To Andrea, for birthday
Bale. In many languages it means something good: in Persian yes, in Spanish okay (cf. Latin valet), in Istrian Croatian, a beautiful little town, two thousand years old, known in Italian as Valle, which was founded by the Roman legionaries in valle, one valley back from the coast, to defend Pola, the most important Roman port of Istria, against the Hysters attacking hysterically from the Karst mountains. The town has since accepted Christianity, it sometimes resisted and sometimes gave in, under siege, to the the Uskok pirates, it immortalized the visit of Casanova with a memorial plaque, and it somehow avoided the horror of the foibe, in which the Italian population of the peninsula was rounded up into the karst caves by the partisans of Tito and shot. Basically nothing happened.

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In the middle of the maze of medieval walls there is the Castel, the medieval castle converted from the Roman watch-tower, with two rings of streets around it, the entire thing cannot be larger than a hundred meters. Where the road forks from the outer ring towards the Borgo, a suburb, there stands the church of St. Helena, number 27 on the map, a typical Italian Gothic chapel, with a towerless triangular façade.

However, on this façade, so usual for an Italian town, we see something unusual.

The constellation of the cross and the six-pointed star has already lured a number of guidebook writers into hopeless talmudic speculations. György Fehér’s Istria, as well as the Horvát tengerpart (The Croatian coast) by the silver-tongued Sándor Szarka, the unsurpassed juggler of guidebook phrases, both unequivocally state that the prayer house was used for centuries by Catholics and Jews together, hence the double sign.

But such a claim can only be made by someone who has personally never used either a Catholic, or a Jewish prayer house. Beyond the fact that in the Middle Ages, most Christians did not willingly tolerate Jews in the same city, let alone in the same prayer house, and Jews would also not willingly sing our Lord, the God, is One in a place where every symbol seemed a blasphemy against this, how would have they celebrated, for example, Passover, when even the private houses had to be cleared of all fermentable grain, in a place where the Sacrament must permanently be present in the form of bread?

Besides, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, no Jews ever lived in Bale. The Istrian town councils authorized the establishment of five wealthy Jewish families in five towns – Isola, Pirano, Rovigno, Pola and Veglia – for the purpose of money lending, but from the 17th century, the “monti di pietà”, the pawnshops set up by the Istrian citizenship, gradually took over, and these few Jews left the peninsula for Trieste.

We are wandering the streets of the medieval town with the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, and, impressed as we are with this little jewel-box, we try to decipher the liturgical riddle. In the Cathedral they are about to begin the Mass, but it is delayed, because I have detained the priest in the sacristy. “What do you know about this?” “To tell the truth, I’m not from around here, I come from the next town to celebrate Mass. But I, too, have noticed it. The local parish members say that they added the Star of David because St. Helena was a Jew.” He asks for my e-mail address, to investigate further, and to let me know what he finds out.

I have not yet received an e-mail from him, and I did not have the heart to tell him that Empress St. Helena was no Jew. Even if were not already historically incorrect, if would be liturgically impossible. It would probably be better to think that in the eyes of the locals, a third Jew, along with Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, strengthens the cohesion of Christians and Jews.

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