KOLOT – My Fascination with Italian Judaism

By Rabbi Gary Atkins

I have always been intrigued and fascinated with the history of the small Jewish community of Italy.

Early on in my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I learned that the first editions of the Talmud were printed in Italy in the early 1500s, and the first ghetto was in Venice, from where ghettoes spread throughout Europe. One of the first books of Jewish art I remember reading showed examples of ornate Italian Renaissance ketubot, with an enviable and even voluptuous artistic flow and freedom. Similar, but less ornate, works of art were done in connection with brit milah certificates and poems.

I often look at my miniature statue of Moses that sits on my desk, with the enigmatic horns (if that is what they are meant to be) on his head. In ancient history, Rome was so often the enemy of Judaism, the destroyer of the Second Temple, the perpetrator of massacres that equaled, if not surpassed, those of the Holocaust. The triumphal bringing of the Temple menorah as booty to Rome is still etched into the arch of Titus. In more recent history, I have read of the difficult experiences of Italian Jewry in the Holocaust, and of the attempts to renew it today.

When I was a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1970s, each year I would participate in the annual Memorial Day service at the Military Cemetery in Manila. I was surprised and humbled that there were more than 250 Jewish war dead interred there. I remember checking on other military cemeteries and learning that there was one in Florence, Italy.

That lead me to reading about Florence and Michelangelo which, in turn, lead me to a most fascinating book co-authored by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and Ray Dolliver, The Sistine Secrets. According to the authors, approximately 500 years ago, when Michelangelo began work on a painting that became one of the most famous pieces of art in the world – the Sistine Chapel ceiling – he had a “secret agenda.” Every year, millions of people come to see Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, which is the largest fresco painting on earth. In the holiest of Christianity’s chapels there is not one single Christian image in this vast, magnificent artwork. The Sistine Secrets tells the fascinating story of how Michelangelo embedded messages of brotherhood, tolerance and freethinking in his painting to encourage “fellow travelers” to challenge the Roman Catholic Church of his time. I found the book and its message fascinating.

To be sure, there are so many worthwhile places to learn about and experience – but learning about Italian Jewry has always been near the top of the list, and this year I decided to do something to turn my thoughts into reality. So, with the help of Ayelet Tours, I decided to try to organize a Jewish heritage tour of Italy for the spring of 2015. Open to the larger community, many of the sites on the tour have transcendent beauty that can be appreciated by everyone. In addition, the tour will have built into it ample free time for private explorations.

On Thursday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m., I will host an information evening designed to answer all your questions about the tour, at Beth Hillel Synagogue, 160 Wintonbury Avenue in Bloomfield. An advance itinerary of the tour is available  online at (click on Jewish heritage at the top of the page, then Upcoming Tours), or call me at (860) 242-5561.

Those interested in learning more about Italian Jewry are invited to attend two Monday evening classes I am offering at Beth Hillel at 8 p.m., that will also cover some of the tour’s highlights: On Nov. 10, I will discuss “Jewish Rome: From the Arch of Titus to the Holocaust – Jewish Life in the ‘Eternal City’” and on Nov. 24, I will discuss “Florence and Venice: The Start of the Ghetto and the Center of Italian Renaissance Jewry.”

Rabbi Gary Atkins is spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield.

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