Friday, September 22, 2023

Turin synagogue

Everyone knows Italy is a Roman Catholic country with some religious minorities. Many Italophiles are aware of the ghetto in Rome and Venice but very few people know that the Italian Jews have been living in the boot since the Roman times!

the beautiful Moorish Turin synagogue

Piedmont wise, the first documents that registered the Jewish presence in the region date back to 1400, however, the Jewish community was already present before. 

Because Spain and its colonies in Italy (notably Sicily and Naples) and the Duchy of Milan chased their historical Jewish communities, starting in 1430, Piedmont officially welcomed and protected them. 

Bear in mind that up until 1861, Italy wasn't 1 unified kingdom but a patchwork of smaller states and historically there are no Jewish communities Rome south.

map of the Jewish communities in Piedmont

Through the media we are all familiar with groups like: Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi. A wonderful movie also has helped spreading the word about the Ethiopian Jews and naturally, there are many other groups around the world, included in China.

September marks the beginning of a series of Jewish holidays like: Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement and Sukkot or the 7-day harverst time holiday or the 'hut holiday'. 

September 10th was the European Day of Jewish Culture and very practically, this meant that all the Italian synagogues were open to the public so that the gentiles or non-Jews could learn about the Jewish culture.

inside the main temple or tempio grande

In Piedmont, the oldest synagogue is in Casale Monferrato, in the heart of the Unesco World Heritage Site Monferrato wine district, next to Langhe, and home of famous brands like Borsalino (fashion statement man's hats), Bianchi (racing bicycles) and the Valenza Oro Fair (world hub of jewelry makers, precious stone cutters and goldsmiths. All the big international jewelry brands buy their stones in Valenza, Piedmont!).

Turin has a very interesting story too as the city's symbol Mole Antonelliana was actually supposed to be THE Turin synagogue.

1700 German closet painted black to mourn the King Charles Albert's death


In 1848, Savoy king Charles Albert or Carlo Alberto - as the nice piazza and pedestrian street in Turin named after him - allowed religious freedom in Piedmont. Needing a larger synagogue, the Jewish community of Turin was given a plot of land where the current National Cinema Museum is today.
In 1863, following the project by Mr Antonelli, the architect, the works started; however... Mr Antonelli was fascinated by the idea of challenging the heights and the synagogue became a never ending building, growing taller and costlier each month.
So, in 1873 the Jewish community pleaded for a new plot in Turin and kindly returned the old one in exchange.
This is how, why and when the Turin synagogue is still today in the trendy San Salvario neighborhood, near the Porta Nuova station.

so beautiful and unique, you just can't miss it!

Unfortunately, due to the cruelty of history, the Italian Jewish communities are in general quite closed and it isn't always easy for the gentiles to get in touch and mingle with them. Some communities are historically larger, like the ones in Rome, Florence and Milan, others have sadly shrunk or even disappeared.

How much has the Turin Jewish community shrunk ?

Roughly from 1400 to 900 people.

During the September 10th tour of the synagogue, we learned that the Turin synagogue is rather special.
Its architecture isn't what you usually find in other synagogues: the floor plan is similar to the one of a Christian church: almost like a cross and with 3 nave-like areas.
The architectural style is Moorish to emphasize the connection to the Holy Land.

On top of that, within one building, in Turin, we actually have 3 synagogues in 1!

The ground floor hosts the "main temple" or tempio grande used for special events, it can host up to 1400 people. This is the one that has the church like floor plan.
the ladies sit upstairs and the gents on the lower level. Kids are allowed everywhere.

you can see where they read the Torah scrolls in the middle and the lit candles in front of the ark

Underground there are 2 more: 
- the 'small temple' or tempio piccolo that is the actual synagogue used every week; there are also some display cases with historical pieces. It can host up to 900 people which is more or less, the number of current observant community. here you can see the Baroque pieces of furniture brought over from the Chieri synagogue.
Because the Shabbat service lasts about 4h and kids follow their parents, some activities are organized especially to entertain them in the synagogue activity center.
-   a very small room, the size of a closet: this is the 3rd synagogue where you can admire a gorgeous 1700 German closet, the community members painted black as a sign of deep mourning for the passing of King Charles Albert.

peeking through the 'small temple' the underground synagogue

9 is an important number

According to the religious rules, for ceremonies and rites to take place, such as weddings and Passover, there must be 9 men present in the synagogue. Because many communities in Piedmont are very small, the members of larger communities travel whenever needed.

Unfortunately, during WW2, a bombing completely destroyed the 1800 Turin synagogue, and the current Moorish style one was rebuilt right where the old one was standing.
Most of the furniture is new and the few Baroque pieces we can admire today are from beyond the hills, in Chieri as that synagogue was closed in 1937 because the Jewish community had almost disappeared (read more in Italian here).

1600 Baroque closet of the Chieri synagogue

Coming up from the lower temple, on the wall of the main temple there are pictures and explanations about the Jewish communities in Piedmont and the names of the people who made the history of both the Jewish communities and our wider region of Piedmont.

If you are a fan of renown chef Yotam Ottolenghi, know that his family name is connected to the Jewish communities of Piedmont and Turin.

so many Ottolenghis!!

And if you are considering visiting in September don't miss out on the unique opportunity to visit our synagogues!
Volunteers from the Jewish communities can  speak English and will be happy to show you around and answer all your questions.

Besides the display cases and the Baroque furniture pieces, our Turin synagogue also has a wide archive Archivio Terracini to catalogue, study and preserve the Jewish cultural heritage in Piedmont. It includes a collection of over 140 unique manuscripts, pictures, musical scores, different printed collections including a collection of Ketubbot or wedding contracts from 1700.

Data banks from the archive are available on and you can also make an appointment to visit and consult IRL. 

one of the display cases in the lower temple underground

Among the many wedding contracts from 1700 and the other religious manuscripts, some from the Venice area, we were showed a couple. The super interesting detail is that they were phonetically transcribed into Hebrew. This means that they look like they are written in Hebrew, but if you read them aloud the words will be in the 1700 Venetian dialect!

1750 wedding contract

One last note to remember that MANY Italian nobel prizes are from the Jewish community of Turin and they studied at the Jewish school here in Turin (open to gentiles too!).
The Turin ghetto was in the Piazza Carlina area, near Via Po, so whenever you see a gate instead of a big wood door, that's a reminder of how Jews in 1700 and 1800 were confined in a small area, couldn't do all the jobs nor hire all professionals all the days of the week and weren't even allowed to have regular doors to their buildings like everyone else.

Hopefully, this coming Hanukkah the final day will be celebrated again in Piazza Carignano like in 2015 when members of the Jewish community in Milan come over to help share the holiday with the whole city.

Hanukkah 2015 in Piazza Carignano, Turin

Special thank 🙏to all the volunteers at the synagogue who welcomed us and patiently answered all our questions, in English too! It was a special visit indeed!

.... and if you are wondering: in Italy we don't have women rabbis yet, rabbis study and graduate in Bologna and most Italian rabbis are regular professionals in their daily lives.

Shabbat shalom you all amici!

E-mail Lucia:
for your private walking tours, tastings, concierge services and private classes in Turin and online too

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