Look at any panoramic photo showcasing the impressive skyline of Florence and likely you will spot the turquoise top of the great Synagogue, located near Piazza dell’ Azeglio near the Sant’ Ambrogio area of the city, a neighborhood I adore. As a student, I used to pass by this building often, marveling at the beautiful structure and one of the prettiest cast-iron gates in the city, designed by Sienese Pasquale Franci.
This place is the brainchild of David Levi, the president of the Hebrew University who in 1868 wanted to create a synagogue ‘worthy of the city’ of Florence and that he did. Made in the Moorish style, with travertine and pink pomato stone with a beautiful garden featuring exotic plants exuding a sort of ‘oriental vibe’ that is very cool to see in person.
As a student, we used to stop by Ruth’s, the kosher vegetarian restaurant next door (part of my list of veggie eats in the city) for delicious falafel and apple cake. A warm place with the friendliest guy working there, encouraging us to use the well-worn board games and drink more tea. Still, I had never actually visited the museum until this past weekend, and I still can’t believe it took me this long to go.
On a totally different note, I had been recently chatting on twitter with Alex Roe from the very informative news site in Italy: Italy Chronicles about the rise of Antisemitism in Italy (and across Europe at the minute after reading this article by The Daily Beast. I’m sure this has a lot to do with recent events in the Middle East but at the same time, it’s pretty sad to see people go too far in their rhetoric, like that of Gianni Vattimo. As we all know, words can be powerful enough to ignite wars and at the very least turn normally nice people into something very ugly. With this in mind, I decided why not learn a little more about a place we pass by every day, but never visit. Curiosity always gets the best of me, we also visited one of the oldest Jewish ghettos in Italy in Pitigliano recently.
One cool event that many don’t know about happens every Thursday night at the Synagogue (with the exception of this Thursday, August 14th). The garden outside, home of the Balagan Cafe, is home to a weekly ‘apericena’, a buffet of kosher delights by chef Jean-Michel Albert Carasso, often with a theme along with cultural events – world music, dance, book presentations and more. You can find the summer program 2014 here. Nico and I went last Thursday to see for ourselves, the perfect summer night to explore a new place together and I forgot just how beautiful this place really is.
We enjoyed listening to the book presentation of “Trilogia” by Aglaia Viviani and Enrico Fink and wandering around the wonderfully kept garden, my camera naturally sneaking out to snap photos of the Synagogues intricate details. The food was good, a Jewish Chinese merge with a flavorful rice, meat kebabs with a spicy sauce and pickled cabbage.
I highly recommend stopping by, the events last until September. We also took the opportunity to purchase museum tickets, which are cheaper if bought on the Thursday night event. Looking back, I was sorry we didn’t take advantage of one of the visits available that night because when we came back on Sunday to check out the museum, I found out that I couldn’t take photos or my phone (fair enough) but always hard words to hear as a blogger.
Of course you absolutely should visit the Synagogue itself. The museum inside is on two levels, one illustrates the history of the Jews in Florence, the other displays religious and ceremonial objects (which was really interesting!). The synagogue can also be visited (girls should remember to bring a shawl to cover their shoulders, it is an orthodox church). In the garden you will see a plaque with the names of 248 Florentine Jews put to death by the Nazis, and a smaller plaque lists Jews who fell fighting for Italy during the First World War.
An interesting part of history that I never knew about was the Jew’s role in WWI in Italy, so many took part in defending their country to only a few decades later being stripped of their nationality. During WWII the Germans together with Italian fascists set up bombs to destroy the synagogue but didn’t manage completely due to the help of the Italian Resistance, who diffused most of the explosives.
You can visit the Synagogue in Florence, 10.00 – 6:30pm from June to September, from Sunday to Thursday. Closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, last entrance is 45 minutes before closing time. More info here. Free introductory presentations are available every half hour in both Italian and English and you can arrange for a guided tour if you make reservations in advance. Tel: +39 055 2346654 – 0552466089 – e-mail: [email protected]
Balagan Cafe, via Farini 6, Firenze, Phone: 055245252