The death last month of Edda Servi Machlin, known for her Italian Jewish cookbooks, has prompted a focus on the Jewish heritage in her hometown, the beautiful hill town of Pitigliano, dramatically perched on a neck of rust-colored tufa rock in southern Tuscany.
In her landmark (and now, sadly, out of print) 1981 book The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Servi Machlin — who died August 16 aged 93, at her home in New York — combined traditional recipes and menus from Pitigliano and elsewhere in Italy with a movingly written memoir about Pitigliano’s Jews and their vanished way of life in what was once (and indeed still is) known as the “little Jerusalem” – la Piccola Gerusalemme.
Jewish history in the town dates back to the 16th century. The community grew as Jews sought refuge there from the Papal States, following the anti-Jewish 1555 Papal Bull Cum nimis absurdum that forced the Jews of Rome into a ghetto and imposed other wide-ranging restrictions on Jews. Pitigliano lay just across the border from the Papal States and welcomed Jews who fled.
Protected by the Medici family, the Jewish community flourished and the city became known as “little Jerusalem” […] When Pitigliano became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1608, Jewish prosperity and freedom were threatened. Discussions took place on whether the Jews would have to move to the ghettos in Florence or Siena, but, instead, in 1622 a ghetto was built in Pitigliano.
Only a few dozen Jews lived in Pitigliano on the eve of World War II. Today, only a very small handful live there, but the Jewish heritage sites in its one-time ghetto now form a complex, managed by an association called “Little Jerusalem,” that is one of the town’s “must see” attractions.
They include a synagogue originally built in 1598 (whose rather perilous perch at the edge of the tufa cliff made it prone to collapse).
Edda Servi Machlin described how it looked pre-WW2 in her cookbook/memoir:
The temple was open every day for three services. As one entered the beautiful Sanctuary done in a superb blend of Renaissance and Baroque styles, one would see on the right wall an impressive mural tablet, written in block Hebrew letters on an embossed stucco relief ornately framed in gold leaf, which read … ‘If I should forget you, oh Jerusalem, may my right arm wither.’ And every man, woman, and child tried to live up to this pledge.
The synagogue was closed in 1956 and, as the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in Italy notes, its 18th century Ark was removed and taken to Israel, where it is used in the synagogue in Carmiel.
Soon after, a landslide caused the almost total collapse of the disused building. For decades, the synagogue remained a pile of rubble, with only a wall and part of the entrance standing. Reconstruction, costing $400,000 and financed by the town of Pitigliano and the European Union, took nearly ten years.
It was rededicated with a gala ceremony in February 1995.
Architects worked from old photographs to complete the design as faithfully as possible, but — as the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in Italy says, “The interior furnishings, made recently from wood, are simplified versions of the originals. […] Among the few elements which remained intact is the women’s balcony, above the entrance; it is screened off by a gilded wooden grating carved with plant motifs.”
The rebuilt sanctuary has a lofty, flattened barrel vault, wooden furniture and fittings, 12 hanging chandeliers, and blue and gold baroque-style decorative wall ornamentation.
A large rendering of the Ten Commandments covers part of the ceiling, and on the walls are restored plaques commemorating visits to the synagogue by three Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Beneath the synagogue, carved into the tufa rock, are several underground chambers that used to serve the Jewish community — these include a mikvah, a matzo bakery, a room to dye textiles, and a butchery. There is also a small museum.
Servi Machlin — a native of Pitigliano — described in vivid terms how matzo was baked in the oven, which was opened just once a year, for Passover.
[T]he oven was one of our most important facilities […] “At the time I was growing up [in the 1930s], the oven was not in operation all year round. But once a year, the opening of the oven just before passover was a thrilling event for children and adults alike.
Morevover, she adds, amid the bustle of cleaning, kneading and baking, “for the young people the bakery was a happy hunting ground, a perfect place to gather to carry on flirtation and love affairs. Many a marriage was arranged while kneading the bits of dough, and perhaps even a few were wrecked during those vernal days.”
Pitigliano has one other Jewish heritage site that is visible from the town, but not within it — the Jewish cemetery, founded in the mid-16th century.
In 1556, the doctor David de Pomis was granted a piece of land by Count Niccolò IV Orsini, in order to bury his young wife. Ever since then, this land has remained the cemetery used by the Jewish community of Pitigliano. Just outside the town, at the foot of the fortress, it lies along a jagged slope at the foot of the town. It holds around 280 graves of different types, according to the different eras. Of particular interest are the locules dug into the side of the tufa rock. Starting in the late 19th century, monumental structures were added, in line with non-Jewish tradition, such as gravestones featuring broken columns or veiled urns. Among the most picturesque of the sculptures is an angel with large wings, and a girl lying on two pillows, her hands clasped.