August 14, 2015

Exhibit A: Jewish Florence

“Why is a Shabbat table behind glass?” My daughter looks at me in shock, confused.

“How come Shabbat is a museum exhibit?’ my son asks.

My kids are peering at a table adorned with a white tablecloth and two silver candlesticks. Two plastic braided challahs peek out from an embroidered cloth. We are visiting The Great Synagogue in Florence, which is now a museum.

My children are confused as their own living Jewish culture and traditions look like they have been neatly stuck behind a piece of plexiglass for the world to peer in at.

As for me, I recently went through this same queasy feeling when I visited what was left of Prague’s once vibrant 700-year-old Jewish world. Now extinct, there were a few synagogues, a cemetery and a museum with similar exhibits. 

So what happened to Jewish Florence? The community in Florence dates way, way back, being formally established in 1437. The Jewish story here is similar to that of other European Jewish communities: expulsion, forced confinement in ghettos, persecution and destruction.

An abbreviated history of Jewish Florence starts in 1571, when, under the rule of Cosimo de’Medici, Jews were forced to wear badges and to live in a Ghetto.  This lasted until 1799 when Napoleon awarded the Jews civil rights, however, in 1814, when the grand dukes returned to power,  Jews were forced back inside the ghetto. It was only in 1861, when Florence became a part of the kingdom of Italy, were Jews freed from the Ghetto.

After 400 years of living in a Ghetto, being persecuted and banned from entering many professions, Jews finally received equality in the constitution, becoming inspired to build a beautiful, grand synagogue. They did not waste any time, and in 1868, a Florentine Jew named David Levi bequeathed his possessions in order to build the ‘Tempio Maggiore Israelitico.’

This impressive Moorish-style synagogue was built in travertine and pink palmetto stone with a green copper dome that is distinct on the horizon of Florence’s church domes, clock towers and spires. The synagogue’s interior is painted in arabesques of red, blue and gold.

It is a miracle that this synagogue stands after the Holocaust decimated Jewish life in Florence. During the occupation, it was used as a garage by the Nazis and when they retreated, they mined the building.

Most of the Florentine Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, while some were saved by righteous Italian Catholic families.  By the end of the war, only 1600 Jews remained.

And today? There are an estimated 1,400 Jews living in Florence. There is a Chabad here and a progressive minyan.  Given the tight security around The Great Synagogue, most of the Jews must surely walk around incognito.  

In fact, the security around this synagogue was tighter than anything I have ever seen, except for the World Trade Centre Museum in New York City. We had visited some of the world’s most beautiful treasures over the past few days of touring Florence and had seen surprisingly little security. 

Being from Israel, where you cannot enter a grocery store or a post office without being checked out by the watchful gaze of a security guard, we were actually feeling a little vulnerable. 

Going up the narrow winding stairwell of the Duomo’s cupola, without our bags being checked by security, made me a little fearful. The 460 steps were narrow and dark. There were so many people going up, we were often stuck in the humid darkness of a narrow stairwell. This was not an outing for those with claustrophobia. 

We finally exited at the top of this magnificent cathedral dome and circled the cupola within arm’s reach of the paintings that adorn the roof. The milling masses of people below looked like ants from this height. We marveled at the mastery of the floors, the ceilings and the sheer will that created such an architectural feat.

We walked outside above the skyline of Florence, treading atop the rooftop of this famous landmark.

Unbelievable that there was no security here.

The Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s sculpture David had an x-ray machine for checking bags. The Uffizi had no security at the entrance.  The Pitti Palace, with its rooms full of art treasures, had no security at all.

Many, many churches, each an incredible masterpiece of its own, were open to the public without anyone scrutinizing the visitors or their bags. Maybe I have lived in Israel for too long and am paranoid, but I do know that the world has changed and is a much darker place. Europe is under threat, but no one in Florence could conceive of this.

That is, until we went to The Great Synagogue.  An army jeep was parked outside. The perimeter was fenced in by a thick chain. A high iron fence surrounded the synagogue while a glass triangle jutted out from the wall with bulletproof glass. Inside this outpost stood four armed Italian soldiers.

We walked in the kiosk of the synagogue. A woman behind bulletproof glass asked us to place all of our items in an x-ray machine and then place them in a locker.

“No phones, no cameras,” the woman at the ticket booth warned.

Next, we had to step one by one into a full body scanner, the kind they have at the airport, but rarely use. We stepped in one by one and exited though a glass door into the quiet garden of the synagogue.

From seeing no security outside the world’s finest treasures to this heightened security outside a 100-year-old synagogue in a place where few Jews live seemed absurd. Unfortunately, it is our new reality.

We toured the inside of the shul where fellow travelers played Jewish geography and then visited the Jewish ‘museum’ upstairs.

“Why is there a havdalah candle on the Shabbat table?” my daughter asked, pointing to the table in the display case.

“You would never have Shabbat candles and havdalah candles on a table together,” my sons comments. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Yes, this world does not make sense. Here again is a perfect example of how the world is slowly trying to erase us from the world map (just like Air France did a few weeks ago), placing Jews into a secure box for all to see, so museum visitors can press their noses against showcases and wonder what Jewish life was really like.

What they fail to understand is that we are still here, leading vibrant lives in many places across the globe, especially in a country called Israel. This is where our tables are set with the best china and silver each Friday night, laden with freshly made challahs and where Shabbat is ushered in with song. It is only after Shabbat ends that the havdalah candle comes out.

Tell that to the museum. Tell that to the world. We are still here and we refuse to be put behind a glass showcase.