Mezuzah Blog

The Jewish Heritage Museum of Padua. Fabrics, silvers, manuscripts, video installations

Since 2015 Padua Jewish Ghetto, a fascinating and appealing locus in the heart of the town, has safeguarded a museum made of history and mystery.

Located in the middle of the Ghetto labyrinthine and narrow streets with its high rising houses, the Jewish Heritage Museum keeps the values, memories and secrets of the tradition and of the presence of Judaism in town.

The events that characterised the past of the Paduan Community are not completely known. Many of the difficult moments that characterised its life together with the ceremonies, rituals and the massive historical and artistic heritage are still to be discovered. Thus, the Museum, located in via delle Piazze, is first of all a symbol of its proximity to the town, an opening, an invitation to know the tradition of this community better. The art works, the objects, the fabrics, the silver in the Museum are the traces of the millenarian Jewish history of Padua. Conceived as a unique large hall of outstanding symbolic value, the Museum comes to life in the spaces once belonging to the German Synagogue, which was burnt down by the fascists in 1943. The birth of a Museum in this place is a further way to go beyond historical traumas and reassert the strength to stand up and start off again.

Parokhet, 16th cent., Cairo, wollen fleece on woollen fram

Those who have taken part in the religious ceremonies of the Community are already familiar with some of the precious objects of the Museum collection. It is high time for the others to discover the magnificence of the Parokhets ‘ fabrics,  the Me’ils,  the Mappots, as well as of the silvers of the Tasses, the Rimmonims, the ‘Ataroths  safeguarded along centuries without too much damage. Each of these objects conveys values and history, as well as a special meaning in the life and religious rites of the Jewish world. The Parokhets, in fact, represent the precious curtains in front of the Aron Ha- Kodesh; the Meil is the mantle containing the Torah scroll – the most important written teaching in Judaism – together with the Rimmonims (finials), the Keter (crown) and the Tas (shield). Specifically, a 15th century Torah in Ashkenazi lettering can be seen in the museum. The logo of the Museum, apart from recalling the five windows of the former German Synagogue, reminds us of  the five books of the Torah.

Torah Scroll with Rimmonim,’Atarh and silver Tas, silk velvet Me’il embroidered with golden silver thread

The 16th century Egyptian Parokhet, with the Menorah symbol in its centre, stands out among many wonderful ones in the Museum. The display cases contain also some specimens of 17th century Yads – i.e. silver Torah pointers- and Shofars, ram’s horns used on Rosh Ha Shanà, the Jewish New Year celebrations. The Shofar too has a tremendous symbolic value: in mysticism, its sound represents an intermediary between man and God’s voice. There are also some examples of 19th century Ketubboths, wedding contracts on parchment, decorated with special symbols and allegorical representations of unique beauty. And more, a Machazor, a Prayer Book for Jewish Holidays printed in Venice in 1716, and an Haggadà  for Passover, the Jewish Easter, printed in the same year, that reminds us of the Jew’s Exodus from Egypt and their freedom from slavery. A special comment deserves the Meghillat Esther: a high value 18th century illuminated parchment manuscript, where the story of the persecution of the Jews under the Persian empire foiled by Queen Esther’s courage is narrated. The reading of the whole Meghillat, whose main protagonist is Esther, celebrates one of the greatest Jewish festivities, Purim, the holiday reminding of the past danger. For those who have never had the chance to take part in it, Purim is one of the most vital and amusing celebrations of the Jewish tradition: people dress up and sing ,and children in the Synagogue are asked to make noise, shout and jump around  to chase the devil away.

Chanukkà lamp, 1784, repoussè and chased silver

On the east wall of the hall the backlit photo mural of the Aròn stands out: the former German Synagogue Aròn ha-kodesh was rescued from the 1943 fire and sent to Israel in 1955. Its return, although a “virtual one”, is an additional source of emotion and priceless value. In addition, you can find traces of the Museum’s history in Padua: its link with the University, which was the first one to accept Jewish students, as well as the marks of integration, which reached an extraordinary moment between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. In fact Jewish members of the community were elected in the most important public offices in Padua. In this regard, some important evidence of this integration and closeness between the Jewish and the Catholic worlds can be found in the Museum: the letters exchanged as a token of friendship between Leone Romanin Jacur and Pope Pio X, are probably the most meaningful example. The so many treasures in the Museum allow a periodic turnover in order to show the whole heritage, a first sign of the vitality of this space. In addition, recurring painting and photo exhibitions, conferences and meetings, closely linked to the historical and cultural context of the museum, take place regularly.

Image from the Museum video installation from a Rai2 reportage

In conclusion, I am particularly glad to mention the two video installations in the Museum I had the honour and pleasure to edit personally. First, a short documentary on the history of the ghetto, valued by the voice over of Corrado Augias, and then a long and  well organized video installation, whose title ”Generation comes, generation goes” is taken from Deuteronomy. It is meant to remind that history is made by closely connected events where future actions are a consequence of what happened or was done in the past. It is no coincidence that Toledot is the Hebrew term defining history, but also the idea of consequence, concatenation of events among past, present and future. Through the video installation I wanted to narrate the life of the Jewish Community of Padua through some of its most charismatic personalities from 1400 to nowadays. Rabbis, whose memory is still vivid worldwide, like Jeudah Minz, Meir Katzenellenbogen, Moshè Chayyim Luzzatto (RaMHaL), Moshè David Valle, Samuel David Luzzatto (SHaDaL) and Isaac Abravanel, who reached Padua only after his death. Furthermore, outstanding characters like Leone Romanin Jacur, Giacomo Levi Civita, Leone Wollemborg and Vittorio Polacco who excelled in their roles as Mps, mayors and rectors. My work is the ideal account of all the women and men who were part of the Community and epitomised it, as well as the display of how powerfully rooted and present the life of the Community is in Padua.

Photo by Luigi Mercanzin; takes from the video installation.(Director Denis Brotto with Giancarlo Previati and Andrea Pennacchi – Italian Synagogue, Padua)

I felt the need of an original, unusual way of telling this story. I was looking for a combination of narrative, visual and auditory solutions, which could highlight the coexistence of characters and ages still present with us here. In addition, it was essential for me to tell how History can be seen under many different points of view, under different angles, through multiple life experiences and narrations, all of which necessary, though, to form a community. Narrating history means re-elaborating our past not to falsify it but to create a link among different historical eras: Even if distant one from the other, today they are equally present when we feel the need to observe and understand them again. In this building memory process, each character is asked to talk to the others but also to the present, our present: a present from which we address them to find some continuity, in order to strengthen our connexion with tradition.

Music too plays a special role in this work. The sound track‘s  foundations are based on the famous history of the Jewish music, reviewed through contemporary pieces and sounds. Music coming from Gareth Dickson’s, Grouper’s, Fondaco dei Suoni’s  repertories lives together with pieces written specifically  for this video installation by Guido Rigatti and Nicola De Bello and  coexists with the Black Ox Orkestar’s  and  Esmerine’s compositions- some of the most significant expressions kletzmer and the Jewish tradition nowadays.

Image from the Museum video installation from a Rai2 reportage

Tales originate also from places, which make a story live and give birth to narration. No wonder we use the expression “take place”. This is why each of the tales and characters develops in a different place of the Jewish Padua. From  the Italian Synagogue to the basement of the former German Synagogue, from the courtyards of the Ghetto to the Jewish cemeteries ( via Sorio, via Campagnola, via Wiel and via Canal), from the former Rabbinical Boarding School (today secondary school “Nievo”) in via Barbarigo to the University, i.e. the place par excellence of the integration among different cultures. On the other hand, a place is where to go back, where to build and reconstruct your existence mainly after departures, escapes, desertions. It is well known how deeply the history of the Jewish Community has been marked by departures, escapes and desertions. My work was born on the basis of all these observations: it consists of a plurality of visual sources and narrative paths directly projected onto the niches and walls of the Museum. The vertical structure of the buildings of the Jewish Ghetto is thus reproduced by the films’ vertical development. Images carefully planned to depict a whole of lives, people, thoughts that continue living together, with us, notably in a place so full of meanings like the former German Synagogue’s from where our work starts and where it finishes. Yet, the place is once again the ancient Ghetto of Padua, one of the most beautiful and hidden settings in the town centre. Before this experience, I had always walked through it as if I was contemplating a mystery, as if I was observing only the façade of a small hidden world. And so it was. Via San Martino e Solferino, via Dei Fabbri, Via delle Piazze, via dell’Arco. Routes of rare magnificence, intertwining, tangling just like the history of the Jewish Community, just like the heritage of which the Museum consists of.

Denis Brotto
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Denis Brotto teaches “Cinema and new Technologies” at Padua University. To mention just some of his publications “Osservare l’incanto”, the first Italian monograph on Alexander Sokurov and “Trame digitali” about cinema and new technologies. He combines theoretical and practical research through the production of videos and documentaries. He was part of the “Collettivo Ipotesi Cinema” directed by Ermanno Olmi and produced the documentaries “Patrice Leconte”(2010)and “La Pièce”(2011) codirecting with Mario Brenta. In 2015 he produced the Video installations for the Padua Heritage Museum .In 2017 he directed the documentary “Sciarrino, séances” dedicated to the composer Salvatore Sciarrino and produced together with the students at Padua University DAMS and the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto.

Padua’s Synagogue

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