Sinagoga di Siena: Who knew?

This weekend, I ventured to Italy for the first time!  Since I was staying in Florence, my older sister told me I had to take the bus to Siena for one of the days.  Just as a side note, she studied abroad in Siena two summers ago and was so unbelievably excited for me to visit a place so special to her.  So, I packed my travel backpack with the maps and a paper with a few vocabulary words in Italian that she told me about and I headed for the bus station.  Since being in Siena was a whole new experience for me, I stuck to my maps and made sure I always knew where I was in relation to the bus station.

Siena, Italy

Having an older sibling can be wonderful, especially since they tend to have certain experiences before their younger siblings do.  On one hand, this is great because my sister mapped out exactly what she thought was important for me to see in Siena, but on the other hand, she expected me to do just what she did in Siena.  For example, I was so happy to see Piazza Il Campo, the Duomo, and the flags from the nine neighborhoods in Siena.  However, my sister also wanted me to walk down a small street by Piazza Il Campo and find the hostel she lived in two summers ago.  Well, just like my sister advised, I followed her directions down that little, old, cobblestone street to find her hostel.  Even though I must have walked past it ten times as I went up and down and around and around that street, I never did find the hostel.  But, I feel just as accomplished because I saw a little sign that said “Sinagoga Ebraica.”  I know this is a long introduction, but I had to set the stage for you!  And besides the long introduction about traveling, this is where my blog really begins.

Sinagoga di Siena Building

Since I had about an hour left before I needed to be back to the bus station to spend the night in Florence, I walked down the street to the Jewish synagogue and knocked on the suspected apartment-looking doors.  A modestly dressed woman opened the doors and after I told her that I was touring Siena, she let me in.  Although I learned a lot, and unlike many cathedrals and churches I have seen in Europe so far, this woman made me pay three euros for a tour.  Well, I am so glad that I had this experience because she taught me a lot!

First, this woman told me the outside of the building looks like any other apartment on the streets of Siena because it was built in 1756, well before the Jewish Emancipation of the mid-19th century.  For this reason, a Jewish synagogue would not have been widely accepted in such an area and it was important for the temple to blend in with the surroundings at the time.  However, the inside of this temple resembled most of the traditional Jewish synagogues I am familiar with.

After the informal tour, I asked the woman many questions to get a better sense of Jewish life in Siena, and Italy as well.  She told me that the Sinagoga Ebraica is an orthodox synagogue, the most strict and traditional sect of Judaism.  She continued to explain how the female congregants must sit separately from the male congregants and the male congregants are required to wear yarmulkes (the head coverings).

Interestingly enough, after telling her I am a reform Jew and do not follow the orthodox traditions, she proceeded to tell me how progressive her synagogue has become.  For example, the women there are allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs, but may only read from the Torah during their individual ceremonies.  On the contrary, and as practiced in reform Judaism, men always have Bar Mitzvahs and may read from the Torah anytime after.  My tour guide also mentioned how the female congregants get to sit on the same level as the male congregants, just on the other side of the synagogue rather than sitting upstairs where it is more traditional.  Also, the women must cover their knees and shoulders, but they may wear pants instead of traditional skirts or dresses.  I really liked hearing about these orthodox practices and comparing them to the more informal guidelines of my reform sect of Judaism.  As a brief reference, I do not keep a kosher diet, I can read from the Torah when I please, I can sit anywhere and next to anyone in my temple, I can use electricity on Shabbat (the Sabbath day), and much more.

In contrast to my synagogue and many others I have been to, this temple only has fifty congregants.  In addition, the Sinagoga di Siena is the only Jewish temple in Siena.  I could probably recall at least 100 congregants from my temple, which is much greater in size than the Sinagoga di Siena, and I can name at least three temples within a few miles from my house.  Although it is a small town, Siena, as well as most of Italy, is primarily inhabited with Christian people, so this fact was not too surprising to hear.  What was surprising to me was that Florence, like Siena, only has one synagogue as well.  My tour guide also mentioned that there are about five temples in larger cities such as Rome, but Italy is primarily populated with Christians.

As a Jewish person, and being on an adventure to a city far away from home, I feel extremely successful for the sites I stumbled upon and the history I learned about.  Since I was raised in an area with much religious diversity, being in less diverse destinations like Siena and Florence was quite an interesting and different experience.  I think this past weekend’s trips in and out of the Duomo in Siena, Brunelleschi’s Duomo and cathedral in Florence, and many other churches and these two synagogues gave me a much greater view of Italy’s religious breakdown.

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