Life & Culture

A Tuscan haven for Jews sparked a long-haul novel

Amanda Weinberg's debut book was inspired by a small village in Tuscany - and took decades to complete


So many people have had that lightbulb moment when they think, there’s a book in this. But very few actually go on to deliver. For languages teacher Amanda Weinberg, however, that moment struck in 1998 — and this month she published her first novel, The Tears of Monterini.

It is truly a labour of love: Weinberg and her family were travelling in southern Tuscany when they came across the village of Pitigliano. “The village is absolutely stunning, but we had no idea of its Jewish history”.

To the family’s astonishment, as they were driving through the winding roads by Pitigliano, there was a sign pointing to a synagogue. “And then we noticed in the shops, there was kosher wine, matzos, all kinds of Jewish delicacies… and we thought, where have we turned up?”

The following year the family bought a house in Pitigliano and became close friends with Elena Servi, the nonagenarian Jewish woman who has kept the Jewish tradition going in the village. It, and the museum complex surrounding the synagogue, is known as Little Jerusalem, and thousands of tourists visit every year.

Pitigliano  became a safe space for Jews after they were expelled from the Papal States in the 16th century. “The people in the town are very proud of their history — and particularly what happened during the war.” The Jews who originally came to the town were artisans and bookbinders, and settled easily into living side-by-side with the existing farming and vineyard community.

And that’s the way they lived for centuries until Mussolini’s Fascist take-over of Italy and the enactment of racial laws against the Jews. Pitigliano’s Christian residents, however, did whatever they could to hide and protect their Jewish neighbours.

From that sprang Weinberg’s novel, in which the fictional Monterini stands in for Pitigliano. Her headstrong Jewish heroine, Bella Levi, falls in love with her Catholic next-door neighbour, Rico Ghione, and their adventures permeate the book as the Second World War rages.

Into the stories of wartime Monterini, she has woven a famous true story of the rescue of the children of Villa Emma. These were Jewish children from Austria, Germany and Yugoslavia, who were hidden by local resistance groups in northern Italy, and betrayed to the Germans when one child mistakenly spoke in her own language. Nevertheless, the resistance organisation, Delasem, successfully smuggled almost all the children to Switzerland, from where many made their way to pre-state Israel.

Bella, her heroine, is one of those helping to teach the fictional “children of Villa Sophia” the local Monterini dialect, based on the real Pitigliano dialect, incomprehensible even to Italian speakers.

For Weinberg, her love affair with Pitigliano is reflected in her novel, which conjures up the sights and sounds and scents of the Tuscan countryside. But the hitherto untold Jewish story of the area finds expression both in the novel — where Jews hidden by resistance fighters worry about the ethics of eating non-kosher rabbit — and in the daily food culture of the village, where local pastry specialities such as sfratto are traditionally eaten by Jews at Rosh Hashanah and by Catholics on New Year.

She was inspired to write this novel, “by the acts of kindness” which typify the village. She and her family, who have even successfully staged a seder in the synagogue complex, have been warmly embraced by Pitigliano’s residents. The novel can be taken as an expression of a mutual love affair.

The Tears of Monterini by Amanda Weinberg is published by Red Door at £8.99


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