Once-thriving Jewish population keeps weak hold on Italian port

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ANCONA, Italy — On a recent Saturday morning, the Jews of Ancona celebrated a special event.

A bar mitzvah.

Not the bar mitzvah of a 13-year-old boy taking his place within the Jewish community, but the bar mitzvah of a man in his mid-20s.

"I'm very excited, but I feel great," said a beaming Lanfranco Lanternari after the ceremony in Ancona's stunning baroque synagogue.

Lanternari, the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, was raised Jewish but was not circumcised or formally converted as an infant because of health problems.

He chose to undergo the full conversion process earlier this year.

His bar mitzvah — the latest of several adult men of mixed parentage choosing Judaism during the past two years — is a ray of hope for the dwindling Jewish community of Ancona, a major port on the Adriatic Sea.

Ancona has only about 120 Jews. In all of Italy, only about 26,000 people are registered as members of Jewish communities.

For all the optimism raised by Lanternari's bar mitzvah, however, the ray of hope is dim.

At his bar mitzvah, local members of the community were outnumbered by members of a Jewish choir from Rome that had come to Ancona as part of a klezmer music festival.

"We would not have had a minyan had it not been for members of the choir," said one Ancona Jew.

In the Middle Ages, Ancona was second only to Rome in the size of its Jewish population. It was a magnet for Jewish merchants, particularly from the Middle East, and for refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions.

"The Jewish presence here was so strong that the local dialect still reflects Jewish influence," said Silvo Sacerdoti, 36, one of a handful of younger people active in the community.

"Many Anconans refer to a holiday as `Shabba' — from the word Shabbat," he said.

But after more than 1,000 years of proud history in Ancona, local Jews fear that their community may soon disappear unless something drastic happens.

"We don't have young people to pull us forward," explained Franca Ascoli Foa, the president of the community.

"If there were a change of generations coming, that would be one thing, but there are no children, except for a couple of little girls."

She and other community members described a sense of isolation.

"It's more important in small communities to have contact" with other Jewish communities, she said. "It's easier to maintain Jewish life where there is a bigger community. It's harder here if there is no exchange."

Indeed, like most other Jews here, Sacerdoti is married to a non-Jew. The pool of young Jewish people is simply too small to find partners.

"We want contacts with other Jews," he said. "What I personally would like to see is Jewish immigrants coming here from Eastern Europe, to rebuild our numbers. We need people.

"What we also need is a full-time rabbi," he added.

Ancona's previous full-time rabbi died last year. A rabbi now comes more than 200 miles from Rome twice a month, but he often gathers no minyan.

Ancona's synagogue is on Via Astagno, a narrow, steeply rising street that was the principal artery of the Jewish ghetto.

There are two sanctuaries in one building, each with a magnificently carved baroque ark and fine ritual objects.

Only one of the sanctuaries, located on the upper floor, is in use. But only two or three community members still know how to sing the traditional prayer melodies that were specific to Ancona.

The lower sanctuary is being renovated with funds from local authorities.

Abandoned and overgrown, the old Jewish cemetery, which dates back to 1428, spreads out on a clifftop overlooking the port. A large number of the massive tombs have fallen into the sea as a result of erosion.

Many of the tombs are Eastern style, with massive pillars topped with turban-like carvings.

City authorities, in agreement with the Jewish community, plan to fence in the cemetery, remove weeds and undergrowth and maintain it as a park.

"I want to see Jewish tourism come here — I would like Jews from other places to come and visit us and our treasures," said Sacerdoti.

Foa said non-Jews in Ancona often seem to have a greater interest in the city's Jewish culture and history than do local Jews.

Authorities in Italy's Marche region, of which Ancona is the capital, even bought 2,000 copies of a Jewish guidebook to the region for use in schools.

"The interest is very high," Foa said. "We keep taking groups on tours of the synagogue. They want to visit it and to learn about the history and the Jewish religion. But all these activities seem to be more for those outside the community than inside."

Reflecting her viewpoint, Ancona's four-day klezmer music festival in July was organized by a non-Jewish city cultural association. It was aimed primarily at the city's non-Jewish population.

But the Jewish community collaborated on the project, sponsoring a festival concert of liturgical music by the Rome Jewish choir that was held at Ancona's synagogue.

"I didn't see too many people from the community at any of the concerts," said one local Jew.

Foa said the community was attempting to organize dinners or parties in the communal offices to mark the major holidays.

"And it's wonderful at Yom Kippur," she said. "Then the synagogue is full — the Jews all come, together with their non-Jewish spouses and children and grandchildren, everyone together."