Thursday, October 16, 2008

My Jewish Heritage Traveling Holidays

This year, I've ended up turning the High Holy Days into a Jewish Heritage Travel (or shlep) across Europe: Rosh Hashana in Siena, Italy; Yom Kippur in Vienna; Sukkoth in Budapest.

It's been a mini-tour of three different cities, countries, Jewish traditions. Food! But sampling different Jewish cultures and traditions was a by-product, not really the aim.

I spend much of my time in a farmhouse in rural Italy, and, though nearly a 2-hour drive away, Siena is actually one of the closest places to me where there is a synagogue. Budapest, where I have a small apartment, is a second home, and I try to get here as often as I can. And in Vienna I have a close friend with whom I usually try to spend at least part of the holidays.

I've written in a previous post about the beautiful 18th century synagogue in Siena, at vicolo delle Scotte 14, just off the wonderful Campo, the huge piazza that is the heart of the city. I met some lovely people where I attended a concert there on the European Day of Jewish Culture and accepted their invitation to join them for Rosh Hashanah.

Only a few dozen Jews live in Siena, most of them members of three or four families. Under current administrative regulations they do not constitute an "official" Jewish community on their own, but a "section" of the much larger Jewish community in Florence.

Anna De Castro and Lamberto Piperno Corcos live on a big estate outside of Siena. It has been in the family for nearly 70 years and consists of a huge (now empty) villa with formal gardens (which Anna and Lamberto are attempting to restore and put back into good shape). There are a number of smaller houses, some of which have been turned into rental apartments -- the estate, Monaciano, produces excellent wine and also rents out the apartments as "agritourism" accommodation.

I arrived at Monaciano just in time to change clothes and go into town for erev R-H services.

The services marked one of the first public appearances of Eli Rabani, an Israeli who has just arrived in Siena to serve as the congregation's new "capo culto," or religious leader, replacing an elderly leader who passed away not long ago after heading the congregation for decades.

Though not a rabbi, Rabani is is there to lead prayers. He and his young family will be living next to the synagogue, and local Jews hope that they will form a dynamic new anchor for Jewish activities.

The congregation was small -- much of it seemed composed of foreign tourists and American students. Fortunately, they don't use the women's gallery, located high above and heavily screened... Women simply sit on one side of the sanctuary.

It was all very informal, and we rushed back to Monaciano for the real centerpiece of the celebration -- the dinner, or Rosh Hashana Seder. Many of Anna and Lamberto's relatives were also there for the holiday, and we sat around a huge table in one of the outlying houses.

In our Ashkenazi tradition, Rosh Hashana dinners have always consisted of just a special dinner, with Challah maybe, and apples dipped in honey -- not to mention chicken soup. But in the Italian tradition (and Sephardic) there is a "seder" -- an ordered meal during which special ritual foods are eaten. These were mostly fruit and vegetables, most of them fried... I don't have the exact order with me as I am writing this post, but we started with figs and then went on to apples and honey, pomegranate, squash, green beans, spinach fritatta, fried little fish. There were other dishes, too, including a delicious squash risotto.

The next morning, we all went back to the synagogue.

There was a palpable air of excitement as he led the prayers and read the Torah. The shofar sounded, and Rabani's two small and very cute children ran about the sanctuary.

For the first time in years, there was a Cohen in the congregation, one of Anna and Lamberto's relatives who was up for the holiday from Rome.

He stood before the Ark, reciting the priestly blessing, while families and friends stood and grouped tightly together under tallises raised to cover us like tents.

"May the Lord bless you and keep you. 
May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. 
May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace."

It was very emotional -- I don't think I was the only congregant to wipe away tears.

(On to Central Europe in following posts.)


  1. How did you meet Anna or Lamberto? My family is visiting Siena, we will be there during Shabbos and wanted to spend it with a Jewish family there, if possible. Any suggestions?

  2. You can reach them via their web site -- they rent holiday apartments at their country place.

    Your best bet for observant shabbos may be through the head of the community.

    via Farini 4
    50121 Firenze
    Tel. +39 055245252
    Fax +39 055241811