In southern Italy, Judaism is dancing back to life

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, September 20, 2012
A performance outside Scolanova synagogue during the festival in Trani

A performance outside Scolanova synagogue during the festival in Trani

Night falls at the end of Shabbat in Trani, a historic Adriatic port town in southern Italy.

Outside a 13th-century synagogue, Rabbi Scialom Bahbout holds aloft the Havdalah candle while a happy crowd around him chants the blessings and passes around sprigs of fragrant herbs.

Cries of “Shavua tov!” ring out, kicking off the final night of Lech Lecha, a week-long festival of Jewish art, culture, literature and faith that took place ahead of Rosh Hashanah in Trani and nine other towns up and down the heel of Italy’s boot: Barletta, Oria, Brindisi, Andria, Bari, Lecce, Manfredonia, Nardo and San Nicandro Garganico.

Sponsored by the Puglia Region, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and other civic and Jewish bodies, the festival included concerts, lectures, food-tastings, performances, Hebrew lessons, guided tours, movie-showings and more.

For Puglia, this festival constitutes a message of hope

One local restaurant in Trani even koshered its kitchen so that observant visitors could eat, and a public Shabbaton with morning services held in the open air concluded the week.

All this was meant to both symbolise and celebrate a revival of Jewish life and a renewed awareness of the importance of Jewish history and culture in Puglia, 500 years after Jews were expelled from the region or forced to convert.

“For Puglia, for this our land, this constitutes a sign of joy and a message of hope,” local official Silvia Godelli wrote in the festival’s programme.

The hub of the events in Trani was the Scolanova synagogue, built in 1247 and one of two medieval synagogues that still stand in the city.

All of Trani’s synagogues were transformed into churches centuries ago. But, thanks to a return to Judaism in southern Italy over the past decade by dozens of descendants of anusim, or forced converts, the Scolanova was deconsecrated in 2004 and returned to use as a synagogue. The other surviving synagogue now houses a museum that recounts the history of Jews in Puglia.

“The festival was a success, but very hard work,” festival director Francesco Lotoro said. “People are already looking forward to next year.”

Mr Lotoro, who with his wife converted to Judaism in 2004, was instrumental in obtaining the return of the Scolanova synagogue.

A concert pianist, he has spent years researching the music that was composed and played in the Nazi camps before and during the Second World War, and one of the highlights of Lech Lecha was a concert in Trani of some of the pieces he has discovered.

Last updated: 11:54am, September 20 2012