Take an ancient hilltop town in southern Tuscany. Add a turbulent history, plenty of narrow alleyways and an old Medieval town centre that seems to have stepped out of a fairytale. Here you’ll find a small hidden quarter with a history all of its own.
This is the ancient Jewish quarter of Pitigliano in the Maremma, that became known as “Little Jerusalem” in the 19th century, when a good part of the town’s population were Jews. Today it’s a place full of stories and traditions just waiting to be told.
Little Jerusalem – The origins
But its history starts long before this. When the Jewish communities in central Italy were being severely persecuted during the counter-reformation, Jews fled the bigger cities like Rome or Florence to look for safer places to live. They’d find smaller towns far from the Pope’s reach, where local rulers allowed them to settle. Pitigliano became a safe ‘refuge’ where Jews could live in peace and flourish. In 1556 the nobleman Niccolò IV Orsini gave some land for the creation of a Jewish cemetery, and in 1598 a Synagogue was built.
In 1622 the ghetto was created under the Medici‘s rule; this after Pitigliano was annexed to the Granduchy of Tuscany. The residents here did have some freedom of movement, and in certain cases they were allowed to live outside the confinement of the ghetto and carry weapons for protection. The Jewish community contributed significantly to the economy of Pitigliano, with thriving commercial activities involving spices, wheat, textiles and money lending.
Little Jerusalem in recent history
The community in Pitigliano grew to an extent that it became known as the “Little Jerusalem”, a nickname given to it by the city of Livorno, the other important Jewish centre in Tuscany. After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Jews were emancipated and many left Pitigliano in favour of the bigger cities.
When the racial laws hit Europe in 1938, the number of Jews living in Pitigliano decreased even more, until only a few families were left. During the war, those remaining got help from the locals, Christians that had lived side by side with them in peace for centuries helped them to hide in the countryside and escape deportation.
Today just a few Jews live in Pitigliano, and the ancient ghetto has became a museum, an important witness of the turbulent history of this people, and a precious piece of the town’s heritage. At the entrance men are asked to cover their heads, and offered a kippah. Women need to be decently dressed.
A visit to Little Jerusalem – the Museum
Being that Pitigliano is built on a hill of porous tufa rock, most houses here have underground rooms that have been excavated from the rock and used as storage spaces or cellars. And the Jewish quarter is no different. As you step down into the dark and cool spaces, there’s a sense of discovery. This is living history, and you come face to face with centuries-old traditions.
The first room is the one dedicated to the ritual bath. You can still spot the huge stone basin where the ritual was performed. The whole body is immersed in untainted spring water or rainwater to clean away the impurities. Other rooms are dedicated to kosher (meaning “can be eaten”) activities including the production of kosher wine according to Jewish law. We learn that by the kosher rule, meat and dairy products cannot be eaten in the same meal, so a wine containing dairy additives can’t be consumed with meat. This is why the winemaking process is so strictly controlled.
The same thing applies when slaughtering animals. After a quick cut to the neck, all blood is drained from the animal because Jewish law prohibits to consume blood. The butcher room sends chill down the spine, so better to move on to the bakery, a large locale that was last used for passover in 1939. Finally the textiles-dye rooms, that speak of a time when the Jews of Pitigliano successfully traded in textiles.
The gold and white Synagogue, with the “tevà’ or pulpit placed in the centre and the women’s gallery in the balcony above, is today rarely used. This is because there is no “Minyan” (the 10 men quorum required for traditional public worshipping) in Pitigliano. The museum attendant explains that the occasionally other people from Livorno (the closest Jewish community here in Tuscany) come here for a wedding or bar mitzvah.
MUSEUM OF JEWISH CULTURE
In the small but nicely organised Museum of Jewish Culture you can learn about the main rites and traditions. There’s a small collection of objects used during the ceremonies. Two in particular attract our attention: a small shaft that ends with a representation of a hand – it’s the the yad (“torah pointer). Beyond its practical usage in pointing out letters, it ensures that the parchment is not touched during the reading. And there’s the shofar, an ancient musical horn used for religious purposes.
The “Sfratto” of Pitigliano, Jewish heritage in sweet form
The sfratto is a traditional sweet pastry filled with walnuts and honey. The sweet is shaped like a stick which recalls a time when the Jews were moved into the newly created ghetto. Sfratto means ‘eviction’ in Italian, and this rod was used to intimidate them as they were forced out of their homes.
“Little Jerusalem” OPENING TIMES: Apr-Sep 10am-1pm and 2:3-pm – 6pm / Oct-Mar 10am-12am and 3pm-5pm – Ticket costs 5 euros