Naomi Baltuck: Lost and Found: A Treasure Trove of Stories in a Small Italian Village c2007 by Naomi Baltuck

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December 05, 2007

Lost and Found: A Treasure Trove of Stories in a Small Italian Village c2007 by Naomi Baltuck

P1010033_3_2My sister Constance and I have always marveled at the similarities between our chosen arts, storytelling and painting. We each use a creative form of self-expression to tell our stories, although Con tells hers with a paintbrush, and I paint my pictures with words. On our recent trip to Italy, I came to the realization that the most awesome quality of both painting and storytelling is not the ability to capture a moment, but to recreate it.

Con and I were looking for Etruscan tombs when we stumbled upon Pitigliano, a gem of a Tuscan hilltop town. We had found other towns that were lovely to look at, but none nearly so compelling. Perhaps it was the story that helped us to connect with the place. Wandering through the narrow winding streets of the ancient Jewish ghetto in Pitigliano, my head was filled with just-learned stories of its unique past, and my heart went out to this town like it had nowhere else in Italy.

I stopped, suddenly overcome by a scene that took my breath away. In all its simple eloquence, it seemed to capture the essence of Italy. At the end of a narrow side street in this ancient hilltop town, on a doorstep festooned with flower pots as colorful as the history of this place, two cats curled up together in one flower pot. One cat was black and white, the other completely black. To me, they symbolized the concrete world of black and white, living side by side in harmony with the fluid world of shadow and mystery. Framed by high dark medieval walls at the end of the street, was the sunny Tuscan valley, alive with grapevines and olive trees, yet riddled with ancient Etruscan tombs.

P1010100_2"I must take that photo," I whispered to Con. I took out my camera, and tiptoed up the alley, hoping to get a close-up of the cats. But I came too close. Before I could snap my photograph, the cats leapt up, first one, then the other, and scurried away. I had lost the moment! Or so I thought.

That night, back in our little apartment in Orvieto, Con painted at the dining room table, while I tried to recall the day in my journal. I wrote of meeting the woman who told us that Pitigliano had been a rare refuge for Jews in the middle ages, after they were driven from Spain during the Inquisition. Even after the pope and the powerful Medici family forced them into the ghetto in 1600, they had thrived in Pitigliano, with a healthy Jewish population of one in five, in a town of just over 2,000.

Although the Jewish Museum had closed for the season, and the synagogue had closed for the day, the woman told us that, after the war and the Holocaust, a small handful of Jews had returned, and still lived in the town to protect the legacy, to care for the synagogue, and to tell the story of the Jews in Pitigliano. "How small?" I asked. She shrugged and guessed, "Maybe five?"

We went to the site of the ancient ghetto, and found the Jewish bakery, closed for the Sabbath, and the synagogue, also closed. We later read that there are not enough Jews to hold a minyan. A little shop was open, where homemade matzoh was sold, and where we bought a book of the history of the Jewish people of Pitilgliano. In that shop they also sold a baked confection unique to Pitigliano, called a "Sfratto," which means "eviction." The Sfratto has a filling of honey, crushed walnuts, and oranges, baked into a stick-shaped wafer. It commemorates the time when the Jews were evicted from their houses and forced to live in the ghetto. The eviction order was executed by the judicial officer who beat on the door of Jewish homes with a stick. The Jews of Ptigliano, wanting to keep a recollection of that event, invented this particular confection in the shape of a stick. Four hundred years later, they are still telling the story, and we are still eating it up.

As Con and I wandered down a narrow alley across from the synagogue, I heard music. It was the haunting strains of a lone Klezmer violin, so lovely that, at first, I thought it might be a recording. But the music ended quietly, and I knew that it had been played by human, or perhaps ghostly hands.

"Lantern bearers," I told Con. "Those few are holding up the light for others to see, until that time when others come to relieve them, or until a light comes along shining so brightly that a lantern is no longer needed."

I loved Pitigliano for its unique history, for providing refuge at a time when so few others would, for its tiny but stalwart population of Jews determined to protect a precious legacy, for the stories and ghosts that linger in every back alley, be they concrete accounts told in plain black and white, or the darker mysteries that linger in shadow.

P1010003_2When I had finished my journal entry, Con showed me her painting for the day. It was alive with color, and it brought to mind the fragrance of honey and walnut, the haunting strains of a lone violin. And there were my two cats, sitting right where I remembered them, curled up together in their flower pot, a perfect balance of black and white and shadow. Just as I had managed to recreate the lost moment with my words, Con's painting not only captured the concrete details of my lost snapshot; it recreated the mystery and magic of that moment better than any photograph ever could.

Her painting will be featured this month in a show at "Skeins" in Juneau, along with other paintings from our travels in Italy, Oregon, and the Tetons. But I have already claimed and purchased the painting of two cats in a flower pot. If I lose the painting to fire or flood, I will have lost a treasured souvenir of a very special trip. But I will still have the story, and that is what gave meaning to the place, at least for me. Whether it be via the printed page, radio wave, by word of mouth, or even if it comes in the guise of a Jewish confection, as long as there is someone to tell it, and someone to listen, the story will survive. and that is a precious legacy.

(Con's paintings can be viewed on her website at


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Thank you, Naomi, for sharing your vision of the world and your journey on this earth with me. I don't know where I would be without you, but I'll never forget all the places I've been with you. Bon Voyages! To our future travels, here, and one step beyond!

Lantern bearers," I told Con. "Those few are holding up the light for others to see, until that time when others come to relieve them, or until a light comes along shining so brightly that a lantern is no longer needed."

This is an amazing image. It is going to follow me around for quite a while. It feels like both a validation for those who have held the torch, and also a calling out for new torch bearers. A call to take the passion one more step. Presented with the past, how could you not?

Dear Terri,

I so appreciate your thoughtful comments. Con discovered an amazing website (, which you might be interested in looking at. It was established by Mr. Eytan Kahn, of Israel, who felt such a strong connection to the town of Pitigliano, and such gratitude for all that it has done and is doing to preserve the history of "Little Jerusalem," that he created the website to help tell the story.


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