Jewish in places
In the heart of the old ghetto is a jewel of Piedmontese late Baroque architecture that has been declared a national monument.
The first records of a prayer hall of the Casale Jews date to 1590. The synagogue, inaugurated in 1595, was modified and enlarged over the course of the centuries. It occupies one side of what is now Vicolo Salomone Olper, and has maintained its original anonymous look, with a façade just like the neighbouring buildings and a small, unimposing door. From the street one enters a vast foyer, which leads onto a lovely columnated cloister and small garden.
The rectangular prayer room, now wonderfully restored, is surrounded on three sides by the women’s galleries and lit by 14 broad windows. Large gilded chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling, its gold-tone paintings and stucco work standing out against a blue-green background.
The gold decoration of the vault is a Hebrew phrase signifying “This is the door to Heaven.” The white, cobalt and gold walls are adorned with Hebrew inscriptions framed by gilded stucco work, and the two women’s galleries are concealed by chiselled wooden gratings.
From 1848 to 1866, as the Casale Jews grew accustomed to their newfound freedom, the synagogue was expanded, restored and decorated at the initiative of Rabbi Salomone Olper. In Jewish liturgy there is no such thing as a pulpit, since prayer is ideally intended as a communal act of devotion rather than a rite to be performed by an officiant.
In Casale as elsewhere, however, emancipation led to the building of pulpits in imitation of Christian churches. The benches are thus aligned in the direction of the prayer area, where the Tevah (pulpit) is separated by a wrought-iron gate painted green. The ark, the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept, dates to 1765. It is in Neoclassical style with a central piece topped by a gable supported by thick wooden Corinthian columns.
The oak-leaf decorations on the gable are in gold. Of the many inscriptions found in the synagogue, in the third upper row is a phrase of ecumenical grace from Isaiah 56:7: “chi biti bet tefilà, ikra le kol amim,” “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The two cemeteries: a slice of history for all eternity
In Casale, the second largest Jewish community in Piedmont, there are still two cemeteries, as well as evidence of two other “Jewish grounds” near Piazza Statuto and Porta Milano. The old cemetery, on Via Negri, was first used in 1732 (a list of names from the early 19th century, when more than 200 burials took place, is kept in the community Archives). At the center of the field is an interesting pile of gravestones with Hebrew writing, some of it worn away; nearby there was probably a chapel, whose plans have remained to this day.
Later, around 1930, some more recent Jews decided to be buried near their ancestors. In 1830, unsuccessful negotiations were conducted by Enrico Vitta on behalf of the Casale section of the Jewish consistory, for the purchase of a piece of land outside Porta Nuova; in 1893 an agreement was reached with City Hall for a hectare of land where the Via Cardinal Massaia cemetery is located. On the square lawn, where the first burial took place in 1904, is the chapel designed by Enrico Bertana and Lorenzo Rivetti with its fine windows and Hebrew inscriptions from the Psalms.
The Jewish Museum: a wealth of artifacts and fabrics
Inaugurated in 1969, the Jewish Museum occupies the two floors of the women’s gallery and some adjacent rooms. Sections include the prayer room, the learning rooms with materials on Jewish holidays and the life cycle, and the silver and fabric rooms. On display is the entire artistic heritage of the Jewish community, received through donations and loans, ranging from religious accoutrements to items of everyday use and study.
The Torah scrolls are sumptuously embossed, engraved and filigreed, all by local artisans working from copies or original designs. Many of the well-preserved fabrics bear the embroidered name of the maker or the donating family.
A trip back in time: the Archives
In 1989 the Archives were reorganized in the southwest wing of the building, in two large rooms dedicated to the memory of Livia Pavia Wollemborg. Along with the documents is a collection of manuscripts and liturgical texts, as well as all surviving artifacts of the Moncalvo community, which died out before World War II. The entire catalogue was recently computerized, and is therefore easily consulted by scholars.
The Museum of Light: the future in a collection of contemporary menorahs
Hanukkah is a story of people, resistance and power. Antiochus Epiphanes, two hundred years before the Vulgar Era, occupied Israel and tried to impose his own Hellenistic culture which at that point pervaded the entire Mediterranean.
His strategy was simple and had worked many times before: make the weaker classes pay higher taxes while curbing their freedoms, and leave the aristocracy, already more assimilated, with greater liberties.
The cruelty of Antiochus Epiphanes encouraged a strong resistance, and with the help of the local priests, the Maccabees were victorious and the temple was reconsacrated free of idols and pagan symbols.
The monotheistic, Semite culture of Abraham had been close to disappearing forever. If Judas Maccabeus had not resisted and won, there would probably be no Judaism today, and no Christianity or Islam either. It is this continuity, this resistance, this ability to take action and go forward that is represented symbolically and visually in the lighting of candles.
A miracle took place in the form of a single flask of oil, the oil used to light the Ner Tamid or eternal light.
There was only enough oil to last a single day, but instead, the flame burned for eight days and eight nights: enough time to procure more oil.
Thus it is that even a tiny amount of energy can produce abundant and lasting light. The Jewish community of Casale has adopted this story as their own, making it a symbol of a continuity that must not be lost or dispersed. For several years, on the strength of its unique identity, as Hanukkah begins the community opens itself ecumenically to members of other monotheistic religions who are invited to light the same candles as Judas Maccabeus.
This will to persevere has also produced the non-profit Foundation of Jewish Art, History and Culture in Casale Monferrato and eastern Piedmont, which goes about collecting new Hanukkah menorahs. Commissioned from contemporary artists, they form a bridge between the lights of the past, which must never go out, and those of the future which must continue to be lit.
The menorahs are displayed in a room in the basement which used to house the oven where matzoh bread was made for Jews throughout the Monferrato, the Sephardics and Ashkenazis, who found a hospitable populace in these lands and survived through a mind-set of mutually constructive respect.