With Chanukah warming our hearts this week, Amelie Englander has written an interesting dive-in to the Jewish community of Rome, with a slightly more modern focus than the traditional Chanukah story. Enjoy your journey into the rich history of Roman Jews!
You’ve probably heard it all before in RS lessons, the whole shpiel with Antiochus – the Roman King of Israel and his active distaste for the Jewish people in Israel. Anyway, this king – being the cold-hearted Neanderthal he is - comes to the logical conclusion: ‘Since I don’t believe in Shabbat or read the Torah, why should anyone else be able to?’ And thus, he orders his guards to destroy the beloved Temple of the Jews. You can imagine what happens next, the Jews become pretty upset and the Romans become increasingly more antagonistic.
In short, the Jews win, and the Romans lose thanks to the legend Judah Maccabee. I won’t bore you with a recount of the whole Chanukah story; I want to proceed to something a little more interesting (as best as I can since my acrylics are making it very difficult to type!). The Romans weren’t all that bad, they built some extremely impressive architecture that still stands proud today such as the Baths of Caracalla (as shown below).
So, I bet you’re desperate to know what Jewish life was actually like in Ancient Rome? Well, let me tell you.
We built this city on rock and Rome!
Although Italy is typically associated with being a largely Catholic country, its capital city, Rome, is surprisingly home to the oldest Jewish population in Europe. The first Jews likely arrived as emissaries sent by Judah Maccabee in the second century B.C.E. and Jewish people have continued to live in Rome ever since. Most of the time, they were subject to adversity as Christianity established itself as the world’s dominant religion with cataclysms such as the Spanish Inquisition brutally disrupting European Jewish existence.
‘Rome wasn’t Built in a Day’ – The Ghetto Years
Approximately 2,000-3,000 Jews lived in Rome in 1555. During this period, A hefty number of said Jews had recently moved from the South of Italy (because of the impacts of the Inquisition on Spanish-ruled Sicily and Calabria, they were no longer welcome). Aggravated by the influx of Jews, whom he viewed as inferior citizens, Pope Paul IV decided to isolate the community with a walled ghetto.
The ghettoed Jews lived in extreme poverty and cramped conditions, which only grew worse as their population grew. As if that wasn’t awful enough, the land on which the Ghetto was built was seven swampy, flood-prone acres, parallel against the Tiber River – astonishingly the least desirable area in the city.
Jews were allowed to leave the Ghetto during daylight hours, but outside the Ghetto they had to wear clothing that identified their religion: yellow hats adorned with bells and a horn for men which, as you can imagine, was very degrading, and two blue stripes across the chest (the same mark forced to be worn by prostitutes) for women. Jewish men were mainly restricted to two types of work–money lending and peddling clothes. Jewish women spent countless long and hard days together making clothes, while their husbands went out during daytime. These women became proficient in fabric recycling– transforming old dresses and cloth into stunning new designs, including grand covers for the community’s Torahs.
An artist's interpretation of what the ghettos looked like can be seen in this picture.
All Jews were obligated to attend the Catholic churches that skirted the Ghetto on all sides. Some rebellious Jews silently protested by stuffing wax and bread in their ears to muffle talks in the Catholic services. To make things even more difficult, the Jews in the Ghetto were only permitted to have one synagogue – an impossibility for a diverse community that included both indigenous Roman Jews (called ‘Italkim’) and newly arrived Sephardic Jews from multiple communities in the South. To solve this predicament, the small synagogue structure secretly retained five different congregations.
The Pope assumed these conditions would convince the Jews to convert. Though there were individual Jews who converted to Christianity, the confinement in the Ghetto tended to strengthen, rather than disrupt Jewish life. The Ghetto walls allowed the Jews to practice their religion in relative safety, encouraged the development of a tight-knit community and, ironically, allowed distinct Roman Jewish culture and customs to flourish, all of which is evident in the graffiti the Jews created on the wall.
There’s no place like Rome! (Oh, the irony) – Out of the Ghetto
The Ghetto restrictions were finally abolished in 1870 when papal domination ended in Rome and Jews were at last granted full citizenship. Within three decades, the Ghetto’s cramped walls were stripped, and the area was rebuilt. This reformation included the construction of Tempio Maggiore di Roma, Rome’s most famous and Great Synagogue, completed in 1904. The transformation of the physical space was unbelievable. “When people visit the Ghetto today, they wonder why it was so bad,” said Micaela Pavoncello, who leads guided tours of the Ghetto.
Catastrophe inevitably struck in Rome once again during World War II when 2,000 of the city’s estimated 7,000 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where the vast majority were heartlessly killed. Again, in 1982, a group of Palestinian militants attacked Tempio Maggiore di Roma, killing a 2-year-old boy and severely injuring others. Despite these atrocities, however, most of the 20th and early 21st centuries have proven to be significantly kinder to Rome’s Jews.
So, there you have it! A brief insight into Rome’s unjust and horrifying treatment of the Jewish population inhabiting the city (my Appolo-gies for the awful puns about Rome!). Hopefully, you now see that Ancient Rome wasn’t just full Catholics, but it actually has the oldest Jewish community in Europe. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t ignore the monstrosities committed against Jews – despite the now grandiose appearance of the city.