Little Jerusalem still flowers in Pitigliano

By Dany Mitzman, May 3, 2012

The best way to arrive in Pitigliano is by night. As you round the last bend to the top of the hill which faces Pitigliano across the valley, the town suddenly looms up out of the tufa rock on which it's built: an enchanted fairyland, a Little Jerusalem. I knew of its nickname - earned through centuries of harmonious co-existence between local Catholics and the Jews who settled here 500 years ago - but I wasn't expecting Pitigliano actually to look like Jerusalem.

"When you come to Pitigliano, the first place you pass on the way up is the Jewish cemetery - just like in Jerusalem", says Davide Mano, a historian and PhD researcher at Tel Aviv University, who spent a year living here studying the town's unique Jewish history.

As we stroll around the picturesque, narrow streets, Davide tells me how the Jews became so integrated in this tiny Tuscan hill-town that much of their culture spilled into local traditions. Pitigliano resonates with Jewish allusions: from the Via del Ghetto to the Jews' House (a grand building which once housed numerous Jewish families), from traditional Jewish biscuits and sweets in the bakeries to savoury dishes on restaurant menus. Not to mention local dialect words derived from Hebrew, like kasherre (from kosher), sciattare (from shechitah) and gadollo (from gadol). There are still mezuzot on many doors, even though the inhabitants are no longer Jewish. Today, the town that used to be known by Italian Jews as the "land of refuge" has only one Jewish family left: that of Elena Servi.

She greets me with a broad smile as I walk into the Jewish Museum. Her eyes twinkle with pride as she invites me to take a look around the complex, run by the Little Jerusalem Association that she heads. It was the idea of her son, Enrico Spizzichino. "He was born in 1963, and he's the last Jew born here. He's not observant – his wife's Catholic – but he is still Jewish and feels Jewish. He always said, 'I have to do something as the last Jew born in Pitigliano', and he came up with this idea."

Enrico produces kosher olive oil and wine under the Little Jerusalem label, while Elena looks after the museum. She sends me off on a personal guided tour with Roberto Nizzi, who is a Catholic member of the association.

‘This is a way of rekindling Jewish life here’

As he shows me round the renovated synagogue, the former slaughterhouse, the mikveh, the old wine cellars and the Pesach ovens, I get the impression he knows more than I do about Jewish rites and customs. Elena's and Roberto's families were close and Elena remembers how the Jewish children used to exchange gifts of Pesach matzot and Easter pizza with their Christian friends - "of course Mamma wouldn't let us eat our pizza until after Pesach!" When Italian Jews were being deported, local farmers in la macchia - the dense forest surrounding the town - hid Pitigliano's Jews in their homes. Elena says: "In the last few months before the liberation, when it got too risky, we had to live in a cave. But we had the help of all the farmers and were never abandoned. "

When Elena dies, she is sure the Jews won't be forgotten, thanks to local support for the Little Jerusalem Association. "We have over 150 members, and most of them are Catholic. We opened it to anyone who was enthusiastic about the idea of the rejuvenation of Jewish Pitigliano. This is a way of rekindling Jewish life here."

Last updated: 2:02pm, May 3 2012