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Pride of Piedmont’s Jews

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

The shuls from the now-defunct communities of southern Italy have seen several fates. Either they’ve been transformed into museums, the furnishings have been transferred to Israel or to other shuls within Italy, or they are in their original condition but rarely used. We originally came to Italy’s Piedmont region to perform brissim, but our visit wound up being an adventure in rediscovering the exquisite, abandoned shuls of the last centuries — left intact to tell the stories of their past.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

We were summoned to Piedmont’s regional capital of Turin (Torino) to perform a series of brissim by our host, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, the chief rabbi of Turin and Piedmont. He sits on the Israeli Rabbinate’s beis din for giyur, runs a program (Straus-Amiel / Ohr Torah Stone) for placement and education of rabbis around the world, and has a passion for the confluence of halachah, history, and Jewish life. His travels around the globe are legendary, and we have been with him in interesting Jewish communities on many occasions.

He asked us to come to Italy in order to perform brissim for three adults and an infant. We arrived after midnight on a Thursday and by 8 a.m. the next morning we were on our way to an old Italian villa at the top of a hill overlooking the Alps to perform a bris on a baby whose parents can trace their Jewish roots back over 500 years.

Next, we prepared to do brissim on the adults. One was a prospective ger, but he was a no-show. The other two were much simpler halachically, yet quite emotional. They were both Jews who had until then been areilim (uncircumcised), one of them being the son of a Holocaust survivor, a 60-something-year-old Jewish widower, who had been baptized as a youth during the war years and who felt a passion to have a bris before he died.

The bris of an adult is a serious matter that requires local anesthesia, surgical instruments, stitches, bandages, and a sterile environment. We sterilized all of the equipment and proceeded to do the brissim in the course of two hours. One of the people talked about how meaningful it was for him to have his bris at age 30. He felt a need to be part of the Jewish Nation. His lack of a bris until now was a sad testament to the absence of active Yiddishkeit in the Italy of the postwar decades, since this man’s grandfather had been a beloved gabbai and shochet only two generations earlier.

After we finished the surgery and stood up to make the brachos and give these men Jewish names, there was great emotion in the room as we felt we had done something historic. There was actually a little singing and dancing. The 30-year-old has a cousin who is a rabbi in a city about 100 kilometers away. This rabbi made the trip on Erev Shabbos to give physical and emotional support to his cousin as he was welcomed into the bris of Avraham Avinu. He served as the sandak by holding his cousin’s head, then made the brachos and gave the Hebrew name.

And so happened our introduction to the 800-strong Jewish community of Turin, which was our base for Shabbos. The Turin Jewish community is centered around a beautiful large shul that was completed in 1884 — a story in itself. However, it was not in this grand shul that we davened on Shabbos, but rather in the “small” shul in the basement of the adjoining building that is currently used year-round with the exceptions of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah, and the first day of Pesach. On those days the larger crowds make it appropriate to give honor to the main shul.

The small shul in Turin is a picturesque, amphitheater-shaped room that was renovated in 1972. We found the architecture and furnishings magnificent, but were disappointed that nothing was left of its original function — this room was the matzoh bakery for the community for almost 100 years. Unfortunately, it has been many decades since matzoh was baked locally, and despite our best efforts we were unable to locate any remnants of matzoh-baking equipment.

The Piedmont area is in fact dotted with numerous villages and towns that previously had small but active Jewish communities. Of these, only Turin still has a Jewish kehillah. The shuls from these now-defunct communities have seen one of four fates: Some have been transformed into museums, others are in their original condition although rarely used, the furnishings of some have been transferred to Israel (either to shuls or museums), and some have seen their interior furnishings transplanted within Italy. This was the case with the shul in Chieri, a small town 11 kilometers from Turin. Its splendid furnishings now grace the small Turin shul.


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