The Jewish Community in Ferrara: Past and Future

Written by  Paolo Ravenna
For eight centuries the Jews have been an integral part of ferrarese culture.
In 1492, Ercole I d'Este cordially invited the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain to settle in Ferrara. Thus the beginning of the modern age marks a high point in the Jewish presence in the city, whose history and that of its Jewish community have become inextricably entwined since the arrival of the first Jews in 1100.

After a series of moves, the city's Jews finally settled in the triangle formed by via Mazzini, via S. Romano and via Vittoria, where their numbers grew to over 1,800. Growing hostility on the part of the Church induced many Jews, supported by the city authorities, to abandon their traditional activities in favour of banking but, despite this, during the Renaissance Ferrara's Jews made a significant contribution in fields as diverse as engineering, medicine, and printing.

When the Papal State took power (1624) the Jews were confined within the Ghetto but this did not extinguish the light of Jewish culture, one of whose finest expressions, the Pahad Izchak (a Talmudic encyclopedia), was written in that period. The Jews were finally released from the Ghetto with the founding of the Kingdom of Italy (1859) and links with the city - which had never really been severed - were strengthened anew.
From the ex-Ghetto emerged a part of the city's modern bourgeoisie: public administrators, politicians, professionals and famous artists. The arrival of the Fascists and their race laws saw the Community's numbers shrink from about 1300 to 400. Of these, 101 unfortunates were shipped off to the death camps, whence only five returned.

After the war there were only a few dozen Jews left in the whole of Ferrara. The Ghetto is a picturesque city within a city with cramped, winding streets and houses adorned with a plethora of balconies.

At its heart stands the building housing the Synagogues in via Mazzini where the Community's cultural and religious life has continued uninterrupted since at least 1485. This structure is unique in that it houses the Italian, the German, and the Fanese synagogues under the same roof.

Recently restored, the complex has recovered its original aspect, so beautifully described in Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi Continis, the novel that made Ferrara world famous. Other parts of the complex will soon be renovated thanks to a project conceived and tenaciously advocated by the Jewish Community: a museum dedicated to their history, tradition, and identity, which is a significant part of the city's cultural heritage as a whole.

It is profoundly significant that the final restoration work required for this initiative will be undertaken with the aid of municipal, regional, and national authorities as well as the city's Cassa di Risparmio.

The city's famous Jewish cemeteries have also been renovated, the most important of these being the Great Cemetery in via delle Vigne, whose haunting beauty attracts large numbers of artists, scholars, and tourists.