When you hear the word Hanukkah, what’s the first place that comes to mind, the Second Temple in Jerusalem? Even if you think of a place other than the site of the Maccabean Revolt, it’s a good bet that your answer won’t be Italy. Yet, in the town of Casale Monferrato, Italy there is a museum devoted solely to menorahs, displaying what is probably the finest collection of contemporary menorahs in the world. This little known gem occupies the cellar and former matzoth bakery beneath the ancient synagogue of Casale Monferrato, a town of about thirty six thousand people in Italy’s Piedmont district, only a short drive from Turin.
The first traces of Jews in Casale date from 1492, the year of the great expulsion from Spain. Although the Monferrato area was beset by many wars, Jews lived there peacefully under the Dukes of Mantua and other regimes into the eighteenth century. Compared to the Jewish experience in much of Europe, theirs was a life of relative security and ease. However they were subject to special taxes and required to wear a distinctive yellow arm band. By 1599 premises were leased in the Jewish Ghetto for a synagogue and shortly thereafter a contiguous house was entrusted to a Jewish caretaker and a public oven for matzoth was built in a nearby courtyard.
An unobtrusive door on the synagogue’s anonymous exterior leads into an idyllic, arcaded courtyard. Another simple door from the courtyard opens into the synagogue’s sanctuary, one of the most magnificent examples of baroque architecture and décor that exists. Over the centuries the sanctuary has been enlarged, re-arranged and redecorated many times. You can see this incredible baroque synagogue in virtual-reality online at Synagogues360.org.
When the gates to the ghetto were eliminated in 1848 the Jewish population of Casale was 850. In 1853, after the emancipation of Italy’s Jews by Napoleon, the synagogue was further embellished and restored. During the following years the city’s Jewish population declined as many recently emancipated Jews chose to migrate to larger population centers such as Turin and Milan. By 1931 there were still 112 Jewish community members while today there are only 7.
In the autumn of 1994, planning began for celebration of the synagogue’s 400th anniversary. A group of art lovers and experts decided that the synagogue’s fine collection of Chanukkiot should be expanded to become a world class tourist attraction. Thus began a collection of contemporary art Chanukkiot produced by renown international artists. To describe this collection as beautiful, amazing, fascinating, fabulous or unique is simply inadequate. A visit to Casale Monferrato’s Museum of Lights is a truly memorable experience. You can see and learn more about the Museum of Lights online at Casale Monferatto Jewish Community Website.
Unlike much of Europe, Italy has treasured and maintained its historic Jewish buildings. Thus, a visit to the Jewish sights and sites of Italy is an exceptional art, architecture and cultural experience. There are numerous comprehensive guided tours focusing on Jewish Italy or you can simply do it yourself with the help of such books as “The Guide to Jewish Italy” by Annie Sacerdoti. Just fly into Milan, rent a car with a GPS and start by heading for the incredible synagogue of Casale Monferrato and the Museum of Lights.