In the striking town of Pitigliano, high on its tufo ridge, a Jewish settlement begun in the 15th C. flourished to such a degree that the city was known as ‘Little Jerusalem’. Today the community has practically disappeared, but the culture and traces of their presence are still felt in the streets of this ancient town.
Exiles arrived from many parts of Tuscany to the ancient town resting on a tufa ridge and though they were restricted to a ‘ghetto’, the community prospered. The town was considered a 'privileged place of refuge' for Jews exiled from the Rome in the period 1569-1593 Over the centuries the population’s safety and status rose and fell with the politics of the day – at one point comprising 20% of the city’s population.
The community published the 1st Italian Jewish newspaper and maintained a large library, a synagogue (built in 1598), a ritual bathhouse and a bakery for the preparation of the unleavened bread.
The ghetto as such was formed at the beginning of the 17th C. which the Medici dynasty took command of the city and restricted Jewish mobility. Yet still the community was well integrated and respected, collaborating in the economic, social and cultural fabric of the town.
Throughout the 19th C., when there was greater freedom of movement, many members of the community left Pitigliano for the more economically attractive cities of Rome, Florence, Lucca or Livorno. By 1938, however, after Nazi racial laws took effect only 60 members of the community remained, many escaping capture thanks to their neighbors, but forced to hide with farming families in the valley. A plaque in the Ghetto commemorates the 22 Jews born in Pitigliano who were killed in concentration camps. The town of Pitigliano sided strongly against deportation and in 2002 the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, the honor of the "Righteous Among the Nations" was conferred to some Pitigliano families for their attempt to save their fellow citizens.
At present only 1 member of the community is left, but visitors may visit the synagogue (restored in 1995), Culture center, Kosher butcher, ritual bathhouse, wine cellar, bakery, dye-works, all of which are dug into the native tufa stone, as well as the the fairly non-traditional Jewish cemetery tucked in a cypress grove below the town.
In a small grocery there are products available which reflect the community's traditions: kosher wine, unleavened Azzimo bread and the very popular 'sfratti' a traditional sweet made of honey, orange peel, walnuts, nice and nutmeg, which is wrapped in a pastry skin of flour, sugar, oil and white wine. Ironically, the name (meaning 'eviction' in Italian) and shape refers to the cane used by Medici agents for beating on the doors of the ghetto to intimidate residents to leave town.