Putting Florence's Jewish History Into the Spotlight

Italian Community Has Its Very Own Duomo

A Dome Away From Home: Dedicated in 1882, Florence’s synagogue is a monument to 19th century Jewish emancipation and a grand example of Moorish style architecture, with a soaring arched façade and two slim side towers.
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A Dome Away From Home: Dedicated in 1882, Florence’s synagogue is a monument to 19th century Jewish emancipation and a grand example of Moorish style architecture, with a soaring arched façade and two slim side towers.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published November 05, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
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“I believe that there is no life for the Jewish community in the future unless that life becomes part of the life of Florence,” said Fink, who was the prime mover behind the project. “I’m not afraid that the Jewish community will die, but it needs to be part of what happens around it.”

The idea of the Café, therefore, was not just to entertain with concerts and aperitifs, but, he said, to serve as “a way to start building relations between the town, the synagogue and the Jewish community — and that’s what happened.”

About 300 people turned up for the first Café in early June — most of them Jewish community members and their friends. But each week the numbers grew, thanks to enthusiastic local media coverage as well as word of mouth.

“It conquered the city,” journalist Fulvio Paloscia wrote in La Repubblica. By the summer’s last Café, on Aug. 29 — where I was featured in a public conversation with Fink about Jewish culture and mainstream society — the event drew 800 people. Crowds milled about the garden and listened to two concerts, one by a klezmer band and one by Sephardic singer Evelina Meghnagi. They also mobbed the food stand, where some 450 kosher meals were sold.

Retired computer systems operator Giuseppe Budillon told me he came every week. “I am Christian but I am attracted to the Jewish community,” he said. “This Café Balagan is doing a lot.”

In sharp contrast to other days of the week, security seemed minimal — people could enter with their phones, cameras and backpacks. Cividali said this, too, sent a message. “Security can’t impede us from living,” she told me. “And I feel that the more open we are, the safer we are, as the synagogue and garden are felt to belong to the city.”

Renzo Funaro, vice president of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in Italy, called the Café “a cultural revolution.” It was, he told me, “the first time that the Jewish community’s garden became an element of Florentine culture.”

What’s more, unaffiliated Jews who had had nothing to do with organized Jewish life in Florence also began turning up, thanks to the buzz. And volunteers came from as far away as Siena each week to help.

The question for the community now is where to go from here. “The success this summer has paved the way for future activities,” Fink told me. Plans for new initiatives this fall and winter, Fink said, could include a “Balagan Shabbat,” or open Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, as well as smaller indoor events such as book launches.

The non-Jewish Florence mainstream, Fink said, “now perceives this as a place they can expect to come to — not somewhere that is fenced off. This creates a better situation for everyone.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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