While fleeing the Syrian King, Antichus, the first Jews began arriving in Rome as far back as 160 BC; creating one of the oldest Jewish communities in Western Europe. So, with over thirty-thousand Jews calling Italy home, it isn’t surprising that Hanukkah: the festival of lights is celebrated just as passionately as Christmas.
Hanukkah celebrations last for eight days, with the dates being dictated by the Hebrew calendar. This year’s celebrations began on the 27th of November and end on the 5th of December.
Each night a candle is lit on the nine-branched candleholder called the menorah until all eight candles are burning. The shamash; the ninth candle is raised above the eight others, its purpose being as a flame to light the religious candles below.
On Rome’s via Sacra, just over two-hundred metres from the Coliseum stands the Arch of Titus. Built in AD81, a relief shows a procession following the raid on the Temple of Solomon, and above the heads of the triumphant Romans a menorah is carried aloft.
Today, a twenty-foot menorah is erected in Piazza Barberini, and this becomes the central focus for Rome’s Jewish community, attracting a wealth of spectators each night for the lighting ceremony. For those wanting to avoid the crowds, there is a smaller candelabrum and ceremony at Piazza Bologna: both menorahs are serviced by Rome’s Metro underground services.
In Milan the large public menorah is traditionally set in Piazza San Carlo with the hope that its light will reach the hearts of the people and heat the houses.
While in Venice, following the lighting of the menorah, the Cannaregio neighbourhood is brought to life with music and dancing.Once the home of the world’s oldest Jewish ghetto the five synagogues remain intact and are still used for worship by the local community. The sumptuous gold and red interior of the Levantine Synagogue is a veritable feast for the eyes.
Florence’s past is also steeped in Jewish history and a visit to the Jewish museum on Via dei Giudei (street of the Jews) is highly recommended as is a stroll around Piazza della Repubblica, where the city’s ghetto once stood; continue your walk for a further twelve-minutes and you reach, Tempio Maggiore. Built between 1874 and 1882, this Great Synagogue of Florence is where the city’s Jewish community gather to celebrate and light their Menorah, before the feasting begins.
No festivities are complete without delicious treats and the Jewish communities celebrate with a fried feast. Chicken is marinated in olive oil, lemon and nutmeg before being dredged in flour and deep fried, as are thin slices of aubergine and mashed potato pancakes. Frittelle de Chanukah (sweet fried dough fritters) are the climax to all Italian Hanukkah meals; balls of bread dough are stuffed with raisins and flavoured with aniseed which, after frying, are drizzled with hot honey. It would be fair to say that the evening air on Hanukkah has the aroma of fresh doughnuts.
ITALY magazine wishes our Jewish readers, Chag Sameach.