Jewish in Casale

The Jews of Casale: over 500 years of history

The Jewish Museum complex of Casale Monferrato, with its magnificent synagogue, has enjoyed unexpected growth over the past 30 years.
Through the tireless work of the only two Jewish families still in Casale – the Carmis and the Ottolenghis – the Museum of Ancient Jewish Art and History, the Synagogue, the Museum of Light and the Archives are now quite deservedly one of the major tourist draws in the province of Alessandria.

An ancient community

Midor ledor, “from generation to generation.” This quote from Isaiah (34:10) can be said to summarize an ideal of Judaism held dear by Jewish families scattered to the four corners of the Earth.
Shortly after their expulsion from Spain, Jews settled in Casale and formed what was for centuries one of the major Jewish communities in Italy.
While in much of Piedmont the Savoys imposed their will, in the Monferrato the Paleologi family and later the Gonzagas were more tolerant, but the Jews still saw their status fluctuate from foreigner to subject and back depending on the era and the sovereign in power. In exchange for permission to stay in the city, sometimes they had to pay enormous taxes supporting military expeditions. The most serious restriction was the ban on traveling certain city streets during Holy Week or religious processions.

Streets of the ghetto

In 1724, Vittorio Amedeo II ordered the Jewish population into ghettos. Many families already lived in the large neighborhood denoted as the Contrada degli Ebrei (now Via d’Azeglio, Via Balbo, Via Roma, Vicolo Castagna and Piazza San Francesco), and the synagogue was built at its center. According to the general census carried out in Piedmont by the Savoys, in 1761 there were 136 families, for a total of 673 people, in the Jewish ghetto of Casale Monferrato.
The French revolution and occupation by Napoleon’s armies led to a brief period of equality; the doors of the ghettos were torn down, but were then reinstated during the Restoration.

The Jewish community of Casale reached its peak about halfway through the 19th century, when roughly 850 people lived there as pawnbrokers and traders of wheat, jewellery, lace and spices.
Freedom and equality had been discussed during the Agricultural Conference in Casale in 1847. The Jews had found an ally in canon G. Gatti, whose status lent extra weight to his defense; in a pamphlet entitled “The Political Regeneration of the Israelites in Italy” he proclaimed it a duty to consider the Jews as brothers and the equal of all other citizens. According to Giuseppe Levi in his booklet “Le Iscrizioni del Sacro Tempio Israelitico,” reprinted in 1994 for celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the synagogue, late in 1847 Pier Luigi Pinelli stood in the main square to speak in favour of the Jews, exchanging a kiss of brotherhood, amidst the general commotion, with G. Jacob Levi himself.

Finally free

Emancipated in 1848, the Casale community decided to commemorate the event for eternity by having Rabbi Levi Gattinara write an inscription in Hebrew and Italian to engrave on the Temple wall. There is no other place of worship in Italy where the Jews have paid this kind of tribute to the sovereign who set them free.
Along with several passages from the Book of Psalms, the inscription of the Sinagoga degli Argenti, framed by gilded stucco, attests to the history of Jews in Casale.
It translates as follows: “March 29th, 1848 – King Carlo Alberto and the national Parliament have decreed – the civil and political rights of subalpine Jews – in order that, with past interdictions forgotten, they flourish in equality and love of country as free citizens – in eternal memory of the Israelites of Casale.” When Carlo Alberto died in 1852, the Casale Jews edged the synagogue in black, painting bands of mourning under the gratings of the women’s galleries.

Ottolenghi, in his 1866 essay “Brief Notes on the Jews of Casale and their Sacred Oratory,” writes about the atmosphere of the Casale community while still invigorated by the emancipation: “Who can describe the enthusiasm with which this news was received? The whole community was in motion. There was much coming and going, hugging and rejoicing.”
A little further down we find: “Our Catholic brothers joined our exultation, and the exchange of affection and generous ideas was truly moving.” Ottolenghi also celebrates the efforts made to integrate the Jewish community with the rest of the town: the creation of a Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Professions, the reform of the charity for aid to the sick, and the notion of building a Jewish hospital. On December 25, 1862, the Casale Jews learned of the death of Marquis Roberto d’Azeglio, “our valiant defender and mighty champion of our trodden rights.” They held an honorary service for him including the Psalm of David, the Rabbi’s funeral address and the requiem prayer, the Ashkava.


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