My parents have an unofficial ritual: Wherever they travel, whether it’s Paris, San Francisco or Havana, they visit the Jewish part of town. They go to temple, they seek out local Jews, they make a donation. It’s their way of feeling connected to their heritage and of showing solidarity.
Over the years, I have gently teased them about their custom. Who appointed them Chroniclers of the Jews Worldwide? And yet, the older I become, the more I find myself following in their path.
And so, when I was in Rome recently and heard about a small medieval town in Tuscany called Pitigliano (known as La Piccola Gerusalemme or Little Jerusalem), I wanted to see it.
My plan was to spend a day in this walled town in the Maremma region, about 105 miles northeast of Rome.
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Pitigliano is blessedly untouristy, with only about 25,000 visitors a year. Most want to explore the Jewish culture, although some are simply besotted with the idea of yet another impossibly magnificent Italian village.
And that it is. As I drove up the winding road to the hill town, 1,026 feet above sea level, I was reminded of the first time I saw Jerusalem. With its parapets, ceramic-tile roofs and multitiered buildings perched on layers of red volcanic tufa stone, Pitigliano resembles a sparkling, pint-size Holy City.
The village, which was originally settled by the Etruscans, was once home to a thriving Jewish population that had settled there in the early part of the 16th century. They came mainly from the nearby Lazio region, which bordered the anti-Semitic Roman Papal States that periodically drove out Jews.
In Pitigliano, I met with a local guide, Rafaella Agresti, whose English was impeccable. Together, we walked through the medieval gate into the old city, passing the Orsini Palace, a 14th-century fortress, now a museum, and the even older Church of San Rocco. The remnants of a 17th-century aqueduct built by the Medici family runs through town.
As we navigated the narrow streets, Agresti told me the Jews and Christians of Pitigliano had led a peaceful coexistence. In the 16th century, Count Niccolo Orsini IV, a member of the feudal Orsini family, ruled Pitigliano, an independent fief whose inhabitants were mainly peasants. Although he was Catholic, he thought Jews, mostly bankers and artisans, could help revitalize Pitigliano’s lagging economy. So, while Jews in places like Umbria and Lazio were imprisoned or exiled, in Pitigliano they worked as moneylenders, carpenters, cobblers and tailors.
That goodwill changed somewhat after the Medici family, which was appointed by the pope, came into power. In 1622, the Jews in Pitigliano were confined to a ghetto; men were required to wear red hats, and women red badges on their sleeves. Still, the relationship between Jews and non-Jews was friendly; in 1773, the liberal Catholic Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, officially recognized the Jews of Pitigliano, which meant they could come and go as they wished. In 1799 the ghetto was desegregated, and by 1850 there were about 400 Jews in town, roughly 10 percent of the population. But 11 years later that population began to shrink when the Jews of a unified Italy were granted equal rights and allowed to move freely about the country. Many left for Florence, Rome and elsewhere.
By 1938, when the fascist racial laws were applied, only about 60 Jews were living in Pitigliano, among them the family of Elena Servi.
Now 82, Servi, who was born in Pitigliano, has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring her hometown’s Jewish history. I was eager to meet her at the Little Jerusalem Association, a cultural organization comprising about 150 Jews and non-Jews from around the world. Servi founded the association in 1996 with her son, Enrico Spizzichino. It is situated inside a series of interconnected buildings, one of which houses the Jewish Museum of Culture.
Agresti and I walked beneath an arch with a half-moon-shaped sign emblazoned with the words “La Piccola Gerusalemme: Antico Quartiere Ebraico” (Old Jewish Quarter) and into the museum, where Servi was behind the counter. She does not speak English, so we communicated in a mixture of Hebrew and my limited Italian.
“We had no problems with non-Jews,” she said. “We were friends, sharing our matzo from Passover and their chocolate from Easter.” She credits her survival during World War II to the Catholic farmers in the valley who protected her and her family from the Germans. She also hid in a cave with her family for three months while neighbors took food and water to them. When she emerged, only about 30 Jewish families were left in Pitigliano. Other than a decade in Israel, she has lived her whole life in Pitigliano.
Although services are no longer held in the neighboring synagogue, it is open for viewing. The gold-and-white building, with its carved pews, wooden pulpit and Holy Ark, was restored to its 1598 splendor after the roof collapsed in 1961. From their gallery upstairs, women glimpsed the goings-on through an intricate wooden screen, as was customary in Orthodox Judaism. In the courtyard a plaque commemorates the 22 Jews born in Pitigliano who were killed in concentration camps.
While the Jewish community today consists of only Servi, her son, a nephew and three grandchildren, there is no mistaking the Jewish influence in Pitigliano. Sfratti — stick-shaped biscuits filled with ground walnuts, honey, nutmeg, orange peel and wrapped in dough — are a local delicacy. The word sfratti is derived from sfratto, meaning eviction in Italian. Legend has it that the police would hit Jews with rods to force them into ghettos; the Jews subsequently transformed their pain into something edible. (A good place to try the treat is at Panificio del Ghetto at 167 Via Zuccarelli, near the synagogue.)
The Jewish quarter is only a block or so long, and the rest of Pitigliano is small. It took only about three hours to wander the ghetto and the labyrinth of streets, winding stairways, piazzas and shops in the historic district. After about five minutes I was hopelessly lost and enjoying every second of it.
The locals are welcoming in that extraordinary Italian way, always ready with a smile and a wave. Men sat on benches sipping the wine they had made. They happily offered me a taste.
Before leaving Pitigliano, I did as my parents do when they travel, and made a small contribution to the Little Jerusalem Association. Servi’s words made sense to me.
“Who knows what’s going to happen to this place in 20 years?” she said. “We must preserve the past as long as possible.”