Sometimes, when you get an idea in your head, however preposterous, it rumbles around in there noisily, making itself at home partly by kicking out other more sensible ideas, and it won’t move on until you’ve taken it to its
most ridiculous logical conclusion. Such is the case with this month’s Italy Roundtable topic of TRADITION.
See, I’m half-Jewish, and although I wasn’t brought up in any religious sense of that word, I didn’t get out of internalizing most of “Fiddler On the Roof” from a very young age. Which, if you’re anything like me, means you know where this is going.
That’s right, folks. Tevye won’t let me rest until I’ve talked about Jewish history in Italy. And you don’t say no to Tevye.
It’s really tempting to look at modern Italy as a Catholic-dominated country and assume that Judaism is only a footnote in Italian history. I used to do that. It still amuses me to no end that, for instance, the Italian word for “Passover” translates literally to “Jewish Easter.”
But even a slightly-more-than-basic knowledge of some of Italy’s most-visited cities would tell you that Judaism in Italy predates what we know as Italy. By a lot.
In Venice, though the Jewish area today is relatively small and tends to blend fairly seamlessly with the rest of the city, the now-common notion of a “Jewish Ghetto” comes from this very place. The word “ghetto” stems from a word in the Venetian dialect that indicated the area was where the foundries were. The very first Jewish Ghetto was this one in Venice, established in 1516. The Jewish Ghetto in Rome, today a popular tourist neighborhood, was established in 1555.
Moving back in time some more… If you’ve taken a guided tour of the Roman Forum, you’ve no doubt had some of the carvings on the Arch of Titus explained to you – including the menorah being carried among the spoils after the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This was part of what’s known as the First Jewish-Roman War, which is obviously a name applied in hindsight after there were more such wars. (Two more, to be exact.)
Prior to that first war, Jews were allied with the Roman Empire. Afterward, thousands of Jews were brought back to Rome as slaves to build the Colosseum.
Yeah, Jews have been in what we now call Italy for a really, really long time. And – perhaps unexpectedly, given some harsh treatment over the millennia and the dominance of the Catholic Church – they’re still there*.
There is far too much history here for me to cover in a simple blog post – especially when I am the furthest thing from a scholar of Jewish history in Italy – so I’ll share with you one of my favorite stories and then hand you over to an expert.
There’s a pretty hilltop town in Tuscany called Pitigliano. It’s mostly what you’d expect from a hilltop town in Tuscany, what with its sand-colored buildings appearing to grow out of the same-colored rock at the top of a forested hill and its cobblestone streets and history dating back to the Etruscan era. Things take an unanticipated turn when you learn the town’s nickname is “Little Jerusalem.”
For centuries, Pitigliano was basically on the border between the independent state of Tuscany and the Papal States (which were none too friendly to Jews), and so the town ended up as a sort of de facto refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution. What’s maybe a little incredible is that the town welcomed them, they stayed, and they flourished. Not only that, many hundreds of years later during the Second World War, though Pitigliano was eventually raided by Nazis and many Jews were rounded up, many were also saved when their Christian neighbors helped them escape.
There are other stories of Christian Italians saving Jews from Nazis, either by refusing to deport them or hand them over to the Germans or by actively helping them escape before the German armies arrived. Anti-semitism is still a thing in Italy (this story caught my eye just as I was writing this article), as it is all over the world to varying degrees, but stories like these make my heart swell.
Back in 2011, my Eye on Italy co-hosts Sara and Michelle and I interviewed Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first female rabbi (and first non-Orthodox rabbi) in Italy. In 2005, Rabbi Barbara conducted the first Passover Seder to occur in Italy since the Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the late 15th century.
The interview was extraordinarily fascinating (the Jews named Italy, you guys!) so I’m including the MP3 here so you can listen for yourself. We chatted about some newsy items first, so if you want to skip right to the interview start at the 8:49 mark.
And, if you want to keep reading about Jewish history in Italy, here are a few more detailed places to go next.
* One estmate I read says that the Jewish population of Italy today is around 45,000, making it something like 0.07% of the total Italian population.
I’m going to guess my cohorts at the Roundtable didn’t get an old musical number stuck in their heads while writing about this month’s topic, but we’ll only know if we follow the links below to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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