Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Treasures of Casale Monferrato

Last week we had the great pleasure of visiting the Piedmontese town of Casale Monferrato, about 75 miles from Milan.

“Casale,” as it’s called locally, was on our list of “must-see’s,” but it’s relatively difficult to reach without a car, so we were delighted when we were invited to go for the day with friends. The occasion was the 90th anniversary of Keren Hayesod, which was being marked by the “Keren” chapter of Torino with a guided tour of Casale’s synagogue during Sukkot.

(Keren Hayesod is the Hebrew name – used internationally – for what we in the U.S. know as the United Jewish Appeal. Internationally, “Keren” almost exclusively raises funds for Israel; the UJA serves as an umbrella organization in the U.S. that raises money both for Israel and for local programs.)

The Jewish community of Casale dates back to the 15th century; the Encyclopedia Judaica says the first Jews arrived in the 1430s, though other sources says the community was established when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Only two Jewish families remain in Casale, though at its height, the community numbered more than 1,000. We had the pleasure of being given a guided tour of the synagogue, built in 1592, by Adriana Ottolenghi. She and her husband Dr. Giorgio Ottolenghi, as well as a representative of the other family, were on hand to greet visitors, as apparently they are on most Sundays, special groups notwithstanding, when dozens of tourists visit the synagogue and its museum.

Many people consider the synagogue to be the most beautiful in Europe. Finer photos of it than I could ever take, as well as more information about the Casale Jewish community, are at  Rabbi Louis Kaplan has written a fine essay about his 2000 visit to the synagogue and includes a history of the Jewish community; you can read it at

The highly embellished Baroque interior is a stark contrast to the nondescript exterior. In accordance with the rules of many European towns and villages, the Jews were allowed to build a synagogue so long as no one knew it was there. The building was not to be distinguished from the outside, nor could music or praying be heard by passersby. That was centuries ago. Today, interestingly, everyone whom we asked for directions sent us the wrong way, not purposely but because they themselves didn’t seem to know how to get there. Even the official tourist information signs were unclear.

The website of the community does not show the charming courtyard where the sukkah appropriately stood next to a pomegranate tree loaded with fruit. On the pavement, the motif was bees, givers of sweetness and light, appropriate to Sukkot as well as other holidays.

Nor does the website do justice to what Mrs. Ottolenghi led us to in the basement of the synagogue complex: dozens of the most creative and picturesque modern Chanukiyot we have ever seen. About 40 were on display out of a collection of more than 100 owned by the community/synagogue/museum. They are about to make their first trip together away from Casale, to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme in Paris (

You can see a few of these extraordinary menorahs at
They were created by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists out of every material, from BIC pens to sterno cans to silver, crystal, brass, acrylic, film: every possible medium that could represent the unlimited imaginations of the artists. My personal favorite, fashioned from gold-plated wire and wax by Jessica R. Carroll of Rome, replicates the bee motif of the synagogue’s courtyard. Her father, sculptor Robert Carroll, a native of Wisconsin, has carved an eight-branch menorah of olivewood with a brass shamash mounted on an Italian granite base. Celebrate Chanukah early by visiting the website!

* * *
The meal

A day in Piedmont must include, our friends assured us, a typical Piedmontese Sunday lunch, which it was our pleasure to share at Osteria Amarotto in Casale Monferrato.  They should know!  David and Carol Ross, retired U.S. foreign service officers, operate Sophisticated Italy, helping travelers get to know the best of Italy, and they are among the founders of our Milan congregation.

Mio marito and our friends took the prix-fixe menu, which began with a “white meat paté” of chicken and veal; I tasted some and it was superb. That was followed by a small vegetable tart; then tagliatelle in a too-salty broth; then bollito misto. This last dish – a mélange of cuts of beef and veal – boiled together, was served from a rolling cart with several sauces.

I went the à la carte route because I wanted lamb chops, which were tiny and fragrant, and I wanted to try the peperoni bagna cauda after our friends described “bagna cauda” as a hot sauce of olive oil and garlic. Unfortunately they forgot the third major ingredient: anchovies. Mio marito liked it very much, and I was happy with his tartine de verdure. (Lest I seem a picky eater . . . it’s just fish, in most forms, for which I’ve never developed a taste.)

Dessert was two kinds of cake, also akin to patés: one chocolate, one nougat. Heavenly.

Our friends chose a lovely red wine, and for once I drank in mid-day, but only a few sips. I did not want to be sleepy for either the synagogue tour or the promised stop at a cashmere outlet on the way home.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! What a great day... art and history smashed up together. I love that you are describing the food also; I imagine everything as being very fresh.

    But please do tell about the cashmere. :) (I'm interested in whether they were spinning or knitting it there, or processing the fiber, or what; perhaps it was just fabulous sweaters and scarves? :) )