The Jewish community has lived in Rome for 2,200 years without interruption, which makes it one of the oldest communities present outside the land of Israel. Yet I found that, though the numerous tour guides explaining the ghetto have great interest in the Jewish community, their knowledge about it seems limited, especially about practical details. The purpose of my blog is to educate travel professionals, educational and religious institutions from around the globe to learn and expand their knowledge of the people, neighborhood, synagogues, institutions, and cultural events that shape today’s thriving Jewish community of Rome.
Jewish Roma Walking Tours
Micaela is an Italian Roman Jewish woman. Her ancestors came to the Eternal City at the time of the Maccabim before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (70 CE). Interestingly, the Roman Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to when Judah the Maccabee sent embassies to Rome due to the conflict with the Greeks. This is considered the earliest record of contact between the Jews and the Roman Republic.
[caption id="attachment_32370" align="alignnone" width="1125"] Pavoncello has been captivating international audiences from all backgrounds for twenty years about the history of her people—The Jews of Rome.[/caption]
Jewish Roma Walking Tours are given by Pavoncello and her colleagues from the community. The three-hour excursion, which explains the history of the Roman Jews from antiquity to the present day includes a visit to the museum rooms, the Spanish Synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), and a walk around the former Ghetto Quarter.
During their visit participants will learn about the ancient epigraphical collection, the unique Torah textiles and fabrics, view the collection of liturgy instruments/artefacts, the current exhibition 1848-1871: The Jews of Rome between Segregation to Emancipation, the Shoah and what it was like from Roman Jews, the Libyan community present in Rome, and the history of the Cinque Scole.
The Diaspora started after the Roman conquest, particularly during the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE, and the Jews were dispersed throughout Spain and along with the Mediterranean, (Sephardic Jews) in Central and Northern Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) and in Italy, where Jewish settlements already existed. According to tradition, prayers originated in two different locations, the land of Israel and Babylon. Both traditions are based on a common formula, the Seder Rav Amram, composed in Babylon during the 9th BCE with continuous migrations. the communities scattered throughout the world set down their own autonomous minhag with variations on the main text, additional minhag, and original forms of recitation.
Judaism is both a culture and a religion. It is a way of living and examining life in accordance with the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic traditions. The Roman Italian (liturgy) minhag bnei Roma (“from the children of Rome”). Its origins are the closest to the Land of Israel, diverse prayer from other branches of Judaism, and it is recited today in Tempio Maggiore – The Great Synagogue.
From 1555 to 1870, a walled ghetto was instituted in an area near the banks of the Tiber River, which overflowed regularly. It was a walled quarter separating the city’s Jews from the Christian population, its gates opening at dawn and closing at dusk. The Jews were forced to sell their land and property. Jews were required to wear a yellow badge so that they can be recognized as they were forbidden to fraternize with Christians. Jewish physicians were prohibited from treating Christian patients, Jewish merchants were only limited to selling used objects, and the activity of money lenders was regulated to favor the development of Christian-owned banks.
The old ghetto was in the form of a rectangular trapezoid and contained two main streets running parallel to the Tiber River, it had several small streets and alleys, three piazzas, and four piazette that together occupied about one-third of the seven-acre enclosure. The houses were cramped close together and extraordinary measures had to take place in which families had to build floors on top of other floors. Living conditions for Rome’s Jews remained terribly harsh and cruel until the Ghetto was finally demolished in 1870.
The Jews forced into the Ghetto were from very different places and cultures. There were local Roman Jews decedents from before and after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem together with those who were forced into Rome from large numbers of towns in the Lazio region. There were also large numbers of Jews from Sicily, Spain, and Portugal after the expulsion order in 1492, the Inquisition.
All of these Jewish groups had different liturgies, languages, customs, and rituals, so that the beginning of the sixteenth century, there were nine to ten different Scole: Tempio, Nova, Quattro Capi, di Porta and/or Portaleone, Catalan-Aragonese, Castilian, French, German and Sicilian. The Pope mandated the use of only one building for worship and this led to the development of placing Cinque Scole (five synagogues joined by stairways and corridors) under one roof.
When discussing the experience of Roman Jewry during Nazi Occupation, it is important to learn about Jewish life in Rome from a member of the community. On July 14, 1938, under the auspices of the Ministry of Popular Culture, there were scientists who produced a document called Il fascimo e I problemi della razza – Manifesto of Race. The manifesto document was edited by Benito Mussolini himself, was inconsistent by a scientific viewpoint, and was drafted for propaganda purposes, to demonstrate that the Jewish problem was founded in biology, and was no longer only religious, psychological, or philosophical. The Italian Jewish population was forced to declare itself the “Jewish race”: a real and true census. All those who had at least one Jewish parent had to incriminate themselves. This was not just an isolated historical event, but something much bigger and more complex. It placed all people of the Jewish faith, considered as belonging to a different race, inferior and dangerous.
Pavoncello narrates on her tours the darkest and most painful day of Roman Judaism –October 16, 1943. She tells personal family stories about anti-Semitism and when the Nazis deported her great-grandmother. In addition, she also shares with participants a great day of emotion for the entire Pavoncello family, when the great-grandchildren of Nonna Emma Di Porto Pavoncello all gathered in the Garbatella district in Rome for the laying of the Stolperstein stumbling block in her memory. Never Forget!
Explanations inside the museum and synagogue complexes are only allowed from a member and/or an authorized educator from the Jewish community of Rome.
About the Writer, Brenda Lee Bohen
Brenda is a Latina and a proud Veteran of the United States Army Reserves. She holds dual citizenship in both the United States and Italy. She is a trained historic preservationist who tirelessly advocates the scholarship and history of the Jews of Rome. She has her certification in Jewish leadership and continues advanced studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Brenda is also a licensed and accredited tour guide at the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Vatican Museums.
Read more blogs from Brenda: Jewish Rome, 3 Literary Treasures of The Jewish Museum of Rome
Jewish Museum of Rome
The Italians of the Jewish Race: The anti-Semitic Laws of 1938 and the Jews of Rome (Palombi Editore, 2018)
Treasures Of The Jewish Museum Of Rome: Guide To The Museum And Its Collections by Daniela Di Castro. Arnaldo De Luca Editore, Rome 2010; reprinted 2016