent feeling of one who has lost a family member, a cherished person with whom he had associated, of whom he recalls the features, habits, voice. Here, mourning is remote, subdued by the centuries: a sense of peace prevails, of the eternal rest that all the rituals promise the deceased…Over it all there extends a green mantle of creeping vines, images of raw life, immemorial, that drowns memory." (free translation)
Beyond their aesthetic and spiritual fascination, the Piedmont cemeteries constitute an important historical resource for information about the Jewish presence in the diverse localities.
Beneath the hands of kohanim (Priests) extended in benediction, the pitchers of the Levites, grape bunches, stags, lions, eagles, doves – all forms of Jewish symbolism – appear the names of the Jews who resided in these Piedmont localities, evoking life events and family ties that would otherwise remain unknown.
· (*) Excerpts from the following publications: “In Piemonte sedici Sinagoghe”, “Nei Ghetti del Piemonte” and “Cimiteri Ebraici in Piemonte” prepared by the Jewish Community of Turin, the Jewish Community of Casale Monferrato, and the Jewish Community of Vercelli, with texts by Mariacristina Colli and Claudia De Benedetti, photos by the Jewish Community of Turin, Nicolò Biddau, Stefania Levi, Silvia Reichenbach, Alberto Jona Falco/Studio Olimpic, the whole coordinated by Giulio Disegni.