On our first night in Florence, we walked miles in pursuit of the perfect restaurant. Through impossibly narrow streets, constantly shifting our paths to avoid the Vespas zooming by, we peered at handwritten menus framed by leaded glass windows, not sure what we were looking for, knowing only that this night, it had to be perfect.
We trudged from piazza to piazza, each one more charming than the last. Still slightly dazed by the flight from Philadelphia via Paris, we rejected tons of trattorias until we rounded that last corner and walked through a majestic archway, etched with the words, L’antico centro della citta da secol are squallore a vita nuova restituito 1895 — “The ancient center of the city restored to new life from age-old squalor.”
We passed under the arch and into another world. Luxury hotels, department stores, elegant cafes and small palaces lined all four sides of the stone-paved square. Vendors hawked tiny red, white and green Italian flags and wooden Pinocchio puppets on strings; later, we came to find out that the legend of the spunky marionette and his woodcarver father Geppetto originated in Florence in 1881.
And smack in the middle of the square, the most whimsical carousel we’d ever seen.
Twenty horses, some pastel and some painted jet-black, flanked two king’s carriages, gilded in gold and adorned with cut-out hearts. From the mirrored center console came strains of accordion music — Neapolitan ballads, as far as we could make out.
And just like that, we’d found our perfect place to dine.
We chose a small umbrella-topped table overlooking the carousel in the center of the Piazza della Repubblica — Republic Square — as dusk sent shadows looming along the walls of the buildings around us. Children shrieked with joy as twinkling lights outlined the contours of the carousel, and we dug into the most incredible eggplant parmigiana known to mankind.
The next morning, we set out to find the synagogue.
My husband and I had come to Italy earlier that week to meet up with Sam Hilt and Pamela Mercer, the husband-and-wife owners of Tuscany Tours. The two expats — she a Midwesterner through and through, he a Brandeis graduate from Newark — take great delight in sharing their adopted country with small groups who inevitably come to love it as much as they do.
The weeklong tour, our first trip to Italy, would take us from Florence through the countryside of Tuscany, including the Etruscan hillside town of Cortona, made famous in Frances Mayles’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and Siena, home of the horse races known as the Palio.
We would stay at a restored palazzo and a former castle. We would eat (and eat and eat and eat!) at rustic villas and sumptuous restaurants, and even attend a street festival dedicated to the folkloric Luca Cava in Sam and Pam’s tiny village of San Gusme.
But that was still in the future as Steve and I tromped through Florence’s streets to visit the Great Synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore, completed in 1882 in this city that boasts a cathedral, basilica or church on every corner — and frequently more than one.
It’s our practice to seek out Jewish points of interest wherever we travel — between us, we’ve toured synagogues in Rome, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Madrid, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Anchorage, London and Bucharest. Now, in Florence, we fell in love with the blue-domed synagogue that sits at No. 6 Via Luigi Farini.
Lavishly inlaid with mosaics and frescoes, the house of worship blends Moorish, Arabic and Byzantine elements, from its white travertine-and-pink limestone façade to the Venetian-style mosaics lining the Aharon Kodesh (Holy Ark).
The interior is dark, hushed. A sense of grandeur rules here — visitors instinctively lower their voices while they take it all in.
Jews have lived in this north-central Italian city since the beginning of the 14th century, many arriving from the south and flourishing as money lenders and merchants. They became closely associated with the Medici family, the dynasty that produced four popes and numerous grand dukes. For many years, the Medicis protected the Jews of Florence from members of the Roman Catholic clergy who sought to expel them.
All this we learned within minutes of meeting the dark-haired young woman originally from Venice who escorted us through the synagogue on a private tour (and whose name, sadly, we never did learn).
Thoroughly versed in the history of her adopted city’s Jewish population, which now numbers about 1,400, she told us things began to turn ugly when one of the Medicis — Cosimo I — consolidated his power and began to promote anti-Jewish legislation in the city: special dress codes, travel restrictions. And then, in 1570, he ordered the Jews into the ghetto.
They would remain there for the next three centuries.
Forbidden to venture beyond the ghetto’s walls and barred from working as second-hand dealers or joining any of Florence’s numerous trade guilds, they lived as best they could, our guide said. Although they couldn’t sell wool or silk or other goods, they could — and did — continue to live full Jewish lives, building two synagogues inside the ghetto and establishing rabbinic courts.
They ran a butcher shop, Jewish schools, a bakery. They continued to visit the mikvah and even operated a Jewish printing press.
Listening to our new Venetian friend that day, we, who kvetch when we have to drive 10 miles to the nearest kosher food market, marveled at the determination that allowed such Judaic spirit to blossom, even in the face of harsh restrictions.
Emancipation came in 1848, when the ghetto was abolished and its 1,000-plus residents were granted equality under a new constitution. As we finished our tour of the synagogue-cum-museum, our guide proudly pointed out the framed certificate on the wall attesting to the historic event.
We thanked her, dropped a bunch of Euros in the pishke and started to head out. But we had one more question for her, an afterthought really. Where was the ghetto located?
“Oh,” came the answer. “It wasn’t far from here. You’d recognize it right away. It’s the Piazza della Repubblica — the square with the large carousel in the center.”
Fredda Sacharow is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.