“Most of us are so worried about death that we don’t really live.” Abraham-Hicks
Even here in the joy of Florence, religion, in its many expressions, is preoccupied with death.
December 8 is the Festa Della Annunziata, the celebration of the Holy Annunciation. All over Italy, this day serves as the announcement oficiale of the Christmas season. All the Christmas trees, decorated prior to this day with red paper Medici emblems, now light up in full splendor, in every Piazza, everywhere.
It was the perfect day to visit the Jewish Ghetto.
My apartment in Florence is located a short walk directly to everywhere. I am steps to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, where today’s Festa is announced with grandeur: a large open market brimming with homemade foods, handmade wool sweaters, fresh produce, aromatic herbs, pungent cheeses, all the best of Italy, even its contrast, as one little square of the Piazza is reserved for Occupy Firenze protesters. As always, the old and the new co-exist easily here in Florence.
And then, a short walk from the Piazza in another direction, the Jewish Ghetto.
The word ghetto gets a bum rap – I grew using it as a synonym for slum – but “ghetto” simply means neighborhood with a common culture. Of course, Jewish ghetto came to mean something different in 1940s Poland, Russia, and alas, even in Italy.
After Italy entered the war in 1940 Jewish refugees living in Italy were interned in Campagna concentration camp. The deportation of Italian Jews to Nazi death camps began in September 1943. Once Italy capitulated, the German troops invaded Italy from the North. Even so, when they got to the Campagna concentration camp, all the inmates had already fled to the mountains with the help of the Italian locals. In October 1943, Nazis raided the Jewish ghetto in Rome. In November 1943, Jews of Genoa and Florence were deported to Auschwitz. Jews of Friuli were deported to Auschwitz via Risiera di San Sabba concentration camp. In total, 7,500 Italian Jews became victims of the Holocaust.
It seems that Jews here in Italy have always walked a fine line between being respected and reviled. One Pope famously differentiated between “good ani-Semitism” and “bad anti-Semitism.” The good kind was disdain for the Jews for their non-belief in the salvation found in Christ. The bad kind was disdain for Jews who are just money-grubbing merchants out to cheat everyone and control the world.
This Jewish ghetto bears all of those wounds and I feel it like ancient, brown, thickening scar tissue. It’s not new damage; but it’s still deeply felt.
Here in Florence, pain can also produce beauty. The architecture in the Jewish Ghetto is almost serene in its absence of decoration. Perhaps that’s why so many foreign embassies are located here: the peacefulness pervades the structures themselves.
But it is also noticeably bare, especially in contrast to the vibrant embellishments of urban Florence.
This Ghetto is like an abandoned house slowly disintegrating; attention is being withdrawn from it little by little and thus, it is losing its place in reality.
Barely perceptibly. But definitely.
Walking these streets, the air itself feels haunted by living ghosts.
The past is still present here. But, unlike the joyful Florence Renaissance, the past is not a happy memory.
The synagogue is tucked back, on a residential street, not the focal point of a Piazza where people gather in public. It seems a throwback to when synagogues were hidden. The benefactor of the Florentine Synagogue wanted a freestanding structure, one that would rise up in the face of that fear. But the dust of ancient history is hard to shake off; there is a sense of this building hiding itself from the Evil Eye.
The Florentine Jewish synagogue is actually quite spectacular nonetheless: pink marbled rounded forms, a Moorish influence. No tall Gothic spires reaching to heaven, no grand sculptures gazing upward. And it is surrounded by locked iron gates. And by military officers, who eye me suspiciously as I walk back and forth straining to see the synagogue as whole through all the broken angles of the iron gates.
I feel at once repelled and at home here. I wonder if everyone I see on the street is Jewish; a lanzman as my mother used to call it. Everyone in Ruth Katz Vegetarian Deli wears a yarmulke. The second language here is Hebrew. The people look Eastern European; a bit more raggedy than their smartly dressed and coiffed Florentine counterparts. I see a menorah. I receive an invitation to Shabbat dinner at Chabad House.
This is also my history, as a Jew. And suddenly I am flooded in childhood memory.
I am walking, on a crisp September Saturday morning, to Temple Derech Emunoh on Beach 67th Street three blocks and an eternity away from my home on Beach 64th Street, with my best friend, Lois. She hates going to Temple but her Orthodox father insists; but I love it, because Lois and I spend time together walking, talking and being kids. We are 12. And we have an adolescent crush on the Cantor’s son.
Our grand Temple was also in a ghetto – a rundown Puerto Rican neighborhood – but it was also a Moorish marvel that looked like a palace to me.
My own memories are a rich little ghetto. Every street in the neighborhood of memory is filled with the smell of dinner being cooked by a mother in an apron, in every kitchen in every attached home, while we kids played handball in the schoolyard around the corner and punchball in the streets. Winter blizzards, sledding and snowball fights, hot chocolate and penny candy, fireworks on the beach. We were rich with childhood.
But what if one day, someone came and took us all to concentration camps? I can’t even think about it.
So I don’t judge this Florentine Jewish Ghetto for its sadness. I appreciate even more the unspoiled treasure of my own childhood. I only regret that didn’t know then that it would be one of the best parts of my life, and that I should be cherishing it.
I was too young to understand.
There are always carabinieri in Florence – military police – and it makes me uneasy. It is a reminder that underneath the beauty all is not well. Economically many people are in dire straits. The presence of so many polizia, and at different levels – carabineiri, traffic police, meter maids – is almost like a prediction of unrest.
But I have never seen an outburst or a scuffle in the streets here. And I have never been approached by the police. Until today.
In the light of the the moon, the pink marbled temple now looks warm and welcoming. The carabinieri notice me walking by yet again. I smile – they don’t smile back.
Don’t worry, I am harmless; I am simply looking for a way in.