Our Jewish Brethren in Italy

The Rome historic Jewish Quarter houses one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe and the longest, uninterrupted, existing Jewish community in the world

The Rome historic Jewish Quarter houses one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe and the longest, uninterrupted, existing Jewish community in the world

 

Where I grew up in New York, we lived in a community comprised mostly of Italian Catholics. Our neighborhood bordered a Jewish community and I had many Jewish friends with whom I attended school, but none of them were Italian.  In fact, during much of my life, I had never met an Italian who was Jewish.  Our neighborhood was a kind of fenced-in world where, of all the Jews we knew, none were Italian and of all the Italians we knew, none were Jewish, one ethnicity seemingly canceled out the other.  It was a concept which would remain with me for years to come.
 
In the summer of 1972 while visiting Rome for the first time, I had decided to spend a Sunday afternoon at Porta Portese looking for bargains.  I strolled from one bancarella to another, down one row and up the next, until I came to a vendor behind the table of his stall. He was wearing a gold chain with a Star of David attached. It was a taste of culture shock which led me to many questions. Why wouldn’t there be Italian Jews?  If there are Russian Jews and German Jews and Polish Jews and American Jews, why would there not be Italian Jews? Though the Porta Portese experience made me more cognizant of cultural diversities, something happened a few years later which led me to believe that I had not been alone in my misconception concerning Jews and Italians.
 
I attended an Italian celebration with some friends during which a Jewish song was sung.  The song was Hava Nagila.  For those of you not familiar with Hava Nagila, it is an Israeli folk song the lyrics of which are adapted from Psalm 118 verse 24 of the Hebrew Bible: “This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
 
It is usually sung in Hebrew three times, the first time very slowly, the second time a little faster and ends the third time very fast and loud with an abrupt crescendo. The beat and tempo are such that people cannot help but clap their hands in time to the music.
Il portico di ottavia nel ghetto di Roma

Il portico di ottavia nel ghetto di Roma

 
The song has gained in popularity in recent years and is sung in Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs (Jewish traditional coming-of-age celebrations) as well as weddings and other celebrations which may or may not be Jewish.
 
So there we were in a dining hall full of Italians whose jaws dropped when the singer began the first few lines in Hebrew.  As he progressed through the song, the guests were clapping their hands to the music’s tempo.  The song was obviously something quite different and unusual from what they were accustomed to hearing. But they seemed to have enjoyed it because they responded with an emphatic round of applause.   A short time later, a woman was heard to ask, “Is he Jewish or Italian?” The question brought back memories of my years growing up in New York and gave me much food for thought.  It wasn’t enough just to know that Italians can be Jewish and that Jews can be Italian. I needed to know more and my search took me back to Ancient Rome.
 
Italy is said to have played an important role in Jewish history and genealogy. There is evidence that Jews entered Rome as far back as 161 B.C., when Judah Maccabeus first sent diplomatic envoys to establish a treaty seeking an alliance with the Roman Senate against the Syrian-Greeks who had desecrated Jerusalem’s Temple. 
 
Through the years, Jews migrated to Italy under different circumstances. Some were brought to Rome as prisoners after Rome’s invasion of Judea in 63 B.C.  Many came on diplomatic missions and still others came as merchants seeking business opportunities. Eventually the Jewish population began to grow. There is evidence that synagogues existed in Ancient Rome long before the inception of Christianity.  Life in Rome for our Jewish brethren, however, was sporadically marked by uncertainty.
 
  Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, political rights of the Jews became quite limited.  The limitations included prohibitions against the building of new synagogues. They could not intermarry with non-Jews nor could they own slaves.  Jews could not hold positions of esteem nor could they testify in court against Christians. From the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries, the quality of life for Jews varied depending upon the person occupying the papal seat.
 
It was toward the end of the fifteenth century, during the reign of Pope Alexander VI, head of the notorious Borgia clan, that a special tax was imposed on the Jews of Rome to pay for Pope Alexander’s military operations against the Turks.
 
During the Reformation of 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that all Jews in Rome must live apart from Christians. They were forced to live in a segregated area and were allowed to leave only during daylight hours.  More than 4,700 Jews lived in this area of seven acres built in the Travestere section of the city known as the “Roman Jewish Ghetto,” where it remains to this day. 
 
Jews were not permitted to own property outside the Ghetto.  They could not attend institutions of higher learning. They were prohibited from professions such as law, pharmacy, politics and architecture.  Jewish physicians were restricted to treating only Jewish patients.
 
There is no doubt that our Jewish brethren paid their dues in Italy as well as throughout the rest of the world. Though they had significantly affected the economic and intellectual climate of the Renaissance few of their contributions had been brought to the forefront of history.
 
All this having been said, we return to the basic question: Can Italians be Jewish and vice-versa?  To help answer this question, I reveal a personal story, after which you will either be enlightened or more confused. 
 
My wife, Marie, happens to be steeped in the study of genealogy.  While attending one of her many conferences, she was fortunate enough to win a door prize worth over $100.  The prize consisted of a kit which contained swabs for the purpose of taking a DNA sample from inside of one’s cheeks to determine one’s ancestral lineage.  Marie, being the great lady that she is, gave me her prize. I swabbed my cheeks, sent the sample to the lab and awaited the results. They arrived in the mail about six weeks later.  If the people who tested my DNA are to be believed, then I am descended from Greeks, Romans, North Africans, Arabs and, of course, Sicilians and (guess what) Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.  
 
How far back my ancestry goes, they could not say. But if I am to believe them, then my guess would be that during the Spanish Inquisition (around 1490) my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors were expelled from Spain and took refuge in Sicily where many conversions to Catholicism followed.  This would certainly explain my craving for matzos. To those who think they know where they came from, I suggest that they “think again.” Keep in mind that before Christianity, there is a good probability that your ancestors were Hebrews. In any event, I wish you the best of luck. In Italian I extend to you the warmest auguri.  In Hebrew, my wish to you is mozel tov.
 

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