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July 13, 2012

Historic sites cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy

Visitors share experiences.

By Kirstie Broadwell

FLORENCE, Italy—Having eaten dinner almost every night of her trip to Florence at the Piazza della Repubblica, Carly Sloane, 21, from Long Island, New York had no idea that two synagogues once stood there five centuries ago.

“The irony is that it’s supposed to be the typical Italian experience, but I’m Jewish,” Sloane said. “And it turns out that area was a Jewish ghetto.”

If she had the chance to visit Florence again, she said she would visit Jewish historical sites including the Tempio Maggiore Synagogue and Jewish Museum.

Even though the Duomo, the cathedral Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Florence, local Jewish community and businesses provide places of interest to Jewish tourists as well.

Jewish walking tours

Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld, who specializes in Jewish walking tours , is making her living from giving tours of historic Jewish sites, including the synagogue and museum.

“The city, obviously, attracts [Jewish tourists] because of the art. They also want to find, where ever they go, something that concerns Jewish history because Jewish history is important wherever they go,” Rosenfeld said. “They come to Florence because there are very attractive things to visit, but during their tour, they want to know more about Jewish history in general. That is what I understood doing this work.”

The synergy created by combining visits to the synagogue, Jewish museum, Piazza della Repubblica (a former Jewish ghetto that was demolished in 1861), Ruth’s (kosher vegetarian) Restaurant and the Kosher Market provides tourists with an opportunity to learn about the Jewish experience in Florence.

Reactions to synagogue and museum visits

A group of students listening to their guide are sitting in rows inside the synagogue
during their tour of this historic Jewish site.  

Having just completed their tour, Carole Honeg and Paul Weiner from New Jersey said they felt sad and hopeful, respectively.

“It’s very painful, thinking about that. To hear the history of your relatives and how they suffered and what happened to them, you know, during the war. It’s a little painful; a little saddening,” Honeg said.

Weiner, on the other hand, found hope from a sad story about a frog.

“There’s a story on the top floor about a little frog left out in the cold with no place to go. Then he finds someone to take him in. The really best part for me was being hopeful. I’m a hopeful person and we talked about how Judaism survived in Florence,” Weiner said.

Weiner discovered during his tour that religious leaders of varied faiths in Florence found ways to establish bonds and build working relationships.

“Our tour guide said that the Catholic Arch Bishop of Florence is a very wonderful man. Then I asked about the Muslim community leader and he said they are good friends. It gives me a lot of hope,” Weiner said.

During their week of traveling to various churches in Italy, the Zuckermans, a Jewish family from New York made an effort to visit the Jewish community in Florence before setting off to Rome.

When the Zuckerman family travels, they make an effort to see and support the Jewish community in various cities.

The physical aspects of the synagogue intrigued architect Matt Zuckerman.

“It’s interesting, as an architect I see architecture. It’s sort of a moorish style, which is thought to be more Middle Eastern, often associated with Arabic culture or Islamic culture,” Zuckerman said. “I don’t feel positively or negatively about that, it’s just sort of a fascinating combination of imagery from different religions. I thought it was beautiful, a little austere, a little dark, but very nice-looking.”

Visiting from Israel, David Elmaleh came to see the synagogue because it is a part of the heritage of Jewish people and noticed differences compared to how synagogues look in Israel.

“It’s different not in terms of prayer. We always pray the same kind of prayer,” Elmaleh said. “The building itself is completely different. In Israel you have different kind of construction. This is like typical Italian construction. In Israel we have modern or Persian, something like that.”

Kosher food

Next door to the synagogue is Ruth’s Restaurant. Owned by a Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrant, Tomas Jelineke. This Jewish restaurant has been serving customers kosher food since 1997.

“People from all around the world come, both locals and tourists,” Jelineke said.

Before her tour of the synagogue and museum, Honeg ate at Ruth’s Restaurant.

“That was where we had lunch. It was really typical Israeli food. It was good,” Honeg said.

Just around the corner from Ruth’s is a Kosher Market owned by Sarah Sonnino.

According to Sonnino, 95 percent of customers are tourists, while the remaining five percent are locals.

With the typical tourist having a camera at the ready and a map to guide them around the city, it was not hard for Sonnino to spot a tourist.

“Why? Because I see,” Sonnino said.

Though many tourists coming to Florence are unaware of its Jewish history and sites, many Jewish tourists seek these out to better develop an understanding of their heritage.

Kirstie Broadwell is a junior Visual Communication major at Berry College.


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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