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July 9, 2012

Fully Italian, fully Jewish

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

by Rachel Shin

FLORENCE, Italy – As residents of a city and country dominated by Catholicism, Florentine Jews must negotiate their complex identities each and every day. And at only 700 or 800 strong, the Jewish community here finds it difficult to be heard in a predominantly Catholic metro area of nearly a million.

Silvia Servi

“More or less growing up, my culture was Italian,” said Silvia Servi, a doctor of philosophy, mother of two and grandmother of three. “I studied Italian literature, [Italian] history, [Italian] geography – I was Italian in all the senses.”

She explained that as a child she felt excluded at the public school; she was the only Jewish child in her class from elementary school onward. Every Easter, for example, she said she felt marginalized because the traditions and customs at the school all were Catholic, with no allowance made for Jewish practice.

More than 90 percent of children attending Italian public schools are Catholic, according to European Studies on Religion & State Interaction.

Christmas holidays, too, were overwhelming, Servi said.

“There would be decorations all over the city, and I could not relate,” said Servi, who is very active in the local orthodox Jewish community. “When in the school [and it was] Christmas time, I did not really feel so comfortable because that was not my festival.”

Emanuele Viterbo

At times feeling lost in mainstream Italian culture is also the experience of Emanuele Viterbo, the orthodox Jewish community’s general secretary and chief administrator of its synagogue, school and museum.

“It’s not so easy to have a Jewish holiday that will be a happy holiday because nobody knows that for you it is a holiday,” he said.

Awash in mainstream culture

It is easy for Italian Jews to get saturated in the Italian culture around them, Viterbo said, so it is easy for someone to lose the Jewish part of his or her Italian-Jewish identity.


“It’s not so easy” maintaining and preserving one’s Jewish identity, he said. “We have a lot of mixed marriages. The [mainstream] culture, the [public] schools – it’s not so easy.”

Jews in Florence have a long history, and though their population rate is declining, Viterbo said he believes there is still a possibility for their Jewish community to grow, perhaps by attracting Jews from other cities and countries.

“I have told the Jewish community here that the community will live on, that it will continue,” said Joseph Levi, chief rabbi at the synagogue. “But who that community is, that’s up to them.”

Where to go to school a big decision

The Jewish synagogue in Florence has a part-time kindergarten. These children are
celebrating the school’s last day of the year, in June.

In many big cities, parents can simply choose to send their children to a Jewish school. Florence, however, does not have enough Jewish children; the synagogue’s school closed 20 years ago. All that remains is a part-time kindergarten program.

A mother of two, Sarah Rubenstein, founding member of a reformed Jewish congregation in Florence, said that the Italian part comes naturally to her kids, because they go to an Italian school. They are constantly immersed in mainstream culture, therefore.

As for Judaism, she said it’s up to her to raise them Jewish in the home.

Though they are reformed Jews and do not keep strictly kosher or perform Shabbat every Friday night, Rubenstein said she and her family do keep the traditional aspects of Judaism very present in their lives. They attend Jewish religious services, they sing Hebrew songs, and they make challah, a braided bread eaten on only on Sabbath and holidays.

In addition, Rubenstein said that though she is a reformed Jew, which in Florence has its own cultural meaning, she very much appreciates what the orthodox groups in Florence do, because they help keep Judaism alive.

(According to several Jewish Italians, in Florence, orthodox means mainly that they attend synagogue and are members of the synagogue-centered Jewish community, while “reformed” means mainly that they are not members of the Jewish orthodox community. The terms, therefore, do carry the same meaning, or even a theological meaning, as they do elsewhere in the world, including and especially the United States and Israel.)

Despite growing up more Italian than Jewish, at least in terms of lifestyle, Silvia Servi said that later in her life she felt she was missing out on her heritage, that she wanted to find her own Jewish identity. She became very involved in the orthodox community in Florence, met her husband, Sandro, and together raised a Jewish family.

The Servis went on to have two children, a daughter who attended the University of Israel and lives in New York, and a son who attended a school in New York and lives in London.

Silvia Servi explained that she and Sandro were aware that if they wanted their kids to have a strong Jewish future, Florence would not be the ideal community to shape it. They encouraged their children to go abroad, realizing they likely would not return, at least not permanently.

“This was a difficult decision,” she said. “We were thinking about what was best for the children.”

A real Jew

Did the Servis make the right decision? Did they properly balance the best interests of their children against those of the Jewish community in Florence, which is declining in numbers?

For Sandro Servi, the test is an easy one: Are your grandchildren Jewish?

“You can decide to have Jewish children, but the only way to see that your children are in the Jewish way, the Jewish street or road, is to see if your children have Jewish children,” he said. “Then you can be sure you lived as a Jew.”

Will Rubenstein’s grandchildren remain Jewish?

“Oh, they better,” she said, with a laugh. “For me Judaism has always been a really important part of my life. I couldn’t even imagine having my children raise their children not to be Jewish.”


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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