Friday, September 07, 2001 Elul
Insights, on sites
More than 300 synagogues,
Jewish cemeteries, ritual baths,
ghettos and Jewish museums
were simultaneously opened to
in 23 countries, from Spain to
Switzerland, from Belgium to the
Balkans, during last Sunday's
second annual European Day of
By Ruth Ellen Gruberֲ
PITIGLIANO, ITALY - Far beneath the narrow medieval streets
charming hilltop town in southern Tuscany, Rudi Lichtner led a
people down a steep, narrow stairway into a dark, rough-hewn
excavated centuries ago into the solid rock.
The group - Italians, Germans and an American - had already
Pitigliano's synagogue, a 16th-century gem that fell into ruin after
World War II, but was totally rebuilt and restored in the 1990s.
They also had visited the town's little Jewish museum.
"Now we are right underneath the synagogue, in the room that was
used as the ritual bath," Lichtner told the group. "Rain water was
collected and channeled into that basin," he said, pointing to a
hole cut into the rock floor. "The room next door was a cellar
kosher wine was kept."
He led his charges through a narrow corridor and into another
that was dominated by a large, wood-burning oven: "This was the
where matza was baked. It was only used once a year, at
he added, explaining to the uninitiated that this is the holiday
when Jews eat unleavened bread to recall the exodus from Egypt.
Until about 100 years ago, Pitigliano boasted a Jewish community
vital and active that it was known as "little Jerusalem." Most local
Jews moved away to larger cities before World War II, and today
one Jewish family lives permanently in the town. The synagogue,
museum and former ghetto area, however, are still important local
attractions, and the Pitigliano winery continues to produce a famous
Tour into the past
Lichtner's tour was part of the second annual European Day of
Culture, a celebration of European Jewish history, art and culture
which was marked this past Sunday across the continent. On that
September 2, more than 300 synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, ritual
baths, medieval ghettos and Jewish museums were simultaneously
opened to the public in 23 countries, from Spain to Switzerland,
from Belgium to the Balkans.
In addition, special exhibitions, concerts and other events - from
book fairs to food-tastings - took place, and special brochures and
other informational materials were distributed. The aim: to
encourage awareness of Jewish heritage as an integral part of the
greater cultural heritage of Europe, to promote tourism to sites of
Jewish significance - and also to promote Jewish pride and a sense
of European Jewish identity. Another goal was to educate the
non-Jewish public about Jews and Judaism in order to demystify
Jewish world and promote tolerance.
"[The day of culture] is a sign of the opening of the Jewish
community toward Europe," said Cobi Benatoff, president of the
European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC), one of the
of the event. "We want to present an image of openness and
to show our traditions and make them known to visitors and fellow
citizens. To give an image of Jews today as people who participate
fully in the development of their countries and Europe, but who also
still proudly and jealously conserve their own traditions."
Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish
defined the first European Day of Jewish Culture last year as "the
first event that really politically unified European Jewry [and]
also was a politically important event for Europe as a whole."
Last year's cultural celebration involved more than 500 coordinated
events in 16 countries and drew as many as 150,000 people -
than 43,000 of them in Italy alone, a country with a Jewish
population of only 35,000.
Organizers said that judging by preliminary estimates, this year's
events also drew big crowds - in some places, larger ones than last
Also, despite tensions related to the conflict with the Palestinians
and the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of this week's UN World
Conference Against Racism conference in Durban, the various
happenings did not seem to have been marred by any serious
"There was a very, very good attendance and good atmosphere,"
Catherine Lehmann of the Tourist Development Agency of
Alsace region. "It exceeded our expectations."
The European Day of Jewish Culture is an outgrowth of an "Open
to Jewish Heritage" program that Lehmann helped initiate in Alsace
in 1996. Each year, the number of participating countries has
until the initiative was expanded to a Europe-wide event last year.
The increasing scope is a demonstration of a burgeoning interest in
European Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage sites, which has
developed markedly over the past decade. This is despite the fact
that nearly 10 million Jews lived in Europe before the Holocaust,
and only two to three million live there today.
For decades, Jews and non-Jews alike paid little attention to
preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the
destruction of the Holocaust and the demographic shifts of Jewish
populations. Indeed, many Jews wanted nothing to do with places
they believed were vestiges of a closed chapter in Jewish history.
As recently as 10 years ago, information on Jewish heritage sites
was hard to come by in many countries and little systematic
documentation of them existed. Few publications addressed the
Centuries-old synagogues were used as warehouses or were left to
crumble, and even the location of many cemeteries had slipped out
But since the late 1980s - and particularly since the fall of
communism opened up Eastern and Central Europe to tourists and
scholars - Jewish heritage has become increasingly recognized as a
rich legacy for Europe as a whole, and it has been embraced as an
important component of multicultural society.
"Jewish heritage in France, is also the heritage of all the French
people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France's
Jews," France's culture minister told a conference on European
Jewish heritage held in Paris in 1999.
Perhaps surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of visitors to
European Day of Jewish Culture events are believed to be non-
"This year, too," said Lehmann, "I would estimate that 90 percent
our visitors were probably not Jewish. People were genuinely
interested in learning about Jewish culture and heritage - almost no
one mentioned the Middle East."
Countries participating this year included: Austria, Belgium,
Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Spain, France,
Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal,
Britain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia,
Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and Hungary.
In addition to the European Council of Jewish Communities,
organizers include Alsace's Tourism Development Agency, B'nai
Europe, and the Red de Juderias de Espana, in Girona, Spain. The
Council of Europe included Jewish Culture Day as part of its
campaign promoting "Europe, a Common Heritage."
Passover was chosen as the underlying theme in this year's
exhibitions and events, because of the meaning of the holiday and
the fact that it features symbols, such as matza, that are well
known and easily recognizable to the non-Jewish public.
"For the Jews, Passover is a symbol of freedom," a statement from
the organizers said. "It is the holiday that recalls the birth of
the Jewish people and, at the same time, it is the affirmation of
human freedom against oppression."
Most sites that were open to the public on Jewish Culture Day are
generally closed to public access. Many were disused or lay in
for decades after the Holocaust - or, like the synagogues and
ghettos of Spain and southern Italy - were abandoned by Jews
centuries ago following the expulsion of Jews from Spanish-ruled
lands in 1492.
More than two dozen sites were open in Germany, and scores of
synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, libraries, museums and other sites
welcomed guests in France. In Slovakia, home to only 3,000
least four synagogues were opened and, as in other countries,
exhibitions and cultural performances also took place. In Spain,
home to 20,000 Jews, about a dozen medieval ghettos in towns
including Toledo, Girona and Tudela were the focus of a variety of
Events in Italy, held under the patronage of the Italian president
and the Culture Ministry, were particularly well organized and
attended. Cultural happenings took place in 36 towns and cities,
including many places, like Pitigliano, where few or no Jews live.
Jewish heritage sites opened to the public included a number of
Italy's 70 magnificent synagogues, many of which are no longer in
use. Culture Day attractions drew 4,000 visitors in Rome, and
3,000 in Milan - where people even danced into the night in the
garden of the city's main synagogue.
Italy's deputy culture minister and other senior officials took part
in an official inaugural ceremony in Bologna, a city that is home
today to 200 Jews. Hundreds of people lined up to visit the Jewish
museum and synagogue, to tour the medieval ghetto, to sample
culinary specialties, and to leaf through books displayed at an
open-air Jewish book fair.
"Even without being born Jewish or being of the Jewish religion, we
all are or have been Jews in virtue of the dialogue that Jewish
civilization has had with Italian civilization, interrupted only in
moments of ferocity and barbarism," the deputy culture minister
In Pitigliano, the pace was much less frenetic. Throughout the sunny
Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of visitors, old and young,
including Italian locals and foreign tourists, made their way down
the narrow street leading to the synagogue and former Jewish
Lichtner and other volunteers led tours, answered questions - and
presided over an umbrella-shaded stand offering visitors matza,
locally produced kosher wine and a rich, traditional local Jewish
pastry made with nuts and marzipan.
(For further information on the European Day of Jewish Culture
list of events in all countries taking part, see the Web site
Ruth Ellen Gruber's new book, "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing
Culture in Europe," will be published in January by University of
ֲ© Copyright 2001 Ha`aretz. All rights reserved