Italy: Two millennia of Jewish history

How history hides in plain sight

Italy  image

Traveling abroad as open and proud Jews may seem a risky proposition these days, given the dramatic uptick of anti-Jewish sentiment worldwide. Yet my husband, Arnold, and I found our Jewish heritage trip to Italy, embarked upon weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel, entirely safe and devoid of antisemitism. 

We were part of a group of approximately two dozen members and friends of Temple Sinai Atlanta, whose Jewish Italy trip had been arranged by a company specializing in Jewish heritage excursions. While we enjoyed all the must-see sites for first-time tourists to Italy, we savored those portions focusing on the Jewish experience. 

Rome 
 
In Rome, the docent guiding us through the Great Synagogue of Rome, the adjacent Jewish museum, and Jewish Ghetto noted, "There are Ashkenazic Jews, there are Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, and there are Roman Jews." Why did she say this? Because, she explained, Jews have been part of the fabric of life in Rome since before the Christian Era, making it the oldest continuous Jewish settlement in Europe.  

Initially, Jews came to Rome as emissaries to Judah Maccabee, with other delegations soon following. When the Romans invaded Judea in 63 B.C.E., they brought Jews as slaves to Rome. Before their freedom was purchased-by fellow Jews-they were put to work erecting some of the Roman Empire's architectural triumphs, including the Colosseum! Evidence of early Jewish existence in Rome can be found at the Jewish catacombs, which our group had an opportunity to explore.  

The walking tour through Rome's Jewish Ghetto, established at the behest of the Pope in 1555, is one of the most fascinating and moving experiences for any Jewish traveler to Rome. We learned of Jews' limited access to professions, as well as the squalid conditions in which they were forced to live and the constant proselytization by local Church officials to which they were subjected.  

The forced ghettoization lasted for more than 300 years, but many Roman Jews continued to live in and around the Ghetto for another century, when more than 1,200 were rounded up by the Nazis during World War II and sent to their deaths.  

Before a delicious lunch at one of the Ghetto's kosher restaurants, our group met a spry Holocaust survivor, Emanuele Di Porto, 92, who shared his story of escape from the Nazi roundup. After being pushed off a deportation truck by his mother, Di Porto rode for several days on local trams, whose courageous drivers kept him hidden and fed until he could be reunited with his father. Di Porto's mother, along with more than 1,000 other Roman Jews, met a grimmer fate.  

Di Porto is one of approximately 13,000 Jews in Rome, which boasts the largest membership among the 20 cities in the Union of Jewish Italian Communities, with a total membership of around 30,000.  

Pitigliano  

En route to Florence, our group spent several hours exploring this quaint Tuscan cliffside town. Though only a handful of Jews now remain, Pitigliano had a vibrant Jewish community for almost four centuries. Thanks to the benevolence of local nobility, Jews began flocking to Pitigliano, in the late 16th century to enjoy professional and economic benefits denied to them elsewhere in the region.  

Our group toured the 1598 synagogue and walked through sites that once housed a kosher butcher, bakery, and other Jewish businesses. The goodwill of Pitigliano's residents extended through World War II. When the Nazis came to round up the 60 remaining Jews, the townspeople claimed that they did not know of their whereabouts, though they and local farmers had hidden many of them. After the war, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation recognized Pitigliano's citizens for the "values of solidarity and civic courage." 


Florence and Venice 

Our group participated in Friday night services at Florence's Great Synagogue and had a scrumptious Shabbat dinner at a nearby kosher restaurant. 

The Jewish component of our tour culminated in Venice.  Now numbering only in the hundreds, Jews once were a larger part of the Republic of Venice, which, like Rome, forced them to live in an overcrowded ghetto. Our group toured a few of the remaining synagogues, which, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, were constructed for the discrete Jewish communities that migrated to the city, including those of French, German, and Sephardic ancestries.  

As we prepared to return to the States, Arnold and I, along with our traveling companions, felt grateful for Italy's warmth and hospitality, its embracing of its rich Jewish history, and its continued support of Israel.  


 Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in New York.   



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