Rome: A Journey into Jewish History



2016 – The Jewish museum in Rome


2016 – In the Jewish museum in Rome


2016 – In the Jewish quarter Rome

By Gideon

We’ve been to Italy many times, but never in Pompeii; a city that I’ve heard so much about – a must see tourist attraction when in Italy.

This summer, when my wife and I decided to combine the family vacation in Israel with a short stop in Italy. We decided  that this time we are visiting Pompeii, no matter what.

We also wanted to visit Rome’s Great Synagogue. We didn’t know much about it, except for the fact that it was an ancient synagogue. 

It was our last day in Italy. We were in our hotel room in Rome, getting ready for our last tourist adventure of the trip. We had choice to make: visiting Pompeii, or visiting the Great Synagogue. We’ve been planning the trip to Pompeii for a long time, however, when the moment of truth came we chose Rome’s Great Synagogue over it.  It turned out to be the right choice for us.

We spent the previous day visiting Rome’s famous tourist attractions; the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican city. We joined thousands of tourists, who walked through a maze of crowded corridors, filled with enormous art treasures, hanging on walls and painted on golden ceilings. We found ourselves squeezed together with a huge crowd of tourists from all over the world in the Sistine Chapel, looking up at the amazing Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam” painted on the ceiling, while loud rude ushers told visitors not to take pictures.

Somewhere in the crowd next me stood a mother and her daughter. They spoke to each other in Hebrew. I said hello, happy to meet other Jews in a place I did not expect to see. The daughter replied with smile, then the human swarm carried us to the huge St. Peter’s Basilica, through an underground floor full with deceased Catholic popes. As big and impressive St. Peter’s Basilica is, I couldn’t relate to it. I made my way to the exit. It was one of the few places where I didn’t want my picture taken.

There couldn‘t have been a sharper contrast between the visit to the Vatican City the day before and the visit to the Great Synagogue:

We arrived around 11:00 am: There was no line at the entrance. Only few people inside the museum. Most of them spoke Hebrew, the majority were Israeli tourists. The intimate environment, and the warm reception made us feel at home immediately. The beautiful ancient Jewish artifacts, and Jewish decorations on display, were exactly what we needed to regain our Jewish balance after the visit to the Vatican.

For this reason alone, choosing the Great Synagogue over Pompeii was the right choice for us. However, visiting the museum and touring the synagogue was much more than that. It opened a window to the rich and turbulent history of the Jewish Roman community:

The symbolism of the lone synagogue surrounded by hundreds of churches couldn’t be missed: The story of its  survival for over two thousands years, at the center of the Christian-Catholic world, during periods of discrimination and prosecution, is pretty much the story of the Jewish people wherever they were. A unique, unyielding, unapologetic, respected house of prayers proud in its tradition, history, and religion.

One of the many paradoxes of the Christian-Jewish history is that at the center of the Christian world, Rome, Jews were treated relatively better by their Christian neighbors, than other Jews were treated throughout the Christian Empire:

  • During the Inquisition and the Spanish Expulsion, Jews fled Southern Italy, which was part of Spain, to Rome and northern Italy, which were ruled by the Vatican. While Jewish life in Spain ceased to exist, Rome’s Jewish population doubled. 
  • Most Roman Jews survived the Holocaust. They were sheltered by their Catholic Roman neighbors, who risked their lives  to save Jews. 

Ancient Rome

Rome has the oldest uninterrupted Jewish presence outside Israel. It is a common misconception that Rome is only the city of Christianity. Jews are the most authentic Roman citizens and in Rome there are more Jewish sites than one could ever imagine. Roman Jews have even preserved their own dialect the Giudeo-romanesco with its 16th century dialectical forms and a free use of “romanized” Hebrew words.

The Jewish community of Rome was established by a  diplomatic envoy from Israel. It was sent to Rome by Judah Maccabee in the second century BCE to establish an alliance with the Roman Republic. At that time, many Jews came to Rome from Judea. Their numbers increased during the following centuries due to the settlement that came with Mediterranean trade. Jews also settled in Naples and in various localities in the southern part of the peninsula. It was not until the Jewish revolts in 132 CE, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, that the Jewish-Roman alliance was broken and the Jews were forced into slavery. Approximately 10,000 Jews were transported as slaves to Rome to help build the Coliseum. This image of history remains frozen in time for all to see in the ’Arch of Titus,’ where the Roman victory over the Jews is etched in stone.

Although enslaved, the Jewish population in Rome flourished. Thirteen synagogues and numerous Jewish cemeteries were built. Many Jewish communities were established in southern and northern cities in Italy as well, such as Taranto, Ferrara and Milan. Nevertheless, many Romans despised the Jews and considered their rituals to be barbaric.

The Romans favored the Jews because they were well-networked throughout the empire, they didn’t push their religion on others, and most important, they paid their taxes. The religion of the Jews was monotheistic in contrast to the polytheism of the Romans. The Romans tended towards syncretism, seeing the same gods under different names in different places of the Empire. This being so, they were generally tolerant and accommodating towards new deities and the religious experiences of other peoples who formed part of their wider Empire. This general tolerance was not extended to religions that were hostile to the state nor any that claimed exclusive rights to religious beliefs and practice. In the first cen. BC the synagogues were viewed as collegia (associations) by the Roman authorities.  Sometimes the collegia were under suspicion, especially the political clubs.  At times they were prohibited or watched very closely because they were seen as a danger to the state.  In 56 BC, for example, the Roman senate dissolved the political clubs. Sometime between 49 and 44 B.C.E. Julius Caesar prohibited all collegia empire-wide except the most ancient ones; one exception was Judaism, and this exception appears to have been empire-wide.

Julius Caesar and Augustus supported laws that allowed Jews protection to worship as they chose. Not until the second half of the 2nd cen BC did Rome develop a body of laws dealing with the Jews.  In the 50 yrs between Caesar and Augustus several laws were passed that were aimed at protecting the Jewish practice of religion.  These were passed not so much because the Roman magistrates were concerned about the Jewish people, but because the Jews themselves asked for such considerations.  They decreed that Jews might gather freely in thiasoi, observe the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, send money to the temple in Jerusalem, and enjoy autonomy in their communal affairs.  Jews were also absolved from compulsory enrollment in the Roman military. Synagogues were classified as colleges to get around Roman laws banning secret societies and the temples were allowed to collect the yearly tax paid by all Jewish men for temple maintenance. There had been upsets: Jews had been banished from Rome in 139 BC, again in 19 AD and during the reign of Claudius. However, they were soon allowed to return and continue their independent existence under Roman law.

Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish leader, philosopher and scholar in the first century. Born in 30 BC to a wealthy Jewish family in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, he was an important spokesman for Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Under the Emperor Augustus, Jews in Rome were allowed to live together and were treated fairly. Philo wrote that they could practice their religion and received the same help as any other Roman. But Augustus died, and within decades the situation was very different. In 39 AD, when Caligula was emperor, religious intolerance erupted in Alexandria. Non-Jews had placed statues of human gods in the city’s synagogues. Furious at this desecration, the Jews tore them out and violence erupted. Philo writes of how mobs of men killed Jews and set fire to Jewish properties. Only emperors could resolve situations this big and, unfortunately, Caligula didn’t care. A group of Jewish leaders, including Philo, left Alexandria for Rome to see the emperor and make their case. However, Philo wrote that he knew the trip was pointless as soon as they entered Caligula’s presence. Caligula did not give them a warm welcome. He mocked the Jews and their beliefs to the point where the Jewish leaders thought they would be executed. In fact, they escaped, only to find out that Caligula had ordered a statue that portrayed himself as a god. He planned to put it up in the temple at Jerusalem.  The temple was the most sacred place for Jews: a statue of Caligula placed there was a sin against the Jewish faith and was bound to cause more riots. Philo wrote that the Jewish elders swore to die on the spot rather than see their temple defiled. Luckily, this sacrifice was not needed. Before the statue was even built, Caligula had been murdered and a new emperor, Claudius, was in power. Philo continued to speak for the Jewish people. He told senior Romans of his experiences and published his complaints against the Roman treatment of Jews in Alexandria. Later in life, his work combining Greek and Jewish philosophy would prove a major influence on Jewish and Christian religious studies.

Jews in Christan-Chatolic Rome

Jewish life in Rome was not without its challenges. Jews faced partial expulsion by both emperors and popes, were compelled to pay tithes, and, in the middle ages, were forced to wear badges identifying their Jewish status. Despite alternating waves of acceptance, oppression, and persecution, Rome’s Jews successfully preserved their communal identity and their own customs. Their presence secured, Rome’s Jews had become very much a part of Italian society.

Over time, the Christian church and faith grew more organized. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity: 10 years later, it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

There are references to 13 different synagogues in Rome dating mostly from the 2nd to 3rd cen BC.  The earliest appears to have been called the Synagogue of the Hebrews.  Others are named after Roman officials who evidently helped the Jews (Augustus, Agrippa), other prominent individuals (Volumnius), neighborhoods in Rome (Campus Martius, Subura, Calcaria).  This gives ample evidence of Jewish presence in Rome and that there were several synagogues in Rome during the time of the birth of Christianity.  It is more than likely that Christianity had its beginning  in the synagogues of Rome as it had in so many other cities around the Mediterranean world.  

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the status of Jews declined. As Christianity enveloped Rome, the state denied Jews their full rights as citizens, and once the pope became literally the king of Rome, the Church enforced laws that limited the spread of the Jewish faith (such as no proselytizing, no new synagogues, no intermarriage). The severity of these laws varied from pope to pope. Through most of the Middle Ages, the standing of Rome’s Jews fluctuated, but for the most part they prospered and were often held in high regard as physicians, businessmen, and confidants of popes. The community in Trastevere was even allowed to spill across to the opposite bank of the Tiber.

After the fall of the Roman Empire (circa 476 CE), the state of Jewish life depended on which invading army or power gained the upper hand. The Ostrogoths (493-553 CE) and Lombards (568-774 CE) treated Jews better, while they later suffered much oppression under Byzantine rule. As the Church gained more power, tolerance for the Jew swayed back and forth : Charlemagne (Charles the Great, Emperor of the Romans, 800-814 CE) defended the civil and commercial rights for Jews which gave them relative tranquility for about two centuries. Later, Ottoman Empire rulers let the Jews live peacefully as well.

After 1000 CE, conditions became more uncertain for the Jews due to the establishment of feudal systems and artisan guilds. Jews were barred from all guilds and were allowed only two positions, that of money lending and selling used clothing. However, their occupation as money lenders helped them to survive and eventually own property, and many feudal lords were kind to their money lenders and protected them from harm.

Benjamin of Tudela’s travels in Italy chronicle Jewish life in the peninsula in the middle of the 12th century. His journals indicate that most Jews lived in southern Italy, especially in Palermo, numbering more than 8,000 out of a total population of 100,000. They excelled in the production and dying of silk. During the same period, Jews also left behind traces of their literary achievements, boasting poets such as Shabtai ben Moses of Rome and his son Jehiel Kalonymos, regarded as a Talmudic authority even beyond Italy.

In Italian provinces under Aragon rule, such as Sicily and Sardinia, Jews generally lived peacefully until 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to expel all Jews from the Spanish Kingdom. Many fled to northern Italian cities between the years 1492-1541. Over 37,000 Jews left Sicily, never to return. Most headed for Rome and Milan, while many others settled in Ancona, Venice and Livorno, where conditions for Jews were more favorable. Rome’s Jewish population doubled, swelling with refugees.

By the second half of the 16th century Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) instituted a Papal Bull decreeing that all Jews were to be enclosed in ghettos and wear a ’contrassegno’ (identification), and that each community could have only one synagogue. All civil and commercial rights for Italy’s Jews were revoked as well. Although similar rules had been instituted in 1215, this was the first time these laws were regulated. Many Jews decided to flee the Papal State and go to other states where these rules did not exist. By the 1500s, the Catholic Counter-Reformation — begun to combat rising Protestantism — turned its attention to anything deemed a “heresy” or simply not Catholic, including Judaism.

In 1516, the world’s first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice.  In 1555, Pope Paul IV forcibly moved all of Rome’s Jews into the undesirable flood zone inside a bend of the Tiber River, creating a ghetto of some 4,000 Jews packed into a miserable seven acres of mucky land. There they lived — in cramped conditions, behind a wall, with a curfew — for three centuries. Ironically, although overcrowded and dirty, the study of Torah and Talmud flourished between their walls, resulting in the growth and enrichment, rather than the destruction, of Jewish religion and culture. They could go out by day, but had to return before the gates were locked at night. Jews were forced to wear yellow scarves and caps, and were prohibited from owning property or holding good jobs. During Carnevale (Mardi Gras), they were forced to parade down Via del Corso while Christians lined the streets and shouted insults. Through this long stretch of oppression, the synagogue was the only place Jews could feel respected and dignified. It’s no wonder such loving attention was given to the Jewish tools of worship.

Modern Times

With the arrival of Napoleon and the French army in 1797, the doors of the ghetto were torn down and the Jews were granted equal rights and treated as first-class citizens. However in 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon – considered to be a ’savior’ by most Jews – the Jews were thrown back into the ghettos and once again their rights were repealed.

This era of persecution did not last long, as the Italian revolution of 1848 unified the Italian states under the House of Savoy and the new government granted the Jews full civil and political equality, without religious distinction. The establishment at the end of the 19th century of the united secular Italian State led to a liberal, non sectarian society. After Italian unification in 1870, when a secular government replaced the religious rule of the Vatican, the ghetto’s inhabitants were granted full rights and citizenship. When Rome became the country’s capital, the city — ashamed of its shoddy Jewish quarter — destroyed the old ghetto and modernized the district, giving it the street plan we see today.

The present Tempio Maggiore – the new “Great Synagogue” was constructed shortly after the unification of Italy in 1870, when the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and the Papal States ceased to exist. The Roman Ghetto was demolished and the Jews were granted citizenship. The building which had previously housed the ghetto synagogue (a complicated structure housing five scolas (the Italian-Jewish term for synagogues) in a single building was demolished, and the Jewish community began making plans for a new and impressive building.The five scole reflected the different Jewish rites cohabiting in Rome‚s Ghetto, which, following Italian unification, King Victor Emmanuel II dismantled while giving the Jews full citizenship. Within a single building, three of the synagogues had practiced the Italian rite (Scola del Tempio, Scola Nuova, and Scola Siciliana), and two, the Spanish rite (Scola Catalana and Scola Castigliana). Following a three-year period of construction, the new building was completed in 1904. After more than a century of service to the Jewish citizens of Rome, it retains an esteemed reputation among Rome’s many famous architectural projects.

Designed by Italian architects Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni, Tempio Maggiore – the new “Great Synagogue” – reflects an eclectic combination of the Italian style and Assyrian-Babylonian motifs so as not to mimic Christian churches. The former “five scole” were replaced by this large Great Temple, retaining the Italian rite, and, beneath, a smaller synagogue retaining the Spanish rite.

The Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue) is both massive and decorative. The impressive marble-lined interior, viewed with a full upward gaze, is awe-inspiring. In a city famous for its round domes, the building is topped by a unique square dome, the only such dome in all of Rome. This visual distinction makes Rome’s main synagogue easily identifiable from many viewpoints throughout Italy’s capital.

The Great Synagogue was attacked on 9 October 1982 by armed Palestinian militants at the close of the morning Sabbath service. One person, a toddler, was killed.

By the early twentieth century, not only did a Jew, Luigi Luzzatti, briefly emerge as the prime minister of Italy (1910-1911), but another Jewish politician, Ernesto Nathan, served as mayor of Rome (1907-1913).

Although the integration of Jews into Italian society was nearly complete by 1922, Mussolini’s Fascist Movement rose to power at the same time. At the beginning, many Jews supported them. However, in 1929 Mussolini passed the racist Falco Laws, contradicting the freedom of religion sanctioned by the Italian Constitution. In 1938 he declared the Italians to be part of the ’pure race,’ along with the Aryans. Jews were expelled from all public services and schools and many decided to leave Italy in hope of building better lives. In 1931, there were 48,000 Jews in Italy. By 1939 nearly 4,000 Jews had been baptized and thousands more chose to emigrate, leaving approximately 35,000 Jews in the country.  Even though Mussolini wasn’t rabidly anti-Semitic, he instituted a slew of anti-Jewish laws as he allied himself more strongly with Hitler. When Mussolini was deposed and the Nazis occupied Rome late in the war, the ghetto community was suddenly in even greater danger. Of the 13,000 ghetto dwellers, 2,000 were sent off to concentration camps. Only a handful came back. The Roman Catholic Church – through lobbying of Axis officials, provision of false documents, and hiding of people in monasteries, convents, schools, among families and the institutions of the Vatican itself – saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from being murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1943, Nazi forces invaded and occupied much of the country, and began deportations of Jews to extermination camps. Several thousand Jews found refuge in Catholic networks, institutions and homes across Italy. The Germans occupied much of the country, commencing an effort to deport the nation’s Jews.  Two thousand Roman Jews, even after raising the gold ransom demanded by the Nazis, were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz in October, 1943.

Over the twenty-two hundred years of existence, the Jewish Roman community absorbed Ashkenazi and Sephardic immigration waves, however, it was established before the Diaspora. Roman Jews are neither Ashkenazi (all east European Jews), nor Sephardi (all eastern and African Jews). They are an autonomic community in the Jewish world and have their own tropes called “Nusach Italki” .This is a small, proud community who call themselves Romanium Jews to honor their distinctive and long background with its own traditions.

The history of the Jewish community of ancient Rome is known from several classical, Latin and Greek sources. Some additional information on cult practices can be found in the Talmud. The inscriptions found in the catacombs are valuable sources of information on the synagogues.

The Jewish community of Rome was as diverse as it was ancient. Jewish followers of the Italian rite (Italki) were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from northern Italy, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Jews from medieval France, and, more recently, Jews from Iran and Libya. Indeed, throughout the course of Roman- Jewish history, the Jewish community was varied, with each community – whether Italian, Spanish, or even German – maintaining some cultural independence through the establishment of a separate synagogue for their members.

However, the religious rites and minhagim (customs) of the original Roman-Jewish community remain a strong feature of Roman-Jewish life that has persisted over the more than two-thousand-year presence of the Jews in Rome.

Today, Rome has a Jewish population of about 15,000 people served by about a dozen Ashkenazi and Sephardic Orthodox synagogues. However, none is more ornate, nor as large, as Tempio Maggiore di Roma – Rome’s Great Synagogue˜whose liturgy reflects the Orthodox Italki rite, as practiced by Italian Jews since early Roman times.

Pope John Paul II, in 1986, visited the Jewish people at Rome’s Great Synagogue. Although living side by side in the same city for two thousand years, this was the first time that a Pope visited the chief Rabbi at the great synagogue. Pope Benedict XVI visited the Great Synagogue in January 2010. Pope Francis visits Rome’s Great synagogue in 2016. Their visits mark a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relationships.

The Great Synagogue – overlooking the Tiber River, situated between Via Catalana and Lungotevere de’Cenci – is adjacent to Rome’s historic Jewish Ghetto. Walking along Via del Portico d’Ottavia, one of the Ghetto’s main streets, the contemporary tourist is transported back to an earlier time.

Surrounded by old neighborhood buildings, one gets a feel for what daily life might have been like within the former Ghetto. Today, this street, among others in the Ghetto (as the neighborhood is still known), is filled with locals and tourists alike. It is a fascinating area in which to stroll, filled with several kosher restaurants, bakeries, and Jewish shops.



The great Synagogue of Rome


2016 – The Jewish museum in Rome


2016 – The Jewish museum in Rome


2016 – In a kosher restaurant in the Jewish quarter in Rome