Casale Manferato is a small town in the Piedmonte region. The town, like all Italian towns, has a very long and storied history involving Romans, Kings, Queens, Napoleon, and a few Jews who have somehow remained in this town for over five centuries. The Jews first arrived in Casal at the end of the 15th century after escaping the Grand Inquisition of Spain under the Catholic Monarchs. In 1848 at the time of the unification of Italy, the community numbered 850 people.
Casale Monferrato has a beautiful synagogue, the site of which was leased on 17th September 1595, but the resident community today numbers only 2 families. One of them is the Ottolenghi family who have played an important part, They are lateral descendants of the family of Joseph Solomon Ottolenghi who was born here in 1711. They have lived in the same house for more than 500 years.
After the publication of the fascist dictator Mussolini’s Racial Laws, Giorgio Salvatore Ottolenghi and his family managed to escape during the Second World War to Switzerland where he attended university. At the end of the war they returned to Casale Monferrato and were fortunate to be able to recover the family home. Giorgio went on to study medicine and graduated as a physician when he was already in his forties.
Giorgio met and eventually married Adrianna Tore. Adrianna’s family had owned land and vineyards in France before the war, but lost everything when the Nazis came to power. They survived the war hiding in a convent among other places, and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz, which had been the fate of so many of their contemporaries. After the war Adrianna and her sister Renee were sent by their parents to America to complete their education. They lived in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, eventually graduating from the state university. Adrianna returned to Italy to care for her grandmother – that’s where she met Giorgio and they stayed together ever since. The building, which once housed Giorgio’s entire extended family, was subdivided into apartments that they rent out. Their own apartment was filled with centuries old paintings and the family’s extensive collection of Judaica to which they continued to add special items.
Giorgio became president of the Jewish community and Adrianna, who managed the town cinema, took over as curator of the Jewish Museum in the ancient synagogue. The entrance to the synagogue is through a side door of a non-descript building down a very old brick lane, Vicolo Salomone Olper, because prior to the Jews being emancipated (in 1870, sometime after the unification of Italy) synagogues could not be built on a main street or face a church.
The interior of the synagogue is decorated in a baroque style and although it has been restored over the years, it suffered only minor damage during the Second World War and several silver Ner Tamid lamps near the Ark were stolen at that time. The Ark is at the end of the room and the Bimah from which the Torah is read is in the middle in western sephardic style. The pews have boxes (gavettas) for the worshippers to store their prayer books, prayer shawls and phylacteries and, of course there is a balcony for the women of the congregation, in which part of the museum is housed. Amongst the antique Judaica in the community’s collection, there is a document signed by Napoleon Bonaparte regarding emancipation of the Jews of Italy.
The basement of the Synagogue houses a large collection of Hanukah lamps produced in an annual competition of artists sponsored by the community.
In the basement there is also an ancient oven where matzot were baked for Passover, originally built in the courtyard early in 1606, and the remains of an ancient mikvah (ritual bath). There are only 8 Jewish people left in Casale Manferato, but the Synagogue and museum is visited daily by school groups, foreign Jewish tourists, and visitors on the annual day of Jewish Heritage that Europeans observe at the end of each September. Adrianna met and guided all these groups.
Back at the Ottolenghi family home there is another highly valued item kept in the garage, the former stable and coach house which has four enormous wooden doors that hint at its previous life. It was the home of Adrianna’s 1966 Fiat 500 motor car that had been meticulously cared for and kept in pristine condition since Giorgio bought it for her new. It’s another one of their museum pieces.
Giorgio was another of my Italian Ottolenghi correspondents, he was also a longtime friend of zio Franco Ottolenghi.