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NEWS FEATURE: Interest in Jewish culture growing in Catholic Italy

c. 1998 Religion News Service ANCONA, Italy _ Michael Alpert of the American klezmer group Brave Old World mixed Italian with Yiddish this summer as he sang to hundreds in the open-air courtyard of a 17th-century fortress on the Adriatic Sea. It was the final night of Ancona’s third international klezmer festival, a four-day jamboree […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

ANCONA, Italy _ Michael Alpert of the American klezmer group Brave Old World mixed Italian with Yiddish this summer as he sang to hundreds in the open-air courtyard of a 17th-century fortress on the Adriatic Sea.

It was the final night of Ancona’s third international klezmer festival, a four-day jamboree highlighting the traditional Jewish style of folk music that originated in Eastern Europe. Sponsored by the city and province, the festival brought performers from the United States, Israel and Italy to this ancient port, underscoring the growing influence of Jewish culture in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy.”It was a wonderful concert,”Franca Ascoli Foa said afterward.”I was absolutely swept away.” Ascoli Foa, a white-haired grandmother in her 70s, is the president of Ancona’s small Jewish community _ a community that numbers little more than 100 people. The most recent statistics, indeed, show only 26,000 people registered as members of Italy’s Jewish community as a whole, out of a total Italian population of nearly 60 million.

But you’d never know that from the widespread public profile of”things Jewish”in the Italian mainstream.

The Ancona festival was one of at least half a dozen festivals this summer in Italy featuring klezmer and other Jewish music.

On July 30, a few days after the Ancona festival ended, the northeastern city of Trieste inaugurated a series of exhibits, performances, tours and other events called Shalom Trieste dedicated to”the precious contribution offered by the Jewish people to European culture and in particular to that of Trieste.”Shalom Trieste will run through November, representing the biggest Jewish culture festival yet staged in the country.

In Rome, homegrown klezmer groups play amid the ruins of the ancient Teatro di Marcello near the Ghetto, the old Jewish quarter.

In addition, scores of books on Jewish subjects, from religious texts to Holocaust studies, are published each year in Italy, and major newspapers feature frequent articles on Jewish themes. This year’s most popular film was an award-winning tragi-comedy about an Italian Jew and his son deported to a Nazi death camp.

And two new Jewish museums opened in Italy this year, including one in the northeastern city of Gorizia, where there is no longer an organized Jewish community. Another is due to open this fall in Bologna.

Why all this interest?

Rudi Assuntino, a non-Jewish Italian who last year edited a book collecting the first Italian translations of the songs by Yiddish bard Mordechai Gebirtig, who died in the Holocaust, says the reasons are many.”Some people just like the music,”he said in an interview.”Others, like me, are attracted by the work of one author and then find a huge store of material behind it. Some have political reasons to be interested in Jewish culture. Some need to find their own roots, an identity. The extraordinary thing is that all this is happening together at the same time.” What’s happening in Italy, in fact, forms part of a trend that has been growing throughout Europe, particularly since the fall of communism.

In a world where the search for identity has become important, many non-Jews in Europe find deep relevance in the fact that Jews kept their identity through 2,000 years of exile, and they recognize that Jewish culture was important for European culture as a whole.

But Italians have a different historical background from Germans, whose interest in Jewish culture is often a means of working through guilt over the Nazi legacy, and East Europeans, for whom Jewish topics were taboo under communism. “For a Christian, Jewish culture is of great interest but is also full of contrasts,”said Rosa Alessandra Cimmino, a non-Jew who studied Yiddish at Oxford and taught Yiddish courses in Rome and Venice.”Delving into it is like learning a part of yourself that you didn’t know. And there is also the effect of the Shoah (Holocaust) _ the desire to understand what happened and why.” Carlo de Incontrera, musical director of the annual Mittlefest festival, an international festival highlighting central European culture held each year in the northeastern town of Cividale, says he makes sure the festival, founded in 1991, presents Jewish-theme performances each year.”I feel the weight of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust,”he said.”This is one of the principal reasons that made me present something of and for Jewish culture at Mittelfest _ not just to recall the horrors of the camps, but to recall the positive impact of Jewish culture in Europe.” This year the festival featured works by Jewish writers Elias Canetti, Paul Celan and Joseph Roth, and there was a ballet based on the writings by Franz Kafka. Last year a featured performer was clarinettist Giora Feidman, known as the”king of klezmer,”who played a new score by an Israeli composer for a silent film based on the Jewish legend of the Golem.

The interest in klezmer music _ the traditional music of Eastern European Jews _ and other aspects of specifically Eastern European Jewish culture has seen a particular explosion in Italy in the past few years.

The boom has been especially dramatic in a country where Jews have lived for 2,000 years, but whose Jewish community has no links to the Yiddish culture of the pre-Holocaust East-European shtetl.”Klezmer is the latest revelation of `world music,'”wrote critic Giuseppe Videtti in La Repubblica newspaper.”It has made its ways into the hearts of the public because its sounds are extraordinarily familiar both for those who favor pop and jazz as well as for those who prefer classical music.” Most Italian klezmer groups are strongly influenced by contemporary U.S. interpreters of the music and inject a good element of jazz into the traditional melodies. Most are composed of non-Jewish musicians.”We try to do a sort of mix with folk music, Israeli music, Yiddish music, and also jazz,”said Eva Coen, singer with the Klezroym, one of the Italian klezmer groups that played at Ancona.”So it’s a sort of strange mix, also very popular. We try to do a lot of original work.” Coen’s father is Jewish, but she was raised Catholic.

Singer and actor Moni Ovadia, a Bulgarian-born Sephardic Jew raised in Milan, opened the door to Yiddish culture to Italians with stage performances and touring cabaret shows since the early 1990s. They have won tremendous popularity and made Ovadia an important artist on the national scene. “My theater company is one of the ten companies with the biggest audience in Italy now,”he said.”This is amazing, because I’m not performing Pirandello, not Shakespeare, not Moliere, and not great Italian theater authors _ I speak about Jewish culture.” Ovadia at first was somewhat uneasy at the explosion of popularity, fearing a superficial trendiness on the part of the public. But he now feels that’s no longer the case.”I think it’s something deeper, something more serious,”he said.”Because too many people come to me, not to say `you are a good artist,’ but to say to me, `I love you, you are important for me.'”There’s a huge amount of affection for my work and my person, and I’m very moved because I couldn’t realize that I could go so far.”