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July 12, 2012

Florence's storytellers

How Jewish Italians remember their history, pass on tradition and preserve their identity.

By Kelly Dickerson

FLORENCE, Italy – If it’s one thing the Jewish people of Florence believe in, it is in knowing (and telling) their history. Ask a Florentine Jew even a passing question about Jewishness in Florence or in Italy and prepare for a history lesson stretching back centuries.

This history, as a written record beginning in the mid-15th century, ultimately is a story of endurance and resilience. Crammed into ghettoes, banned by law from most professions and from owning property, expelled from their native Italy in the run-up to World War II, and largely ignored by the mainstream Catholic culture, the Jews of Florence have persisted.

Sandro Servi

Sandro Servi, a historian who has published extensively on the subject of the Jewish experience in Italy, explained that history is important to the Jewish community of Florence because of its role in shaping identity.

“If you recognize that all these historic and social circumstances had a strong impact in the creation of a particular identity, in which you identify yourself, you will be interested and curious to know them as much as it is possible,” he said.

The importance of history and legacy to the Jews of Florence is perhaps best symbolized by Florence’s only synagogue, a beautiful house of worship built 1874-83. As an example of Florentine architecture, the synagogue merited more than $16 million in state funds to renovate it the past several years. As a living, working synagogue, it serves for most Jews in the city as the core of their identity.

Making the synagogue even more important to Jewish identity here is the fact that it houses the city’s most extensive collection of Jewish artifacts, many of which were donated by Florentine Jews themselves. Located at the front of the synagogue on the second floor, the Jewish museum is a prominent reminder of how interwoven the history of Jews in this city is with that of Florence itself.

The first room of the museum displays artifacts from the early history of the Jewish presence in Florence. Several cases of Torah covers, mantles and crowns line the walls of the room, some dating back to the 15th century. In the center of the room, the former Jewish ghetto of Florence is recreated through photographs and an intricate, scaled wooden model.

On the second floor is a room remembering the Holocaust and its impact on Florentine Jews. Upon entering the room, tourists are greeted by haunting organ music and a wall displaying the names of the Florentine Jews deported to concentration camps who never returned. Posters in the room describe the patriotism of Jews during World War I, reference only fleetingly Italy’s fascist period in the run-up to the second world war before ending with the horrors of the holocaust.

Shaping the Jewish-Italian identity

As the longest continuous Jewish Diaspora, according to Servi, the Jewish presence in Italy is worth celebrating; it is a story worth telling to the broader community. (A diaspora is a people who have migrated from an established homeland; for the Jews, this homeland was the Kingdom of Judah.)

This resilience and continuity is largely due to the fact that until 1861, Italy was divided into states, Servi said. When the Jews experienced problems or persecution in one Italian state, they would simply cross a border and settle anew in a town perhaps even a few kilometers away. This occurred until Italian Unification, or the Risorgimento, in 1861, or about the time the United States, too, was asking whether to be a unified nation or a collection of nation-states.

Silvia Servi

According to Servi, this continuous migration or transience helped to foster unity as Jews, as well as a sense of national Italian identity even before Italy was a nation. Because they moved throughout Italy to avoid persecution, Italian Jews experienced a broader scope of Italian culture than most Italians, who remained in only one region or state. (They still do, according to many Italians interviewed.)

“We can say the Jews were the most Italian of the Italians,” Servi said.

(To further understand this intertwined Jewish and Italian identity, see Rachel Shin’s story on Fully Italian, Fully Jewish identity)

See-saw struggle for acceptance

Like Italian history in general, the story of the Jewish experience in Italy is one of ups and downs. In some eras, such as during the Renaissance, Jews experienced near full rights as citizens, Servi said. Florence’s synagogue was built during one of these periods, in the late 19th century.

(For more on one of the synagogue’s architects, Marco Treves, see Bethany McDaniel’s Story on the Treves Family)

During other times, however, such as during the Reformation and World War II, Jews proved to be handy scapegoats and were allowed much less freedom, he said.

Sarah Rubenstein

Even today, it is a challenge to keep Jewish traditions alive, said Silvia Servi, wife to Sandro Servi, a doctor of philosophy, and one of Italy’s pre-eminent translators of the work of Bernard Lewis.

“If you live in Italy and you are Catholic, you can see Christmas everywhere,” she said, citing one example of mainstream culture overwhelming Jewishness in Florence. “If you are Jewish, you don’t see anything anywhere. You have to fight to maintain [your Jewishness]. Everything that you lose, it is very difficult to recover.”

But Silvia Servi said it is important to guard, preserve and perpetuate her Jewish heritage – to be proud of it.

“Automatically you have a non-Jewish life [in Florence],” Silvia Servi said. “You have to fight for it.”

Florentine Judaism today

A founder of Florence’s reformed Jewish community, Sarah Rubenstein said anti-semitism is still present in 2012.

“People will make these sort of anti-semitic, or what I think are anti-semitic comments, but they’re really not intended to be – they just don’t know,” Rubenstein said.  

Rubenstein said she pointed out to a co-worker one day that not all Italians are Catholic. Her co-worker replied, “Yes, but they’re not really Italians.”

Steve Farina

Historian Steve Farina said there is a widespread anti-Israel and anti-American feeling in Florence. In addition, because many Jews are wealthy, they suffer also from anti-capitalist sentiments, as well.

Farina said opposition to Israel could be considered a new kind of anti-semitism.

“And it does not makes sense, at least to me,” said Farina, an Anglican who has published research on the Jewish experience in Florence. “Many Italians oppose both Israel and Arabs, both Israeli political positions and Palestinian positions. But Italians are quite comfortable with contradiction.”

Emanuele Viterbo

Emanuele Viterbo, secretary of the Jewish community in Florence, said many Florentines view the Florentine Jewish population as simply an extension of Israel, politically and in every other way.

“If in Israel something happens, people of Florence think we can do something to change the situation there,” said Viterbo, who as secretary administrates the synagogue, school and museum.


Silvia Servi said she believes many Florentine Jews still identify themselves as Jewish even though they are not active Jews. Many only “remember to be Jewish three or four times a year,” or on major Jewish holidays, she said.

Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld, a native of Florence and licensed tour guide specializing in tours of Florence from a Jewish perspective, said a decline in active participation in Jewish life has disastrously impacted the Jewish school founded in Florence in 1962.

The school taught a regular Italian program in the morning and a Jewish program in the afternoon, including lessons in Hebrew and on the Torah, the Jewish Bible. Most of the school closed in the early 1990s because of low attendance, leaving only a part-time kindergarten and after-school program today, Rosenfeld said.

Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld

Viterbo said that after Jewish children turn six, they have to go into public school, an experience that can overwhelm a Jewish child because of mainstream Catholic culture.

Today, it is “not so easy to have a Jewish nephew,” Viterbo said, now that mixed marriages are more common and Judaism less common. “A lot of people are proud to be Jewish and to have a Jewish identity, but they don’t put the synagogue and prayer at the center of their lives.”

Rubenstein said that she hopes her children will continue with Judaism, and that she will continue to raise her children in its traditions, ways and beliefs. Will they remain Jewish?

“They better,” she said.

For more information see Kelly's story on The ups and downs of being Jewish in ItalyMinority status has made Jews convenient scapegoats.

Kelly Dickerson is a senior biology and communication double major who hopes to do science journalism after graduation.

For more information on Florence’s Jewish experience, see:


Back to The Jews of Florence home page.

The Jews of Florence articles:

An Italian history: How one Jewish family survived Italy’s fascist persecution

86-year-old Fortunata Franchetti Treves looks back.

Fully Italian, fully Jewish

Florence’s Jews ‘fight’ to maintain distinct identity in a culture dominated by Catholicism.

Florence’s storytellers

How Jewish Italians remember their history, pass on tradition and preserve their identity.

The Empty Cradles of Florence

City’s Jewish population continues to decline.

Florence’s Jewish food business feeds off tourists, not local Jewish community

City’s small Jewish population not enough to sustain local merchants.

Historic sites cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy

Visitors share experiences.

The ups and downs of being Jewish in Italy

Minority status has made Jews convenient scapegoats.

The Jews of Florence video coverage:

Jewish AND Italian: Identity in Florence a complex negotiation

A look into the struggles Italian Jews face in attempting to combine and reconcile their cultural and religious identities.

Re-living Italy's fascist past

The Treves family story represents in microcosm Italy's conflicted political and religious history. Hear the story first-hand from Fortunata Franchetti of Florence.

Keeping kosher in Florence: The city’s Jewish businesses look beyond

Because there are so few Jewish Florentines, the city’s kosher businesses have to reach out to the many Jewish tourists who come to the city.

Florentine piazza hides a dark past

Few tourists realize that the popular Piazza delle Repubblica in Florence is the former location of a 16th-century Jewish ghetto, one of Europe’s largest. Florentine Jews say they wish there was more recognition in the piazza for the hardships once endured.

Jewish tourism in Florence a bigger business than many might think

Several sites of Jewish historical significance are preserved in Florence, sites that attract many Jewish visitors each year.

The Jews of Florence photo slideshows:

Florence Synagogue attracts tourists interested in Jewish experience

Jewish tourists from near and far visit more than just Renaissance art. Jewish historical sites like the synagogue and Jewish businesses cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy.

The Treves family: An uncommon story

A photo narrative highlighting the unique aspects of one Jewish-Italian family.

Children serve as legacy to Florentine Jewish

Jews discuss how difficult it can be to maintain their heritage in Florence.
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