From our Journeyers: Padua & Mantua

July 5, 2013 by jewish journeys

Outside a church in a piazza in Mantua where Monteverdi Street meets Giuseppe Verdi Street, we lit the Havdalah candle, sipped the wine, sniffed the clove and paused in our Jewish Journey to the Italian Renaissance.

Two weeks later, last Shabbat, Havdalah was sung around a campfire in Little Crosby on the Wirral when members of Menorah synagogue joined colleagues from Liverpool and Southport for their annual Kehilla Weekend.

Different groups of people, very different locations yet it felt like a seamless journey through the tribulations and triumphs of Jewish history to the present day when a new Jewish Renaissance beckons.

The three-day journey to Padua and Mantua was a poignant evocation of the vibrancy and splendour of the Jewish communities during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. At that time, there was, wrote Cecil Roth “an efflorescence of genius, of vitality and of versatility, coupled with a universality of aesthetic appreciation…”

Despite the existence of the ghettos – our leader, Jeremy Leigh, showed us the dent in the wall left by the hinge to the ghetto’s gate in Mantua – Jews studied, mainly medicine, at Padua University, wrote poetry, songs and created a theatrical troupe that entertained at the court of kings. And there we were, nearly thirty Jews from the UK, re-creating the songs of Solomon d’Rossi, the poetry of Ibn Gabirol and the plays of Leone di Sommi in the grounds of the Gonzaga Palace, the monarch’s country residence outside Mantua.

There are far far more Jews in the many cemeteries in Padua than survive today.
There seemed to be miles of gravestones, studded with famous names from the Jewish past, like Abrabanel, Luzatto and Minsk. The most striking was the double monument to R. Judah Minz, an Ashkenazi leader, and Abrabanel, the Sephardi ‘great’. Our guide for the day, Professor Gabi Luzzato, felt the monument and the men evoked the spirit of Renaissance Man, bestriding culture, rabbinics and philosophy.

Only a hundred and eighty Jews are now listed in Padua. We met five of them, the only men who came to daven on Friday night at the beautiful shul led by its Rabbi, Adolfo Locci. Rabbi Locci welcomed us – as well he might, as we certainly provided a minyan and lusty voices to enhance the singing. The liturgy, he explained, was resonant of that of the Temple and closer to the Ashkenazi tradition. (Padua’s Sephardi shul has been transplanted, lock, stock and Aron Kodesh to Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem).

Reluctantly, but respectfully, we women sat behind the wooden trellis of a mechitzah at the rear of the shul or in the women’s gallery. We couldn’t help but wonder if the shul relaxed its Orthodox strictures, it might attract more of the small Jewish community to its services.

The heavy police presence, blocking the street, throughout the service, didn’t bode well for the future of this tiny community. Could there be an external threat to its survival as well as from the internal haemorrhaging of its numbers?

“Please come again,” begged the shul’s President. We’d love to…but wonder whether the community will still exist, its building symbolising one more gravestone of the Paduan community.

Among the many shuls we visited, some splendid, some more modest, the most poignant was to be found in the remains of the shul in Riverola, in the Mantuan district. The Ark was empty and above it a picture of Garibaldi gazed down.
In 1480, Riverola had a thriving community of 500. Only one Jew remained in 1943…and the Nazis came especially to find him and send him to his death.

Blasphemously, the Nazis entrenched their headquarters in the ante room of the magnificent shul in Mantua which used to boast a Jewish population of 2000 and six synagogues. Forty two Jews were taken in 1944. Only two returned.

Relatively fewer Jews perished in the Holocaust than in much of the rest of Europe. “Only” fifteen percent were taken, we were told, our informant surmising that a combination of Italian laziness and help from gentiles had saved the remaining eighty-five percent.

A walk to the Anthony Gormley statues on Crosby beach is the traditional recreation at Menorah’s Kehilla weekend, back here. Imaginative, disturbing and quite mesmerising, they, of course, cannot compete in splendour with the wonders of Padua and Mantua. But the camaraderie, prayers, songs, games and, yes, the group deconstructing of a Talmudic text as to whether Tefilat Haderech (the traveller’s prayer) should be recited standing or on the move…these combine to complete a Jewish Journey from the past to the present and, could it be?, to herald another Jewish Renaissance.

Most of the participants on the Italian Journey were progressive Jews, which is why we women felt so uncomfortable behind the mechitza. There do seem to be small glimmers of enlightenment from the Orthodox camp, now that the United Synagogue has sanctioned the Presidency of women and even the Chief Rabbi, albeit somewhat belatedly, has criticised charedim for their exclusivity.

But then I saw last week’s Jewish Telegraph picture of thirty-one gorgeous girls at their group Batmitzvah. Would, I wonder, any of their parents ever, ever contemplate a group Barmitzvah for their sons?


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