ROME — Visiting Rome is an emotional and exhausting experience. There is so much history, so much art… and so much traffic!
For our recent sojourn in Rome, we had prepared a rather strict schedule in order to be able to cover all the places we wanted to explore. Among the items on our list were, of course, visiting the “Sinagoga” of Rome and the old Jewish ghetto.
While doing my preparatory research, I found out that Roman Jews have special status within Italian Jewry, and also that Italian Jews hold a unique position within the Diaspora.
The Jewish community in Rome is the oldest in Italy. The first Jews arrived here in 161 BCE as ambassadors of Judah Maccabee seeking Roman protection against Antiochus IV; subsequently, many Jews chose to move to Rome, a major Mediterranean trading centre.
The first Italian Jews considered themselves different from the ones that followed, as they came to Rome before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The first Italian Jews maintained traditions that originated directly from the Temple in Jerusalem. These traditions were distinct from Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, which developed after the dispersion of the Jews from ancient Israel.
Although the traditions of the first Italian Jews are still present in Italian synagogues, the community acquired many other traditions through the immigration of Spanish Jews following the 1492 expulsion and the immigration of Jews from France, Germany, Africa and many other places.
The history of the Roman Jews echoes that of the Jews in every other location; periods of quiet and tolerance alternated with persecution and violence. During the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish area was in Trastevere (meaning across the River Tiber); the Jews were much appreciated for their financial and medical skills.
During the Middle Ages, the Jewish quarter was in the area around Ponte Fabricio, separated and isolated from the rest of the city. From 1216, the Catholic Church forced Jews to wear distinctive insignia on their clothing: a yellow circle for men and two blue strips on the shawl for women.
A major change occurred in 1555, when Pope Paul IV established the ghetto in Rome and required all Jews to live there. It was a wretched situation. The area – on the banks of the Tiber – was an unhealthy one to live in and it was constantly flooded.
The inhabitants were obliged to wear a yellow cap and were restricted to only two professions: money lending and selling used clothing. To top it all, the inhabitants of the ghetto were driven every Sunday into the Church of Sant’Angelo to listen to sermons, a practice continued until 1848. Upon the unification of Italy in 1870, the ghetto was abolished and the Jews obtained full citizenship until 1938 when the discriminatory Italian racial laws were adopted.
During World War II, most Roman Jews were deported and only 16 survived the camps. Today, there are about 16,000 Jews in Rome and nine Italian, Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues. The Sinagoga – or Great Temple – is probably the most important symbol of the emancipation of the Roman Jewry. Built by architects Costa and Armanni and inaugurated in 1904, it rises on the banks of the Tiber. It looks neither like a synagogue nor a church.
The synagogue is a solid symmetrical structure whose architecture echoes an Assyrian-Babylonian style. The building is crowned with an extraordinary four-sided gilded aluminum dome that is very visible among the many rounded domes of the cathedrals on the Roman skyline. John Paul II was the first pope ever to visit the Sinagoga in 1986, when he stepped on the bimah and sat next to Rome’s then-chief rabbi, Elio Toaff.
We took a guided tour of the synagogue and of the Jewish museum, the Museo Ebraico di Roma, also housed in the building. Passing through security, we were ushered into the main hall by our guide, Grazia, who, unfortunately, seemed to be in a hurry to get her visitors in and out. We were prohibited from taking photographs inside the museum, to prevent revealing the positions of hidden surveillance cameras. In 1982, following Simchat Torah, the synagogue was attacked by terrorists; since then, security has been reinforced by the Italian police and a large number of surveillance cameras.
I managed to steal more time in the museum than Grazia allowed us and admired the imposing Assyrian columns, the large women’s gallery with its delicate fer forgé balustrade decorated with small lamps, the graceful floral motifs in oriental style, the two antique Aronot, the rainbow-coloured interior of the high four-sided dome, and the exuberant decoration of the geometric panels of the floor.
Finally, chased out by an annoyed Grazia, we started walking through the area of the old ghetto surrounding the Sinagoga. Not much is left from the medieval streets, but some street names, such as Piazza Giudia and Piazza delle Azzimelle, recall the area’s history.
The many little trattorias in the former ghetto – some of them kosher – offer menus based on the foods of the ghetto. We managed to squeeze into Il Portico, a small, crowded trattoria redolent with enticing smells. Based on my previous culinary research, we ordered cartocio alla giudeca (artichoke Jewish style) and fiori de zucca (zucchini flowers), typical Roman Jewish delicacies. Indeed delicious!
Memories are tied to the most unexpected things. I know how I will remember my visit to the Roman Jewish area. I grow zucchini in my garden and they produce the most amazing yellow flowers. One look at the flowers and I will be back in the little trattoria in the Roman ghetto, with its narrow streets and old houses, and I’ll remember the square cupola of the Sinagoga resplendent in the sunlight.
For more information about the Synagogue of Rome and the Museo Ebraico, telephone 06 68400661 or e-mail email@example.com. Guided tours of the former ghetto start Fridays and Saturdays at 12:30 p.m.