“Good morning, I would like to visit the Synagogue,” says a sweet lady wearing an old-fashioned patterned dress at the Milan Sinagoga Centrale (Central Synagogue) on a lazy mid-summer afternoon. “I’m sorry ma’am. For security reasons, it is not possible,” replies the attendant.
It happens often. People want to visit synagogues as they would visit churches, and they cannot. Sometimes it is possible to book a group visit, but the experience is not the same. To amend this situation, every year, all over Europe, thousands of synagogues open their doors to the public for the European Day of Jewish Culture (EDJC) on the first Sunday of September.
The EDJC was born in 1999 and has become one of the most beloved and effective means of spreading knowledge of Judaism and Jewish Culture. Every year the Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ), an umbrella organization that gathers B’nai B’rith Europe, Red de Juderías de España and the European Council of Jewish Communities, selects a theme related to Jewish culture. In past years, the EDJC celebrated Art and Judaism, Jewish Festivals, Jewish Cooking and Jewish Music. For 2012, the AEPJ chose “The Spirit of Jewish Humor.”
“The European Day of Jewish Culture is supposed to be appealing for people who don’t know much about Judaism,” said Annie Sacerdoti, a board member of AEPJ. “This is the reason why we try to keep it straight and simple. We want everyone to feel comfortable attending the events without fearing they will be too ignorant to understand them. So far, this approach has proved to be successful.”
Each year more than 200,000 people from all over Europe attend EDJC events and the number is increasing, along with the number of countries that participate. There are 28 so far, including Ukraine, Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary, Lithuania and Greece.
In 2005, the EDJC became part of the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe, a program whose aim is to show how the heritage different countries and cultures of Europe contribute to a shared heritage.
Italy is one of the most successful countries for the EDJC, with more than one quarter of the total visitors — an impressive number considering that less than 30,000 Jews live in Italy today. This year, over 60 Italian cities and towns will host events hosted by local cultural associations, museums and municipal authorities. Dozens of synagogues, cemeteries and old ghettos are brought to life again, not only where Jewish life is still present, as in Rome, Milan, Florence, Turin or Venice, but also where Jews no longer live. This is the case in the small town of Finale Emilia, which was the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that hit Northern Italy last May.
Finale Emilia has its own remarkable Jewish history. Its local dish is “la torta degli ebrei,” or “pie of the Jews,” and the ancestors of some of the most prominent Italian Jewish families are buried in Finale Jewish cemetery, including Donato Donati, the 16th-century progenitor of the journalist Arrigo Levi, who has been communication advisor for two Presidents of Italy.
In spite of all difficulties, Finale will take part to EDJC as it did in past years. “Thousands of our citizens lost their houses but we are not giving up,” explained mayor Fernando Ferioli. “We are proud of the Jewish roots of our town and grateful to Italian Jews for the help they are offering us in rebuilding our school.”
The school of Finale was named after Elvira Castelfranchi, a beloved Jewish teacher who worked there before Race Laws were enforced in Italy, in 1938. After the earthquake, The Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) launched a campaign to raise funds to rebuild it.
It’s just another in which Italian Jewish culture still plays a fundamental role in the life of the country.