The key to the Jewish Pandora's box, somewhere in southern Italy, is in the hands of Dr. Dov Holzer.
The former Israeli orthopedist has the code to the most kept door in the Apulia province, located at the heel of the Italian boot. It is the massive door of the Scuola Nova synagogue, built in 1144 in the port city of Molfetta.
Star of David over church bell (Photo: Gili Mazza)
For hundreds of years filled with anti-Semitic rulers, the synagogue was converted into a church with the aim of expelling, assimilating and annihilating the most thriving Jewish community in southern Italy, which generated religious authorities like Rabbi Moshe Yosef from the city of Trani and had up to 2,500 members.
Poetic justice can be found behind the doors of the Santa Maria di Scuola Nova church, which resumed its activities as a synagogue six years ago. The synagogue's story of salvation is embodied in the personal and unique story of Prof. Francesco Lotoro.
The professor, who is also a pianist and conductor and researched Jewish music during the Holocaust, decided to convert together with his wife in 2004, after undergoing personal process. Only one thing was missing: A place to pray in.
Inquiries in the nearby town of Trani revealed that Molfetta has a church which has been inactive for the past 50 years and was originally a synagogue. The municipality agreed to hand the place to Lotoro and representatives in the Jewish community for 99 years.
On their first visit to the place, they encountered a surprising sight: A painting of Virgin Mary on the eastern wall – in the Holy Ark niche.
Three sealed windows in former women's gallery (Photo: Gili Mazza)
The Lotoro couple filed a special request with the church to remove the painting and transfer it to a museum, but it was denied under the claim that the painting was a unique work of art from the Middle Ages. After a bridging attempt, it was decided to hang a cloth with a picture of a menorah, hiding the madonna and her son.
And yet, Christian symbols remain on the premises, including a church bell alongside a Star of David on the building's roof, with church lamps and a baptism basin inside.
The three windows on the synagogue's western wall, built in Romanesque style, were originally at the women's gallery. Today they are sealed. The building's steps still lead to the basement, which includes a pool that served as the local ritual bath.
Avraham Zhilo, a Jew born in the area, provides a personal testimony on the site's reincarnation. As a child, he would accompany his grandfather who prayed at the Scuola Nova. He remembers that when they entered the church, his grandfather would kiss the lintel, where the mezuzah was meant to be.
He says that when one of the community's Jews had his eldest son, they would gather 30 days later in front of the church's door and the priest would mumble secret blessings at them. Over the years, it turned out that the priest was actually a Jew who was forced to convert, but later returned to Judaism. His four children live in Israel
Many forced converts in Italy hid their religious identity for years by becoming priests – a good cover story.
Flag of Italy within synagogue (Photo: Gili Mazza)
In the 12th century, the region's Jews still enjoyed an autonomy in their Jewish quarter, and were even received the government's protection.
But things changed in the late 13th century: Tyrants began converting and baptizing Jews against their will, blood libels thrived – and the Jews were forced to flee. The region's four synagogues were appropriated and turned into churches.
The Jews were officially expelled from the entire region in 1510, after being forced to choose between Christianity and banishment. Most immigrated to Thessaloniki or Corfu. From the nearby city of Brindisi, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea, crusaders embarked on journeys to the Holy Land.
In 2006, after 800 years, the Scuola Nova synagogue returned to its original mission in an emotional celebration. The Trani bishop visited the place and gave it his blessing, and the Jewish community of Molfetta and its surroundings returned home – but only symbolically. Most of the region's Jews – Holocaust survivors – left the area on ships carrying illegal immigrants to Palestine, and they live in Israel now.
Once every few weeks, a rabbi arrived in the area from Rome to hold ceremonies and teach girls and boys ahead of their bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies. According to Holzer, it's very hard to find a quorum in the area these days.
'Jews' Street' in former Jewish ghetto (Photo: Gili Mazza)
Another church which also served as a synagogue in the Middle Ages, Santa Anna, is located two minutes away from Scuola Nova. The parallel street is called "The Jews' Street" to this very day. Ancient Jewish tombstones are scattered near the synagogue, alongside other Jewish relics.
A yeshiva, a Jewish school, a Jewish music center and other institutions were planned in the area in the past, but no cornerstone has been laid yet. Only 15 Jewish families live in this strictly Catholic area.
Dr. Holzer, the man with the key, doesn't live in Molfetta, and those wishing to visit the place or hold ceremonies there must coordinate it with him in advance (Tel. 0039-080-5326183).
The writer was a guest of the Italian Chamber of Commerce.