Two weeks ago I went on a tour of the Conegliano Veneto Synagogue, the Italian Synagogue on Hillel street. Our guide told us that the shul was originally built in Conegliano, between Venice and Padua; in 1398, the government there sought Jews to come and be moneylenders in town, and by 1500 there were about 100 families in the Jewish community. Venice was a metropolis and a center of Jewish printing, and hundreds of Jewish books were printed there each year. A yeshiva opened there in 1604. But soon it became forbidden to learn Talmud in Italy, and the Talmud was burnt in Italian cities. By 1637, the Jewish population was required to live in the ghetto.
The Jews of Conegliano built the synagogue in 1701; in 1900, because there were no more Jews there, the synagogue was closed. The key was left in the care of a local woman. In 1918, during World War I, a group of Jewish Austro-Hungarian soldiers found her just before the Days of Awe and asked her to open the shul; they cleaned it and made it fit for use again, and an army chaplain named Rabbi Harry Deutsch led davenen there during the holidays. Then it was closed again, and remained so until 1952, when the decision was made to disassemble it, ship it to Israel, and reassemble it in Jerusalem.
The ornate golden aron/ark, with ornate parochet/curtain.
I had initially thought the liturgy there was Sefardic, but it's not; they follow their own liturgical rite, Minhag Bnei Roma (a.k.a. minhag Italki.) We had the chance to leaf through a siddur, which was neat; the bulk of the liturgy is familiar, but then there are things I'd never seen before. In the Shabbat ma'ariv aravim blessing (the blessing praising God Who brings on the evenings), the text describes God in words that aren't part of the Shabbat liturgy I know: "אשר כלה מעשיו ביום השביעי. ויקראוהו שבת קודש. מערב עד ערב (התקין) מנוחה לעמו ישראל בקדשתו / Who completed His work on the seventh day; and He called Shabbat holy, and brought on the evening; and gave rest to His people Israel, for His holiness." That language is said to date back to the Second Temple era, but it's new to me. To a liturgy geek like me, that's totally fascinating. So I decided to go to the Italian shul on my last Shabbat morning in Jerusalem.
When I arrived at 8:30, a small handful of men were speaking Italian downstairs. I went up to the women's gallery and peered down at them through the ornate wooden grille. We were most of the way through psukei d'zimrah (the set of psalms recited at the beginning of the service) before I realized the grille was on a hinge and was meant to be pushed outwards to allow a space through which one can look down on the action below.
The melodies were completely unfamiliar to me. The first part of the service was led by a man with curly hair and beard, and much of it was in a kind of call-and-response pattern (the man sitting behind him, cleanshaven, did the responding.) The man leading the psalms chanted so fast, and elided words so constantly, that I was proud of myself when I managed to follow along in the siddur!
A new shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) stepped up at nishmat kol chai ("The breath of all life blesses Your name..."), and this one stood at the amud, the Torah reading table, which is up a few steps from the sanctuary floor and is located toward the rear of the sanctuary. At bar'chu (the call to prayer) a third shaliach stepped up to lead, also from the amud. The singing got interesting for me again during Hallel (the set of psalms recited on festivals, including Rosh Chodesh / new moon) -- by that point the shul was nearly full downstairs, and pretty crowded upstairs also, and the men's voices rang out with vigor. Again, the melodic lines were unfamiliar to me, but I was able to pick them up and quietly sing along.
When the Torahs were removed from the ark, I got the chance to see something I'd never seen before.
The Torah reading table, with the grille of the women's balcony above it.
Once the scroll was opened (all of its ornaments removed and placed on the metal spikes provided for holding crowns and breastplate; golden velvet dress lifted off) it needed to be unwrapped further; it was swaddled in brocade, one layer of which was never removed (giving the impression that the scroll itself, which was brown with age, was backed with rich cloth). And then the long silver bar which you see in the photo above, across the front of the reading table, was affixed to the rollers of the scroll -- holding it braced open -- and two people together raised it and turned in a circle, showing the Torah to the assembled crowd. We'd heard about this during our tour, but it was kind of hard for me to picture; seeing it happen was really neat.
Late in the Torah service, I quietly slipped out. I didn't get home from Reb Ruth's until one in the morning, and didn't fall asleep until two, so waking up at 7:30 to go to shul required a major act of will. By late in the Torah service, I was starting to glaze over, and I decided that my need for Shabbat to be restful trumped my need to experience the rest of the Italian service.
I like to imagine, now, that should I ever be in Italy on Shabbat -- in a town where davening still happens (unlike Perugia where we were this spring!) -- I could attend an Italian rite synagogue and feel almost like an old-timer. Anyway: it was a nifty way to spend my last Shabbat morning in Yerushalayim.