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Italy Jewish tour will be a cultural adventure

The Vercelli Synagogue

The Vercelli Synagogue


A tour of the Jewish villages and cities in Italy’s Tuscany and Piedmont regions is being planned for next fall.
Organized by Howard Polonsky of Northampton, this two-week tour is scheduled for Oct. 12-26, 2014 and will explore the rich past and proud heritage of the Jewish communities in the northwestern corner of Italy.
Polonsky will make a presentation about Italy’s Jewish communities and the upcoming tour on Monday, March 17 at Congregation B’nai Israel, 253 Prospect St., at 7 p.m.
The tour will visit elegant synagogues that were built, until the mid-19th century, hidden behind plain doors so as not to offend the Christian rulers. Around the middle of the 1800s, what is known as the “emancipation” occurred and the Jews were allowed to build synagogues out in the open. While pre-emancipation synagogues often existed unmarked on the upper floors of residential buildings, the post-emancipation days saw towering synagogues being built to imitate and rival Italy’s Catholic cathedrals.

“There is a Jewish world in the foothills of the Alps that very few Americans know about. In the Diaspora, all Jewish history is our history and all Jews should know about our cousins living in diverse areas,” said Howard Polonsky. “Jews have been living in Piedmont since the 14th century and Tuscany’s Jewish population began building communities as early as the 12th century. Some, like the Tuscan city of Pitigliano, once had a total population that was 25 percent Jewish. We can’t let this history slide under the rug just because we’re not Italian.”
Some of the Jewish communities in the mountain towns have disappeared, mostly during and after World War II, but others are still active in Siena and Turin. Beautiful synagogues were left behind, each with their own stories to tell, from the unexploded cannonball lodged in a wall at the Cuneo synagogue from a 19th century siege of the city, to Saluzzo, which is the only synagogue in all of Italy with frescoes. Under the guidance
of the relatively large Jewish community in Turin, many of the synagogues have been restored.
“It’s amazing that they weren’t ransacked and destroyed during World War II,” said Polonsky, “but the local citizenry protected them from ruin and eventually they were restored. If only these walls could talk.”
Some of the synagogues to be visited are not regularly open to the public so special arrangements have been made for this tour. The group will also visit active Jewish synagogues and interact with the communities there. “Because the tour overlaps with the holidays of Sukkot and Simchas Torah, there will be opportunities to celebrate these joyous holidays in true Italian style,” said Polonsky.

The tour is limited to 18 participants in order to provide a more personalized and intimate experience. Those on the trip will be staying in beautifully restored historic country inns and modern urban hotels.

For more information, or to register for the trip, go to

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