Rav Marco Tedeschi

Goldman, Allegorical depiction dedicated to the Chief rabbi of Trieste Marco Tedeschi (1860) – Civici Musei di storia ed arte.

Marco Tedeschi was born in 1817 in Piovà Massaia, a small village near Asti. His father Felice, who died prematurely in 1836, was a rabbi, Talmudist, philologist and pedagogue. Marco followed his footsteps guiding first Nizza Monferrato’s Jewish Community, then Saluzzo’s and eventually Asti’s. Here his oratory and teaching skills shone, paired to a great culture that extended to the classics of Latin and Italian literature.

It was thanks to this culture that in 1849 Marco Tedeschi obtained a Degree in Literature, the first Jew in the entire Kingdom of Sardinia to reach such a goal, right after the first emancipatory laws issued by the Savoys.

Front cover of the book Preghiere d’un cuore israelita (Prayers of a Jewish heart), translated from French into Italian by Marco Tedeschi (first edition in 1852).

In 1858, now well known and highly regarded, he was offered the position of Chief Rabbi both in Turin and in Trieste. His choice was not an easy one. On one hand, he could pick the Adriatic port city, home to a historically large, well integrated and influential Jewish Community. On the other, he had the city of the Savoys, after 1848 the new leader of the emancipation process, his homeland’s capital, the driving force of that Italian unification that Tedeschi strongly supported.

Eventually Trieste came out on top, but not without Cavour’s direct involvement. In fact the Piedmontese Prime Minister, potentially interested in having a trusted observer inside the Habsburg Empire, personally acted to iron out Tedeschi’s main objections.

The latter’s mandate in Trieste would then coincide with a time of great changes and contradictions for European, Italian and Triestine Jewry after the spread of Wissenschaft des Judenthums (literally, Science of Judaism), born out of Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment). The majority society was changing: impregnated by Positivism it was launched towards a progress many believed to be potentially endless. Jewish society and its members were changing as well: each passing day more emancipated and assimilated, yearning to “revamp” their religion, less and less bound to their ancestors’ cultural and religious traditions.

In this context, harbinger of prospective crises and rifts, Tedeschi aimed at finding a compromise solution that coincided with his own beliefs: update Judaism, without being afraid to challenge some of its aspects, precisely because of its eternal value as divine revelation. Update, not distort, though. That meant not forfeiting each and every tradition just to comply with a misguided sense of progress, or while being overwhelmed by a burning desire to resemble the majority faith and its rituals.

This was a very difficult mediation, but it managed to bring forth some innovations that a fair share of Triestine Jewry had been asking for some time. This was the case, for example, of some slight alterations to funeral and wedding ceremonies, with the additions of some “scenographic” elements akin to comparable Catholic ceremonies. As one can imagine, these actions drew criticism from both the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-progressives, each dissatisfied in their own way by the Chief Rabbi’s policies.

Such criticism likely caused Tedeschi many sorrows and – at least reading between the lines of our sources – the complicated relation with the Community might have contributed to the illness that would lead him to his death at the age of 52.

Today he is remembered in Trieste not only as «Cavour’s Rabbi», but also as an educator especially dedicated to childhood. As a matter of fact, from 1869 until today the Community’s kindergarten bears the name of its founder and first president, rav Marco Tedeschi from Piovà Massaia.

Front cover of Marco Tedeschi’s work Due discorsi in morte del professore Samuel David Luzzatto (Two speeches on the death of professor Samuel David Luzzatto) (1866).
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