Sinagogue of Pitigliano

Pitigliano’s Jewish history was launched by the Catholic Church’s counterreformational campaign to segregate and humiliate the Jews. After Pope Paul IV’s 1555 bull cum nimis absurdum, which demanded, among other restrictions, ghettoization, some Jews fled the papal states to independent duchies where the atmosphere was freer.   Pitigliano was particularly attractive because it was not far from Rome and because of the laissez-faire social policies of the Orsini, the aristocratic family in charge of this part of Tuscany. 

As David de’ Pomis, one of the first Jews to live here, wrote, “Thank heavens I passed into the service of Conte Niccolo Orsini, who for five years allowed me to practice the art of medicine in the three cities of refuge, Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana.”                                                                                       The community grew as more Jewish exiles arrived from Florence, and in 1598 the synagogue was built. The Pitiglianese, most of whom made a living farming, appreciated the artisanal abilities of the Jewish newcomers who quickly went into business as carpenters, weavers, shoemakers, tailors, bookbinders and money lenders. 


But when Pitigliano  joined the  Grand  Duchy  of   Synagogue external

Tuscany in 1608, the Medici replaced the Orsini and the privileges the Jews had enjoyed were rescinded.  They no longer could own their own land or, as of 1622 when the ghetto was set up in a small area around the synagogue, live anywhere or practice any trade they pleased.  Despite their increasing poverty, they were taxed exorbitantly to fund civic projects.

Synagogue internal


In the mid-eighteenth century under the House of Lorraine, living conditions improved. Plaques in the synagogue record visits by various grand dukes, notably Pietro Leopoldo, who was suitably impressed with its “gilded stucco” and “fine design.” But what ended Pitigliano’s ghetto period were events arising out of the French occupation of Tuscany at the end of the century.

The Jews sided with the French for both philosophical and pragmatic reasons; the revolutionary motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” translated into at least temporary freedom from ghettos in many towns. So when the anti-French fervor of much of the rest of the population erupted, violence was directed at the Jews. Riots in Monte San Savino destroyed its Jewish community. In Siena, the synagogue was burned and 13 Jews were brutally murdered. The Jews of Pitigliano, too, suffered a pogrom.  But when a second wave of ruffians showed up from Orvieto and defaced the synagogue, non-Jewish Pitiglianese came to the rescue of the Jewish community, leading to an ongoing rapport between local Catholics and Jews.

The early 19th century is remembered as “the golden age” of Little Jerusalem. At its height, between 1850 and 1861, the Jewish population reached 400, about 20 percent of the general population.   Businesses flourished; there was a Jewish school, and eventually a library of thousands of books (many in Hebrew) and an institution to care for the poor.  Words, expressions, even whole stories from the Jewish tradition, in the Pitiglianese Jewish vernacular (part Hebrew, part local dialect), enhanced Antonio Becherini’s sonnets satirizing local life and customs. Jewish idioms enlivened everyday conversation, too, as the renowned cookbook author and memoirist Edda Servi Machlin, a distant relative of Elena Servi, recalls in The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews.  For instance, a Christian mother might say to a child who pinched some roast chicken before suppertime, “Why did you do mila on that?” unaware that mila in Hebrew is circumcision.


After the unification of Italy in 1861, Pitiglianese Jews began emigrating to nearby Livorno and other cities, largely for economic reasons. But a core community remained and continued to contribute to local life. When the town’s first electric lights went on in 1898, the local paper credited the Jewish engineer Temistocle Sadun with this “stupendous idea” and  its  “successful  realization” 

and   Becherini   wrote   a   sonnet commemorating the occasion. 


 Passage that leads to Pitigliano's synagogue

And Jewish cuisine vastly enriched indigenous eating habits (as happened in so many other Italian cities and towns). One of the most popular examples of this culinary borrowing are sfratti, honey and nut cookies shaped like the sticks with which officials pounded on doors to inform families that they must move to the ghetto. Sfratto means “eviction” in Italian. Servi Machlin wrote that although the Jews served sfratti on Rosh Hashana “to ward off the possibility of future evictions and as a wish for a good, sweet year, the gentiles made them for weddings to ward off any marital battles.”

By 1938, when the racial laws were enacted, there were only 60 Jews left in Pitigliano and life soon became unbearable for them as it did for Jews throughout Italy. Some left the country; those who remained when the Germans came hid with farming families in the surrounding hills and valleys. After the war, only 30 Jews came back to Pitigliano. The synagogue, damaged when the Allies bombed the Meleta River bridge to stop retreating Germans, was opened only on Yom Kippur. The last Yom Kippur service was on October 12, 1959; the roof was about to cave in.


left: museum      right: Narrow street near the Synagogue

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s it was as if the Jewish presence in Pitigliano had been erased. After the roof of the temple finally did collapse, the rest of the building was demolished.  It wasn’t until 1980 that the community, with the help of the Jewish community of Livorno, began the slow but beautifully realized resurrection of the synagogue, completed in 1995.  Just last year, the finishing touches were put on the underground rooms, including the kitchen where so many years of holiday baking took place.  Little Jerusalem was reborn.


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