It’s a tale as old as time, one seemingly repeated everywhere I go. Jews settle in a place, and all is well for a while. Then we become scapegoats, used by the political powers as outsiders, as people to blame for whatever is going on. This escalates into forced conversions, ghettos, expulsions, and attempted exterminations. And despite all that, we the Jews are still here, still grinding away at life, still trying to be a part of a world that has never wanted us to be a part of it.
There have been Jews in Rome since the early days of the Roman Empire, following Rome’s conquest of Israel and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Record of Jews in Rome as envoys dates back even further, to 161 BCE. It is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, and for centuries, all was reasonably well.
Jews and non-Jews lived together in Rome until 1555. Pope Paul IV issued an edict on July 14 of that year stating that it was absurd that Christians and Jews lived side by side, and confining the 2,000 member strong Jewish community to an area along the Tiber that frequently flooded. Why did this happen seemingly all of a sudden? Paul IV was one of the anti-reformation Popes, taking conservative hardline approaches to pretty much everything as a response to Martin Luther and the Reformation. One of those things was to be considerably more anti-Jewish, an attitude that would take hold in much of Italy, with the exception of free cities like Livorno.
The ghetto originally had two gates, both locked at night, and a wall that the Jews were forced to pay for themselves. In addition, Jews were forbidden from owning property, having to sell their homes to rent within the ghetto. Jews were banned from many occupations, from practicing medicine on non-Jews, and from most fraternization with non-Jews. Even more, Jews were forced to attend Christian sermons weekly, typically on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.
Only a single synagogue was allowed inside the ghetto, although multiple sanctuaries within a single building ended up allowing for multiple congregations. That building was demolished to make way for the post-ghetto Great Synagogue of Rome in 1904. In addition to being a beautiful synagogue still used today, its lower level holds Rome’s Jewish Museum, which traces much of the history of the ghetto and the Jewish community of Rome.
Over the years, the ghetto was expanded to accommodate a growing population, and more gates were added. Restrictions were eased and tightened depending on the papacy currently in power. At some times, Jews were allowed to move freely throughout the city, provided they wore a yellow sash identifying them as Jews. At others, they were not. Under some Popes, Jews were forced to compete in nude races in the mud for the entertainment of their Christian neighbors. Taxes to live in the ghetto were raised and lowered. For a brief year under Napoleon, from 1798-99, the ghetto was even abolished and Jews were free to live anywhere.
In 1870, with the dissolution of the Papal States as Italian unification remade the entire peninsula into one country (click here to read about Italian unification), the ghetto was permanently dissolved and the thousands of Jews living there were finally free to move around the city and country. In 1888, the walls were torn down, and embankments along the Tiber would turn the former ghetto into some of the most desirable real estate in the city now that it didn’t flood. 315 years after its establishment, the Roman Jewish ghetto was the last in Western Europe to be dissolved, and until Nazi Germany, Jews of this part of the continent enjoyed a ghetto-free life for perhaps the first time.
But the ghetto lives on in memory. Any visit begins with the Great Synagogue. The interior is only able to be visited with a guide, which is included with admission to the museum. The building is home to Rome’s only square dome, a stunning ceiling topper with rainbows and trees. The bima (elevated area you’d think of as an altar) is done in ornamental silver, marble, carved stone, and mosaic.
Security is visibly present, the result of a 1982 attack that killed a two year old child, the aftermath of which saw government funding for permanent security at all Italian Jewish buildings. But perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Synagogue is the 1986 visit of Pope John Paul II, the first time a Pope had (maybe ever) entered a synagogue, a practice that has been continued by his successors.
Just outside the synagogue is Largo 16 Ottobre 1943. This marks the spot where the Jews of Rome were deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943. When the Nazis occupied Rome following Italian surrender to the Allies, they demanded fifty kilos of gold from the Jews in return for their lives. The community banded together, and 52 kilos were collected. (The museum has an exhibit with the receipts from the donated gold, most of which had to be purchased using the life savings of pretty much everyone.) The Nazis deported them anyway, and only sixteen of the more than 1,000 Jews sent to Auschwitz would survive.
Via del Portico d’Ottavia is the main street running through the area, and today is lined with kosher restaurants serving the Roman treat, Jewish-style artichoke. The artichokes are turned and then deep fried, leaving a crunchy snack that those in the city love. The restaurant I choose for lunch also has a pasta dish with crispy artichoke, so I get one of those, too.
As with pretty much everywhere, Jews in Rome have struggled with a history that can be charitably thought of as troubled. And as my guide inside the Great Synagogue tells me, things are still not great here today. Rome’s Jews number around 13,000, but while the community dates back to Imperial times, Jews here are still seen as outsiders. She tells me she doesn’t wear anything that publicly marks here as Jewish if she is outside the touristic center of Rome, as anti-Semitism is pretty rampant, even though violent attacks are rare.
My day in Rome’s Jewish ghetto is one of somber reflection for me. Once again, I visit a city to find out that my people have been – and even still are – treated terribly. It is a broken record of my life, one that colors my travel experiences. But life and Judaism survive, and we are still here in Rome.
Like it? Pin it!