CULTURE In Ferrara to Explore the Tree of Life

Schermata 2017-12-11 alle 14.49.58By Simonetta Della Seta*

When I visited for the first time the place where we were going to set up the first part of the exhibition of the Meis (Museo nazionale dell’ebraismo italiano e della Shoah), what struck me was the architects’ effort to respect the structure of the former cells, all the while trying to transform them in a lively museum environment. A double challenge, for them and for us: opening a place closed to men and to knowledge. A very Jewish challenge. When I counted those cells, I noticed there were 32 of them. For Judaism, and for the Kabbalah, its most mystical discipline, 32 is a special number, because there are 32 paths in the Tree of Life, which are the 32 paths of wisdom resulting from the study of the Hebrew alphabet (22 letters that, according to tradition, were protagonists of the creation itself) and from the ten Sefirot, the ten rings, the emanations, that bring the man closer to God. 32 is also the numeric value of the word lev, which in Hebrew means “heart”. It indicates that the 32 paths of wisdom, that result from the alphabet in which the Torah was written and from all the teachings that the Torah provides to the man, must be taken to heart.

When I was chosen to manage the Meis, I spent months asking other people – people I knew, but also strangers – what was, in their opinion, the reason for the establishment of a national museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in Italy. The answers were sometimes simple: “The Jewish values are at the basis of our values”, “If we want to understand what anti-Semitism is, we have to understand what Judaism is”. Other answers were more sophisticated: “We can learn from the Jews what it means to live in uncertainty”; “Jews identified themselves with multiple identities before anyone else, let’s learn from them.” In some cases, ignorance prevailed: “I know nothing about it, they say that there’s a lot (of Jews) and if we know them, we can recognise them”.

So I got confirmation that we need this museum. Others before me had understood that, that’s why they wanted the museum and they laid its foundations, without which I wouldn’t be here. I want to thank everyone: politicians and intellectuals, scholars, curators and administrators, the people of Ferrara and Rome. Huge and sincere thanks to those who support us and to those who accompany me today on this journey. In Hebrew the word binah, understanding, intelligence, has the same root (with the letters bet and nun) of the word binyan, construction. In the Mishnah, namely the oral law (Nezikin, Pirkei Avot, 2, 15-16), Rabbi Tarfon says: “The day is short, the work is much… It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” This project has many fathers and mothers, before and after me. However, it has a fundamental condition, without which it would have never been born: it comes to life in Ferrara.

Ferrara is one of the places in the world, besides Israel and Rome, where you can feel a strong Jewish presence. Jews have been living in Ferrara for more than 1000 years, along with the rest of the population, creating an environment of natural exchange. Judaism in Ferrara is in the things. Surely, some of the Dukes of the House of Este have played a part in this, when they opened the city to the Jews, while other Italian rulers, including the popes, shut the Jews in ghettos. Romans and Sicilian Jews arrived to Ferrara, as well as German Jews, Tuscan Jews, and finally Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. Some great protagonists stopped by Ferrara or lived in the city: from Isaac Abrabanel, Jewish politician, philosopher and sage born in Lisbon in 1437, to Gracia Mendes Nasi, a brave Jew merchant who lived at the beginning of the XVI century, from Isacco Lampronti, author in the XVIII century of a Talmudic encyclopaedia that is studied to this day, to Theodor Herzl, father of the modern Zionism, who stopped by to meet the Jews in Ferrara during the winter of 1904. In two crucial moments for the history of Jews in Italy, rabbis and scholars met in Ferrara to decide what to do: in 1554, after the explicit support of the Church to the Mounts of Piety as a replacement for the loans offered by the Jews, as well as to the violent attacks on the Talmud; in 1862, to understand how to reorganise Italian Judaism after the unification.

In Ferrara there are still three synagogues, two of which are still in use and newly restored, and a big and peaceful Jewish cemetery, embraced, like the city, by the walls. In Ferrara, the streets of the former ghetto, that here lasted less than elsewhere, are still Jewish and, in the dialect, words derived from Hebrew are used (like the “zucca barucca”, a variety of pumpkin, from baruk, blessed). Sadly, in Ferrara there’s a tombstone in via Mazzini (also mentioned by Giorgio Bassani) with the names of the Jews who were deported in 1943. Before the Nazi-Fascist persecutions, about 1000 Jews lived here.

The Meis needed to be born in a place loaded with Jewish consciousness. In fact, the mission is to narrate Judaism, and particularly the long and rich experience of Italian Jews. The first part of the exhibition that inaugurates the museum and that is presented in this catalogue is called, not without reason, “Jews, an Italian story. The first thousand years”. With this story, the Meis starts to unveil events that not many people know. A surprising story, from which it is clear that Italy was built with the Jews and also by the Jews. It is not an experience of other people: Jews are full of old Italian spirit, a part of the fabric of our country, an active component of the Italian wealth and strength. They printed its books, they fought its wars, they believed in its Risorgimento and they gave their lives for its liberation. Jews arrived in Italy before the Longobards, the Normans, the Franks and the Spanish. Before all of them, the Jews were already Italians and worked to make this land fertile; this land that in Hebrew is actually called y tal ya, “the island of the divine dew”.

A map of Italy that the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities donated to the Meis indicates 700 places with Jewish presence all over the peninsula, from Sicily to Friuli, from Apulia to Piedmont.
This is a revealing piece of news for those who are aware of the Jews’ existence only when the Shoah, the most heinous chapter of European history, is remembered. Before that tragedy, there has been in Italy two millennia of coexistence, mutual acquaintance and also, through the ups and downs, joint construction. The museum born in Ferrara needs to discuss also discrimination, segregation, persecution and extermination, because, contrary to common belief, these injustices have been endured by the Italian Jews too. Deep wounds, often inflicted at the hands of other Italians. But the Meis is not only a remembrance museum. Instead, it is intended to be a place to meet others, to exchange, and therefore to live. The goal is to spread knowledge and talk to everyone: Italians and foreigners, experts and non-experts, young people and families, professionals and tourists.

A protocol of agreement has already been signed by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research: the Meis will be recognised as a destination for school-work alternance and for academic research. Finally, let’s open the door to dialogue: between religions, ethnic groups, social classes, generations, and citizens. So that the contribution of a minority could teach to get to know each other and to be able to build together worlds to share. Corrado Israel De Benedetti, a Jew from Ferrara born in 1927, who is today member of a kibbutz in Israel, was imprisoned by Fascists in the penitentiary in Ferrara in via Piangipane, on 14 November 1943. We invited him to visit the Meis building when the construction was still in progress, in search of his cell. Climbing the scaffolding, he said: “It was in this place that I started to think about building a fairer society, founded on democratic and Jewish values.”

*Simonetta Della Seta is the Director of the National Museum of the Italian Judaism and the Shoah.
Translated by Sara Volpe, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.