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ISRAEL: Local Treasures of Different Communities

The wealth of visual culture in Israel continues to grow with the arrival of new immigrants from around the world. The systematic documentation of Aleppan synagogues in Israel prompted Section Head Ariella Amar  and the researchers and to also undertake the documentation of Syrian, Egyptian and Karaite synagogues because of the manifold connections between these communities. In order to characterize synagogues and ritual objects in the Syrian communities, the team had to determine the similarities and differences of the Aleppo and Damascus synagogues. During the completion of the survey and documentation of Syrian synagogues and their ritual objects around Israel, the researchers found several interesting treasures: among them a group of silver dedicatory plaques characteristic of the Syrian communities which originally were attached to Torah ark curtains. Similar plaques were also found on Torah cases, including a collection of Torah cases brought secretly from Syria to Israel over the past few years. Currently being documented, they are an important additional source of information about the community’s artifacts in their native Syria.

Mexico is also part of the Syrian Jewish diaspora. While the first Jews in Mexico were conversos who arrived with the Spaniards in 1521, the majority of the current Jewish population of 40,000 derives from early 20th century immigrants from Syria, Turkey, Greece and Russia. CJA Director Prof. Aliza-Cohen-Mushlin visited Mexico this year as one of three guest lecturers of the Hebrew University and familiarized herself with the community and its synagogues. The necessity to complete our knowledge of the visual culture of the two large Syrian communities, the Aleppan and the Damascene, merits a planned expedition to Mexico.

Among the researchers working on this ongoing project is Eliad Moreh, the recipient of the Albert E. Holland scholarship and Irina Chernetsky who received a Tania Finkelstein scholarship.


Special thanks to the Vegivani Foundation which subsidized the trip to Piemonte and to Maria Modena who contributed the funds for the on-site documentation in memory of her mother Elena Mayer Levi de-Veali.

An expedition to Piemonte in Northern Italy in July 2000 was led by Ariella Amar and included researchers Einat Ron, Eliad Moreh, and Tzafra Siew, architect Boris Lekar and photographer Zev Radovan. The researchers documented three hundred ritual objects and seven synagogues in five cities: Torino, Asti, Casale Monferrato, Saluzzo and Mondovì.

While each of the seven synagogues documented in Piemonte has its own particular structure, during the documentation the team was able to define some characteristic features common to the region. For example, most of the Torah arks are within small rooms, as extensions to the back wall. These rooms are spacious enough to walk into and are surrounded by shelves on which the Torah scrolls are placed.

Six of the seven documented arks are adorned with images of Sanctuary Implements, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the seven-branched Menorah, the Shew-bread Table and the Sacrificial and Incense Altars. The implements represent both the desert Tabernacle and the Temples in Jerusalem, expressing the desire to re-establish the Temple worship.  Some of the implements appear within the ark’s doors, as seen in the Torah ark dating from 1787 in “Oratorio Israelitico” of Casale Monferrato. Other ark doors are adorned on both their inner and outer sides. An example of this is the late 17th century Torah ark of Chieri, now located in the small synagogue of Torino. The outer sides of the ark’s doors are decorated with a building representing the Temple, while the Tables of the Covenant and the Jar of Manna are depicted on the inner side. Some of the Sanctuary Implements are arranged according to their placement in the Temple; the seven-branched Menorah on the south, usually on the right-hand door, while the Shew-bread Table, on the north, is depicted on the left door. Some Sanctuary Implements also decorate ritual objects which will be discussed later.


Another interesting feature, typical of Piemontese synagogues are the octagonal bimot and their placement in the centre of the hall.  It differs completely from the bifocal synagogues of central and Northeastern Italy, where the ark and bimah are placed at the extreme ends of the hall. The 17th century synagogue in Mondovì and the former synagogue of Chieri retain the original central position of the bimah. The octagonal baldachin-like bimot are composed of a canopy supported by eight twisted columns. Some are adorned with Sanctuary Implements. In the 17th century synagogue of Asti, the bimah is now attached to the ark. In the course of CJA research, a drawing of the original ground plan from the late 17th century was discovered which revealed a large wooden bimah built in the centre of the hall, under a cupola. This discovery pointed to a change in the placement of the bimah which occurred in the second half of the 19th century in this synagogue as in other Piemontese synagogues. In the year 1848 King Carlos Alberto of Piemonte, Monferrato and Sardinia gave Jews equal rights. As a result of their new civil rights and emancipation the Jews made closer contacts with their neighbours and were influenced by them. One of those influences may have been the change in the placement of the bimah.  The bimah was moved from the centre towards the ark, creating a single liturgical focus similar to the single focus in churches. This change also resulted in a change in the shape and structure of the bimah into a large table for reading. A similar phenomenon occurred in Germany with the establishment of “Reform” synagogues.


Casale Monferrato


The earliest synagogue documented in Piemonte is the “Oratorio Israelitico” in Casale Monferrato, situated on the banks of the river Po. This magnificent synagogue, originally built in 1595, today reflects the many changes in the community and their synagogues which were implemented over the years. The first Jews in Monferrato were possibly from France, migrating to Italy after their expulsion in 1394.  It is also likely that Sephardi Jews came after the Spanish expulsion in 1492. In 1570 the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato of the House of Gonzaga awarded the Jews the privilege to build a synagogue and maintain their religious practices. As a result of the economic depression in the neighboring region of Lombardi at the end of the 16th century, the population of Monferrato grew, probably resulting in the construction of the “Oratorio Israelitico” in 1595. In 1709, after the reign of the Gonzaga family in Monferrato was terminated and transferred to the French Savoy family, the situation of the Jews deteriorated. In 1724 the Jews were forced to reside in a limited area (a ghetto) which was built around the existing synagogue.


Through our research, we discovered that this synagogue underwent a transformation, common in the region in the middle of the 19th century, as described earlier. It went from having an east-west axis, ark placed on the east wall and bimah in the centre, to a north-south axis, with both ark and bimah situated in the south, opposite the entrance in the north. Many plaques adorn the walls of the synagogue which reveal a good deal of local history. They include mention of a donation of a new Torah ark in 1787, the one which stands today.  Due to a restoration in the 1980s, some of the plaques were re-arranged, and placed in a new order. According to a community ledger whose first entry is from 1663, it was also discovered that a third floor was probably added in 1718 by order of the authorities after an emigration of Jews expelled from surrounding cities. According to a dedicatory inscription, this third floor gallery was either built or restored in 1853. It appears that the wealthy community of Monferrato built this gallery for the use of the poor immigrants because in 1866, Rabbi Leon Ottolenghy, the leader of the community declared that this gallery be for common use and not for the poor specifically. Some of these changes were researched after World War II and published by architects David Pinkerfield (post-war) and David Cassuto (in 1978).




The small 17th century synagogue in Mondovì is situated on the second floor of a dwelling house. The synagogue was renovated a few years ago, and it is currently in good condition. The synagogue is a square structure with a wooden extension used as a room for the Torah ark in the east.  It has an octagonal, richly decorated bimah in the centre. Another extension, separated by windows, was built on the north side to serve as the women’s section, although there is a small and narrow gallery for that same purpose in the west.


In Mondovì the documentation team found a wooden board which lists the names of the members called to read the Torah during the last 300 years—from 1642-1942.  This board is one of the most important historical records in Piemonte, recording an entire vanished community.


In Memoriam: Dr. Marco Levi

Six months after the CJA excursion to Mondovì, the city’s only remaining Jew passed away. Dr. Marco Levi was the last Jew of this community and for many years the only caretaker of the 17th century synagogue. His guidance was invaluable to our work and ultimately to the larger effort of keeping alive the memory of this historic community.  Dr. Levi, an industrialist and business man, survived the Holocaust and was one of the few to return to Piemonte after the war. He devoted himself in every way to the upkeep of his beloved synagogue. May his memory be blessed.




The 17th century synagogue in Asti is a complex of rooms, now partly serving as a Jewish museum. The prayer hall is a square structure enclosing four columns which divide it into a central space surrounded by corridor-like spaces. The columns support a cupola which used to be a clerestory. This community, along with Jews who settled in Fossano and Moncalvo, kept a Jewish-French liturgical tradition which was different from the Ashkenazi and Italian ones. This tradition is known as the “AFAM” tradition, a contraction of the initial letters of the cities’ names.




The impressive synagogue of Torino, built in a neo-Moorish style, is part of a complex consisting of three synagogues: the large main synagogue, the small synagogue and the synagogue in the Old Age Home (Beit Zekeinim). The Torah arks and bimot in the last two synagogues were transferred from their former locations into the large synagogue complex. The small synagogue is appointed with the furnishings of the former Chieri synagogue. Since there were no Jews left in Chieri after the Second World War, the Jewish community of Torino decided to remove the 18th century ark and bimah and place it within the complex of their large synagogue. The ark and the bimah are both adorned with Sanctuary Implements and both are the work of the same artist.  In fact, a stylistic comparison between the Chieri ark and bimah and the Torino Verchelezi’s bimah, now housed in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, indicates that the same artist carved all of them. Unlike the arks decorated with Sanctuary Implements only, the arks of Chieri, Verchelezi and the Beit Zekainim synagogue, are all adorned with a building representing the Temple. In fact, the documentation team found the façade of a local church which was used as the visual model for the Temple façade image in the Beit Zekeinim synagogue. This Church was one of the new structures built during the 18th century near the entrance to the Jewish quarter. The ark was painted black after the death of King Carlos Alberto as a sign of mourning.




Amongst the most interesting finds of this expedition were heretofore unknown wall-paintings in the Saluzzo synagogue, built around 1700. The synagogue is a rectangular building, located on the second floor of a dwelling house. At the time of the team’s visit, the synagogue was in the process of restoration. In the course of the work, it was found that the whitewashed barrel- vaulted ceiling covered original paintings.


Since the local Italian restorers were neither familiar with Jewish topics, iconography nor Hebrew inscriptions, they had many difficulties in identifying the motifs revealed when exposing the underlying paintings. The knowledge and experience of the IJA team enabled them to identify some of the themes of the wall paintings. Those included Mount Sinai, the seven-branched Menorah, and other Sanctuary Implements. They also identified the Hebrew inscriptions including biblical verses and the names of the Four Princes among the Tribes. The team was surprised to find this type of decoration within an Italian synagogue since they are not known as characteristic of Piemontese synagogues. Their presence in Saluzzo may lead to understand the origins of the structure and decorations of the synagogues in the Piemonte region, and may help reveal similar decorations in other synagogues.

The assistance of the IJA team continued after their return to Jerusalem. Comparisons were sent to the restorers in order to assure the faithful reconstruction of the paintings and the synagogue. In particular, the IJA documentation of the 17th century Torah Ark from Saluzzo, transferred to Jerusalem in 1956 by Umberto Nachon, proved invaluable to the restorers.

Ritual Objects

During the expedition, over 300 objects in synagogues, museums and private collections were documented. Amongst them were sacred synagogue objects, as well as household ritual objects relating to the life cycle and the yearly cycle of Shabbat and festivals. The team was able to identify some shapes, iconography and styles which characterize Piemontese ritual objects. They also determined features which are common to other Italian communities. For example, the Piemontese communities use two types of Torah finials—tower-shaped finials (pinnacolo) and coronet-like finials (corona). This second type are often mistaken for Torah crowns; however they are smaller in size and always come in pairs. Both types are adorned with various Sanctuary Implements, some of which were probably cast from a single mould and added to the ritual objects. Others were designed specially by a silversmith who fashioned the entire object. Through the identification of hallmarks it was determined that some items were made in Torino and some were produced in Venice. A number of such items show an affinity to Venetian style. Some objects were produced in Christian workshops by Christian artists while others were crafted by Jewish artisans who received permission to work as silversmiths and belonged to the local guild, unlike Jews in other European countries at the time.

In documenting textiles, certain shapes and iconography were found to be characteristic of Piemonte. For example, a large collection of Torah mantles documented in Torino dating from the late 17th century to the 20th century are constructed in a trapezoidal shape with an opening in back. A large vertical band usually separates them in two equal parts. Some bear a dedicatory inscription embroidered on a plaque attached to the front of the mantle.  Sanctuary Implements adorn the earlier mantles. Many of these features differ from mantles in other parts of Italy.

Most ritual objects were donations from members of the community for special occasions, private or communal.  The inscriptions serve as important documents which record the history of the community, the members, their professions and social status.



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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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