2010-04-02 / Columns

Ghetto Tour of Rome

“My name is Micaela Pavoncello, thank you for contacting Jewish Roma Walking tours.” That was the first line of the response we got about joining Micaela on one of her Jewish-themed tours in Rome. While not inexpensive, her tour of the Jewish Ghetto was definitely the highlight of our stay in Rome.

Micaela is a dynamic and attractive woman whose heritage as a Roman Jew goes back two thousand years on her father’s side! In the second century BCE, the Maccabee family led a successful revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, who were defiling the Holy Temple and demanding that Jews worship King Antiochus IV Epiphanes as a god. During the war against the Seleucid empire, which lasted more than 25 years and included hundreds of battles, the brothers allied themselves with various regional powers whom they thought would help them in their audacious war. In 161 BCE, Jews arrived in Rome from Jerusalem as envoys of Judah Maccabee to elicit Rome’s cooperation and aid.

“During the Roman-Jewish wars . . . in 66-73 CE and 132- 135 CE, Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves. A number of the oldest Jewish Roman families trace their ancestry in the city to this period. Jewish scholars from Israel came to Rome in 95-96.” (source: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org) By the third century, Jews were prominent enough to have been granted the privilege of becoming Roman citizens.

Our small group met Micaela at the Great Synagogue in one of its several chapels, where she first explained that the Roman Jews are commonly known to be authentic Romans, whose history in Rome is longer than just about any other population in the city. In the first century CE, in Julius Caesar’s time, the 50,000 Jews of Rome were prominent among the total population of one million. In 70 CE, the Jews were financially strong enough to buy the freedom of their Judean kinsmen brought to Rome by General Titus after the sacking of Jerusalem.

Another example of ancient Jewish influence in Rome is that Jewish cooking methods greatly inspired Roman cuisine. “Jewish housewives were forced to be creative, cooking with limited amounts of humble ingredients while keeping the recipes kosher. Artichokes, cheeses, and salt cod were cheap and available inside the ghetto and spices and seasonings added taste. Vegetables and fish were fried in olive oil. Fish dishes are prominent in ancient Roman Jewish cooking. ... Beef was salted, peppered and dried, an ingredient which Roman Jews still prepare for the Holidays. Bollo, a soft spongy cake studded with raisins and candied fruits, is known to have been brought to Rome by Jews expelled from Spain.” The Jewish influence on Roman cooking is so obvious that it was mentioned in the tourist booklet that we found at our hotel. (source: www.jewishworldreview.com)

Though not on the ghetto tour, two important relics tying Rome and Israel together are the Arch of Titus, opposite the Roman Forum, and the Coliseum, named for the colossal statue of Emperor Nero, which originally stood alongside of it. The arch was built to commemorate Titus’ Judean victory in 70 CE. It shows the triumphal parade with the Temple vessels carried aloft. Michaela explained that the booty from the Holy Temple, together with the money paid by Roman Jews to redeem the prisoners, paid for the construction of the mammoth Coliseum.

The ancient Roman ghetto is situated on the banks of the Tiber River. Before 1555, the Jews lived loosely in their own quarter. But in 1555, copying the first “ghetto” that had been built in Venice, Pope Paul IV forced the Jews into a meager, seven acre space, whose border was actually in the Tiber River (that part of the Tiber had no embankment). Churches were built outside each ghetto entrance to try to entice the Jews to convert. Micaela pointed out the Hebrew script under the crucifix of one church. It quotes the Jewish prophet Isaiah: “All day long, I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and faithless nation that has lost its way.” (Isaiah 65:2) The quote was taken out of context to give it an anti-Semitic twist.

As the ghetto population grew to nearly 5,000 people, the apartments were made taller and closer together, blocking air and light. The Jews were forced to wear distinctive, humiliating costumes and weren’t permitted out of the ghetto at night, as well as being victimized by many onerous regulations. Jobs that were permitted to Jews were mostly in humiliating trades like usury (money lending) or rag collecting. The fish market that was located in the ghetto was disgusting, the Tiber often overflowed, and living conditions were miserable. The physical confinement and repression of the Jews continued for nearly three centuries.

In 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II granted the Jews of Rome full citizenship and most of the ghetto was demolished. Plans were made for a new and impressive synagogue. The present Great Synagogue was built from 1901-1904 on the banks of the Tiber, overlooking the former ghetto area. It is an eclectic design, with a unique square dome. Its vast, ornate interior is breathtaking, competing well with the many magnificent Roman churches. It houses the offices of the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the impressive Jewish Museum. Contemporary visitors to the ghetto area admire the beautiful apartment buildings near the Great Synagogue, built in the period before WWI, and some mistakenly think that this gentrified, expensive neighborhood was the actual ghetto.

Micaela informed us that the Jews of Rome, who number about 16,000 (and include an influx of 5,000 Libyan Jews who emigrated from Libya in 1947 and after the Six Day War of 1967), though Orthodox, are a very liberal group. For example, most of the Jews live far from the ghetto and when they attend services at the Great Synagogue, they drive there. All the additional fourteen Roman synagogues are Orthodox as well. About half of the Jewish youth come to the area to attend the Jewish day school. The great majority commute to school from outlying neighborhoods. Many Roman Jews still work in the garment trade, a throwback to ancient times. But Micaela said that most young people today attend college and will not go into family businesses.

After leaving the Great Synagogue, we walked through the few remaining ghetto streets and then had lunch at the fabulous, kosher La Taverna del Ghetto, which serves deep-fried zucchini blossoms and sweetbreads, salt cod simmered in tomato sauce and Rome’s most famous Jewish side dish: carciofi alla giudia, salt-kissed fried artichokes. It was a fabulous finale to a wonderful experience. I regret that I have only suggested the excellent introduction to Jewish Rome that Micaela gave us. Learn more about Micaela’s special tours at www.jewishroma.com.

Stephen Kramer resided and worked in the Atlantic City area until 1991, when he moved to Israel with his wife, Michal Langweiler, and two sons. He can be reached at Sjk1@jhu.edu.

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