Standing on the piazzale Michelangelo on a painterly grey afternoon, I see an oxidized green dome not quite towering above the rest, just being “present”. I wonder about its construction, for it isn’t a Russian onion dome and it isn’t a Brunelleschi-shaped cupola, yet there is a statement of humility to it, but a statement nonetheless. I wonder what could possibly be beneath that dome: what great work of art, which artist’s tomb, what time-traveling historical wizardry could exist therein? I keep on wondering as I drive home, making a point that one day I must find the base of that dome—and visit.
Almost a year passes and I find myself engaged in cinematically telling the story of the great Yiddish author, Sholem Aleichem, for broadcast in the United States and beyond while residing in Florence. Without the ability to cross borders in these frightening times, I was certain that Florence’s historic centro could easily pass for Kiev, Ukraine, and neighboring towns, where the writer came from. Sholem Aleichem is popularly known as the author of the “Tevyeh the Milkman” stories, which became the basis for the world-renowned musical play Fiddler on the Roof. Grand as he is, Tevyeh is but a sliver of the author’s output. This film would focus on his life and other writings and would feature the Klezmerata Fiorentina, a Jewish music ensemble of virtuoso musicians, who are members of Florence’s famed orchestra, the Maggio Musicale.
As I research the life of our subject, I was stunned to learn that he lived in Nervi, on the Ligurian coast, for a four-year period of his life with significant output. Sholem Aleichem suffered from tuberculosis and “Sunlight, Warm days, and good eating” were the doctor’s orders. Nervi was the antidote. So off I went to Nervi, to discover the exact spot where Sholem Aleichem sat facing the sea every morning, writing stories in Yiddish to be enjoyed by the world.
Just before that trip to Nervi, I made contact with the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Florence, Gadi Piperno, a Roman now residing with his family in the Tuscan city. I asked to visit the Synagogue and if we could film one of the scenes from Sholem Aleichem’s stories there. The Rabbi was amenable and he asked me to visit. I parked at Sant’Ambrogio and, reveling in the beauty of Florence, walked the two and a half blocks to the Synagogue. Two armed guards with machine guns greeted me at the entrance; their task is to look after the safety and wellbeing of the temple and all those who enter. I look up. The green dome. It is the pinnacle of Florence’s Jewish community, present but humble, as it embraces its people and history below.
The Rabbi, a gentle soul with gentle eyes, for that is all I can see above his face mask, welcomes me in. As the doors open, my breath is taken away. A sanctuary of miraculous design, Moorish in fashion, every centimeter is hand-painted, as only Florentines can, in shades of Terra di Siena, rich greens, reds and golds. The light shines through the stained glass window just beneath the dome, high overhead, casting a golden-hour light on the ancient ten commandments above the ark. I am mesmerized by the breath-taking beauty.
I ask the Rabbi about the history of the building. He tells me that, until the late 1800s, the Jewish ghetto was in the piazza della Repubblica and that the mandate to construct a Synagogue was issued when Jews were freed to go anywhere in the city. As the Rabbi speaks, I look down. The gorgeous mosaic in the floor has an 1882 embedded in the doorway. One might assume it indicates the building’s address, but instead it is the date of the building’s completion.
I then ask if the building is in its original form. The Rabbi asks me to follow him. “But exactly in my footsteps,” he says. I follow the Rabbi exactly. “Did you feel the dip in the floor? When the Nazis occupied Florence, this very sanctuary was the headquarters for Nazi artillery storage. When the Nazis were retreating, the entire building was wired to be blown up. The Nazis dragged their wires several blocks away. As they were doing this, the non-Jewish caretaker was able to dismantle all of the bombs, leaving only one in an area of the building where, if blown up, would not threaten the structure. He did this, so that when the Nazis detonated, they would hear an explosion and leave. Because of that Righteous Gentile, the magnificent Synagogue of Florence was saved. The dip in the floor is where the bomb went off.”
The Rabbi then takes me over to a wall and points out the color variations just above my head. “Here,” he says, “the flood of 1966.” I ask more questions and the Rabbi answers. With each answer, I am more engrossed in the building, its history and beauty. I again ask if everything is in its original form.
“Yes,” the Rabbi says. “This is the Synagogue the way it was built and the way it was intended. It has survived world wars, tragedy, celebration and more. It once stood on the outskirts of the city, a humble building in the shadow of the Duomo, away from the greatness of the centre of Florence.” Over the years, the city has grown to take in the Synagogue, where the Synagogue is now within its centre, making it an indelible part of Florence and the beauty that it is.
HERSHEY FELDER as Sholem Aleichem in BEFORE FIDDLER
Featuring Klezmerata Fiorentina
Sunday, February 7, 2021 at 5pm Pacific / 7pm Central / 8pm Eastern
Includes extended viewing access of the recording through Sunday, February 14
All tickets available (55 US $ / 45 euro per household): theflr.net/before-fiddler
Decades before the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof first delighted worldwide audiences, there was Sholem Aleichem and his beloved character of Tevye the Milkman. When he was only 24 years old, Aleichem published his first story, Tsvey Shteyner (“Two Stones”), and by 1890, he had become a central figure in Yiddish literature. Aleichem was known as the “Jewish Mark Twain”.
Felder will play Sholem Aleichem, giving audiences the true story of what happened “Before Fiddler”. Long before songs like If I Were a Rich Man beguiled audiences, there was Klezmer, the music of the Old World that imitated talking, laughing, weeping and singing. Felder is accompanied by the Klezmerata Fiorentina quartet. Filmed on location where events actually took place, this streaming production will feature the stories and characters of Sholem Aleichem, along with music that is sure to move the soul.
A percentage of ticket sales will be generously donated to The Florentine.