Word of the Day: La Sinagoga

la sinagoga (seen-ah-GO-gah): synagogue

Today I went with George’s Religious Studies class to the Jewish synagogue in Florence. In this city that is so dominated by Catholicism, it was a delightful change of pace to learn something about other religious traditions in the area. The synagogue is a beautiful building both inside and out. (Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take pictures inside the synagogue, but if you go to Google images and type Florence synagogue you get some beautiful pictures of the exterior and a few of the interior.

The synagogue was built after the unification of Italy (1861), so it is considered a “new” synagogue. The distinguishing feature of the exterior is the copper dome that has turned green over time. It is very striking looking. The interior has lots of Moorish design elements which make it look exotic. Since it is an orthodox synagogue, the women are separated from the men during services. They used to only be able to sit in the upstairs area called the women’s gallery, but today they are allowed to sit in a section over on the right of the downstairs area. 

We learned quite a bit about the history of the Jews in Florence. They first arrived during the renaissance and were welcomed and protected by Lorenzo the Magnificent (a Medici ruler). The first ghetto was instituted in 1570 and was located across the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio. In the 1600s the ghetto was moved to the very center of Florence, where the Piazza della Repubblica is now. With the unification of Italy came the Emancipation and all jews were given equal rights with all other citizens. 

During WWII, Florentine Jews fared better than in most places in Europe (that’s largely true for Italy as a whole.) Because they were integrated into Italian life, many Florentines helped conceal them from the Nazis. A local bishop helped hide many of them inside convents and monasteries. Italians have a long tradition of circumventing governmental regulations, so they were skilled at helping their neighbors evade the authorities, often at great risk to themselves. Eventually, 287 were taken to the concentration camps, including the local rabbi who stayed with those of his congregation who couldn’t be hidden. This was about 12-13% of the total Jewish population of Florence, which is relatively low. For Italy as a whole the percentage was about 16%. During the war, the Nazis took over the synagogue and used it as a garage for their military vehicles. Before they left, they exploded several land mines inside which damaged one wall. It was repaired shortly after the end of the war.

Upstairs in the synagogue, there is a small museum that tells some of the history and also displays some ceremonial objects dating from the 17th century onward. There is even a torah scroll in a display case, which our guide explained is very unusual for an orthodox synagogue. Usually, when a torah scroll is no longer usable, it is buried in the cemetery. The one they have on display was damaged during the flood of the Arno river in 1966. They decided to make it a part of their museum so that non-Jews would have an opportunity to see a torah scroll.

One of the things I found fascinating is that Jews don’t consider the synagogue sacred in the same way that Catholics consider a church or basilica sacred. The building itself isn’t consecrated. It is the torah that is considered holy, and by extension, the arc that houses the torah. If the torah is residing in the arc, the curtain will be closed and the lamp will be burning. If the lamp is extinguished and the curtain is open, then the arc is no longer sacred. The building is just a building. This makes sense for a mobile and persecuted people. They often had to meet in secret and their “synagogues” just looked like ordinary homes or buildings. The most sacred part of their religious ceremony was portable. 

Overall, the students seemed to really enjoy the visit. I thought it was a wonderful way to get them out into Florence and expose them to a part of the city that most tourists never see. This is just one of many examples of spending a good amount of time in a place to get to know it well.