By Maxine Dovere
Jews have lived in Italy without interruption since Maccabean times. Despite small numbers, the “Italkim”—Italian Jews—are neither Sephardim nor Ashkenazim, instead maintaining unique characteristics and traditions. They do not speak Yiddish or Ladino, but rather one of several Judeo-Italian dialects. Synagogue services follow the “minhag italiani”—Italian tradition. Religious law is similar to Sephardic rituals.
In 161 BCE, an ambassador was dispatched to Rome by Judah Maccabee to conclude a political treaty with the Roman Senate. The early Jewish population were largely merchants and traders. The community’s size increased significantly in 70 CE, when Emperor Titus deported close to 10,000 Jews to Italy after the conquest of Judea. The conquest is memorialized in the arch known by his name.
By the Medieval period, the community had achieved a notable presence. In 1385, Jews were given permission to reside in Venice. By 1394, however, Jews had to wear a yellow badge; a hundred years later (1496), a yellow hat was required. The infamous term “ghetto” was coined in Italy, probably deriving from the island of Ghetto Nuova to which Jews were confined in 1516.
Since 1442, the Kingdom of Naples was under Spanish rule. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Jewish communities in Sicily and Sardinia—both under Spanish rule—were also expelled. Many moved to central and northern Italy, where conditions were significantly better.
The quality of Jewish life during the Renaissance varied, subject to the edicts of kings and popes. Authorized professions were limited—with merchant, moneylender, physician and scholar among them. Princes exploited the talents of their Jewish subjects.
In Venice, the senate began to treat the Jews with a little more consideration. Venice became a center of Jewish learning and book printing. Jews were allowed to engage in commerce and trade. The Venetian Republic was regarded as the most welcoming state for Jews—for a short while, at least.
In 1553, Pope Julius III ordered the confiscation and burning of all copies of the Talmud, saying it blasphemed Christianity. For almost two centuries (from approximately 1600 until 1800), Jews were confined to the ghetto. They were locked up at night and allowed out only when wearing a yellow badge. The Jewish population numbered about 30,000 throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with many destitute.
By 1800, the walls of the ghetto literally came down, demolished as part of the new revolutionary spirit emanating from France. That year, Napoleon brought freedom to the Jews for a brief period.
The Italian Jewish community was fully emancipated in 1870. For almost 70 years, Jews enjoyed general freedom and full participation in Italian society. During the Second Aliyah (immigration)—from 1904 to 1914—so many Italian Jews moved to Israel that an Italian synagogue and cultural center was established in Jerusalem.
Jews had a measure of protection during World War II. Despite pressure from the Germans, the Italians did not surrender their Jews. When Mussolini capitulated to German pressure, diplomats and high-ranking military officers disobeyed orders to surrender them. Still, 7,000 Italian Jews were lost during the Holocaust.
Politically, the Jewish minority in Italy lived under generally good conditions after World War II. The Italian Jews and their institutions enjoyed full rights guaranteed by the Constitution and by the respect of the majority of the Italian people. Immigrants, mainly from Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern countries, added to the population.
Religious pluralism became official in Italy on Feb. 18, 1984, when the Holy See and the Italian Republic abolished Catholicism as the “state religion,” a designation it had held for 16 centuries. At its height, the Italian Jewish community numbered about 50,000.
Jewish traditions are in evidence in Italy to this day. Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, notes that in the city there are 15 active synagogues representing several denominations. Efforts to preserve Italy’s Jewish heritage are being undertaken by private foundations as well as with government sponsorship.
Vestiges of the Jewish ghetto still remain. Indeed, it is now a desirable, quite chic area that includes Campo dei Fiori.
The main street of Ghetto Rome, renovated in 1990, is still distinctly Jewish. The Great Synagogue of Rome, built in 1914, is at the head of the main street, with Israeli-level security in place at all times. Kosher restaurants, now popular among sophisticated Romans, abound. Jews still live in the ghetto, albeit by choice.
On warm evenings, residents congregate outside, exchanging greetings, discussing the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and shopping in the kosher stores that line the streets of the ghetto.