The Jewish community of Padova (Padua) Italy recently opened a permanent exhibition/museum as a new step in a more comprehensive project to develop and promote the city’s rich, centuries-old Jewish heritage as both a resource for local people and an attractive itinerary for tourists and other visitors.
As we wrote ahead of the opening of the museum in June, the Museo della Padova Ebraica (Museum of Jewish Padova) is sited in the former “German,” synagogue, Sinagoga Tedesca, used by the Ashkenazic community, which was inaugurated in 1525 in the heart of the Jewish quarter, or ghetto, in the city’s historic center. The synagogue was severely damaged during World War II when it was torched by local Fascists, and it stood derelict until it was completely rebuilt in 1998 (the ark was transferred to Tel Aviv in 1956).
Jewish Heritage Europe Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber spent an afternoon this week in Padova, visiting the exhibit and other sites of Jewish heritage in the city, including the 16th century Italian rite synagogue, which is still used by the small (approx. 170 members) Jewish community, and the Jewish cemetery on via Wiel — dating from the 16th century and the oldest of the five Jewish cemeteries in the city.
The sanctuary of the Italian synagogue is a small, rather long and narrow space, with an elaborately carved Ark and a delicate wooden Bimah positioned to face each other from the middle of the long sides of the room. The Bimah is believed to have been carved from the wood of a single tree that fell in the botanical gardens.
The synagogue is just a few steps away from the new museum (which is located on via delle Piazze).
The exhibition includes a selection of items from the Jewish community’s extensive collection of Judaica objects from past centuries to the present. Among them are a very rare Mameluk parochet from Egypt dating back to the 15th or 16th century.
There is also an 18th century Megillah of Esther, a 16th century Torah scroll, exceptional silver torah ornaments, and several ketubot.
A backlit photographic reproduction of the Ark occupies the space where the Ark once stood — the ark now being in Tel Aviv.
Two films are included in the exhibition. One is a general introduction to the history of the community. The other — projected on the walls of the sanctuary where the exhibit is located — tells the story of Padova Jews through the life stories of several prominent members of the community over the past five centuries or so, portrayed by actors.
The Jewish cemetery behind a high brick wall in via Wiel, in central Padova near the Old Town and of ghetto, has been restored and is beautifully maintained by the Jewish community. Opened in 1529, with more than 90 16th century tombs, it is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Padova and one of five Jewish cemeteries that remain in the city. (Fragments from two 15th century gravestones from a cemetery destroyed in 1509 are displayed in the city museum).
The most famous people buried there are Me’ir Katzenellenbogen, or Maharam, a renowned Ashkenazic rabbi who died in 1565, and his son, Samuel Judah, who succeeded him and died in 1597.
Mainly because of them, Padova is believed to be the only place in Italy where devout followers make pilgrimages to the tombs of their masters. Indeed, Jewish community leaders say that these pilgrims often do not contact the Jewish community to obtain the key to the cemetery, but climb over the wall to pray, leave kvittlach (written messages) and light candles.
Katzenellenbogen gravestones are (rather charmingly) marked by the crest of a crouching Cat (“Katze” in German).
Another noted personality interred here is Anselmo Del Banco (Asher Levi Meshullam) who died in 1532. A powerful banker (owner of several loan-banks in the Venice area), he was the head of the Jewish community in Venice and represented the community when in 1516 the authorities decreed that Jews there must live in a ghetto.
His gravestone is notable for its fine and unusual carving.