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The Jews of Italy

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8 little-known facts about the unique community of Italian Jews.

The Jews of Italy have a long and fascinating history. Here are eight little-known facts about the unique community of Italian Jews.

1. A Hanukkah Delegation

Jews have lived in Italy since ancient times. The very first Jews in Italy were sent by Judah Maccabee, the leader of the Jews in the Hanukkah story.

In seeking allies for the Jewish fight against the evil Syrian-Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, Judah Maccabee sent a delegation to the Roman Senate, where they secured agreement for a “special relationship” between the Jews of Israel and the emerging Roman empire – and established the first Jewish settlement in Italy, in the 2nd Century BCE.

2. Jewish Slavery

One of the Roman Empire’s most bloody wars was the “Jewish War” in which Jews in Israel rose up against Roman power – and were crushed. Roman forces destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and massacred many of Jerusalem’s Jews in 70 CE, and the final Jewish resistance was overcome at Masada four years later.

The Arch of Titus

3. The Arch of Titus

Between these two Roman victories over the Jews, 10,000 Jewish captives were transported to Rome as slaves, where they helped to build the Coliseum. This massive shipment of Jewish slaves was commemorated in 71 CE, when the Arch of Titus was erected in Rome to commemorate the victory of Titus and the Roman leader Vespasian over the Jews.

The Jews built over a dozen synagogues and many Jewish cemeteries and established vibrant Jewish communities in other Italian cities such as Ferrara, Milan and Taranto. Today, Italian Jews have their own unique prayer traditions – neither Ashkenazi (European) nor Sephardi (Spanish or Middle Eastern).

4. Sicily’s Culinary Roots

Some of the most iconic Italian foods have origins in the Jewish communities of Italy.

For nearly two thousand years, the most vibrant Jewish communities in Italy were found on the island of Sicily. Jewish merchants first moved there in ancient times when the island was a busy trade hub linking the Roman Empire with the Middle East and flourished throughout the island. Tour guide writer Annie Sacerdoti records that at one time “no Sicilian city or town was without a Jewish family or group….”

Jewish cookbook writer Claudia Roden has traced many iconic Italian foods to these Sicilian Jews, and vividly describes their cosmopolitan lifestyle: “They grew oranges, produced silk, and mined minerals, were cheese-makers and artisans, cloth merchants and doctors. They were among the colonies of the Diaspora that had the richest culture and traditions, being at the heart of the Mediterranean traffic and benefiting from the cultural and economic impact of foreign occupiers, including Arabs, Normans, Angevins, and Aragonese.”

In 1492, Sicily was under the influence of King Ferdinand of Spain, who included the island when he decreed that all Jews leave his lands – or face death. (Just 23 years earlier, the king had Sicilian Jewish dancers entertain him at his wedding to Isabella of Castille. But this favored status didn’t protect the Jews from the Inquisition.) Over 35,000 Jews fled Sicily in 1492, about 5% of the island’s population. The decree was a death sentence even to many of the Jews who chose to flee: many, boarding Calabrian ships, were robbed and murdered by the crews.

Those who did manage to make it to safety on mainland Italy brought their rich culinary traditions with them, ensuring the spread of foods that soon became iconic Italian staples. Among the ingredients that Sicily’s Jews helped popularize in Italy include eggplants, artichokes, the classic Italian garnish combination of raisins and pine nuts, sweet-and-sour flavorings, marzipan, and the practice of deep-frying small pieces of food in oil. Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain for mainland Italy also helped popularize two New World foods they’d encountered in Spain’s new colonies – tomatoes and pumpkin – which quickly caught on and became Italian favorites.

Here is the recipe that uses some of these distinctive flavors: the classic Jewish-Italian dish spinach with pine nuts and raisins:

Spinach with Pine Nuts and Raisins

Spinach with Pine Nuts and Raisins

From Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen

  • 2 1/2 pounds spinach
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 small yellow onions or 6 green onions, minced
  • 4 tablespoons raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Rinse the spinach well and remove the stems. Place in a large sauté pan with only the rinsing water clinging tso the leaves. Cook over medium heat, turning as needed until wilted, just a few minutes. Drain well and set aside.

2. Add the olive oil to the now-empty pan and place over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the spinach, raisins, and pine nuts and sauté briefly to warm through. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.

Pasta Salad

Pasta salad, another iconic Italian dish, has surprising origins in Italy’s Jewish community. While Jews in Italy – like all Italians – incorporate pasta into their diets, the Jewish prohibition against cooking on Shabbat led Italian Jews to prepare cold pasta salads.

“When nobody in Italy ate cold pasta, Jews were eating what is now known as pasta salad” recounts food historian Claudia Roden. In time, the practice spread throughout Italy, where cold pasta salad is now a popular dish, its Jewish origins largely unknown.

5. The Ghetto

In 1516, Venetian authorities decreed that the city’s Jews – then numbering about 700 – be confined to one of the islands that make up the municipality. They chose Ghetto Novo, a small island known for its unhealthy atmosphere. It was likely named after a foundry – or ghetoin Venetian dialect – that had once stood there.

Although Jews were overcrowded in the Ghetto and barred from leaving each night (their perimeter watched by guards the community itself was forced to pay for), Jewish life in the Ghetto flourished. The community was a polyglot, with Jews from Spain, Italy, Germany and North Africa building their own lavish synagogues hidden within ordinary-looking exteriors. Jews flocked to the Ghetto from throughout Europe, eventually swelling the population of the tiny island (and later a second island next door that was granted the Jews for expansion). By the 1600s, up to 5,000 Jews called the Ghetto home. Buildings were expanded ever-upwards, making the first “high-rises” in Europe, reaching several stories.

Venice Jewish Ghetto

Venice Jewish Ghetto

Non-Jews enjoyed visiting the lively Ghetto to do their shopping and enjoy cultural opportunities. The annual Purim plays held in the Ghetto drew visitors from throughout Venice and beyond.

Soon, Ghettos – quarters where Jews were confined – sprung up in other cities in Italy and beyond. Jewish Ghettos were established in Rome in 1555, in Florence in 1570, in Padua in 1603, and in Carpi in 1716. Perhaps the most unusual reaction to a decree establishing a Ghetto occurred in Verona in 1600: the creation of the Jewish Ghetto there followed months of threats that the Ghetto would be under-served by houses and shops. By the time it was established – with adequate room for living and commercial activity – the Jews celebrated its inauguration with singing and dancing.

In 1797, Napoleon’s troops pulled down the gates of Venice’s Ghetto, symbolizing the end to restrictions on where Jews could live and the beginning of Jewish emancipation. Jews remained in the historic Ghetto districts for many years later, however, and some historic Ghettos – such as Venice and Rome – continue to be home to Jewish life to this day.

6. Literary Revolution & Burning the Talmud

Renaissance Italy is known for its flourishing culture. In the Jewish world, another “renaissance” was under way too. In the 1500s, Italy became the world’s center of Jewish book publishing, spreading Jewish knowledge and literacy as never before.

Soon after the invention of movable characters in printing presses in Germany in the 1440s, printing arrived in Italy – and was embraced by Jews. Traditionally, Jewish books – like all literary works at the time – were laboriously hand-written. Now, they could be printed by the score quickly and relatively cheaply.

Literary Revolution & Burning the Talmud

Jewish printers stated making Hebrew books in Reggio Calabria, Padua, Ferrara, Bologna and Rome in the 1470s. The city most closely identified with Hebrew printing, however, was Venice, where 800 Hebrew books were printed during the 16th Century. (By contrast, Krakow – also a major center of Jewish learning at the time – printed 200 Jewish books during this period.)

In 1545, disaster struck in Venice. Two Jewish printers quarreled over who had the rights to print a book by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides – and the Grand Inquisitor of the city, Carafa (the future Pope Paul IV) decided to get involved. The Grand Inquisitor set up a trial to judge Hebrew books, particularly, the Talmud. He ruled that the Talmud was blasphemous. In 1553, Pope Julius III ordered the destruction of the Talmud – as well as any Hebrew book that was “difficult to understand”. Soon, Hebrew books were being burned in squares in Rome, Bologna, Venice, Ancona, Ferrara, Ravenna, and Mantua. 10,000 Hebrew books were burned in just one year, 1559, in the Italian town of Cremona.

Italian Jewish publishing never recovered its preeminence. The Talmud continued to be banned in Italy well into the modern age by a series of papal bulls.

7. The Case of Edgardo Mortara

On June 23, 1858, Papal military police knocked at the door of the Mortaras, a Jewish family in Bologne. They were sent by a Catholic Inquisitor who claimed he was enforcing a law forbidding Jews from raising Catholic children. The military police told the stunned family that Edgardo, the Mortaras’ six year old son, was in fact Catholic, secretly baptized when he was a baby by his Catholic nanny.

As Edgardo and his mother sobbed and clung to each other, soldiers tore him away and brought him to Rome, where Edgardo was raised in the House of Catechumens, an institution for new converts to Catholicism. Pope Pius IX took a particular interest in Edgardo, and became a father-figure to the young boy.

When his parents later were allowed to visit him briefly, with guards watching their every move, Edgardo managed to tell his mother that he still said the Jewish Shema prayer every night.

His intense Catholic education eventually swayed Edwardo, and at the age of 13 he changed his name to Pio in honor of the Pope and eventually became a priest.

Edgardo Mortaras’ kidnapping had a galvanizing effect on politics in Italy and beyond and became a cause celebre, turning public opinion against the iron rule of the Vatican in Italy, and swaying opinion in favor of Italian nationalism.

8. A Shrinking Community

Italy’s Jewish community was devastated by the Holocaust. Between eight and nine thousand Italian Jews were deported to death camps and murdered. That death toll might have been higher were it not for many ordinary Italians who risked their lives to hide Jews. A higher percentage of Italy’s Jews were saved than any other European country except Denmark.

After World War Two, Italy’s Jewish community numbered about 40,000. In the post-War period, some Italian Jews have achieved remarkable success, out of all proportion to their small numbers. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Jewish female chemist won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Other prominent Italian Jews include Primo Levi, one of Italy’s most famous authors; the painter and writer Carlo Levi; and a host of prominent Italian journalists, including the founder of the group that owns the newspapers La Repubblica and L’Espresso, Carlo De Benedetti.

Today the community is shrinking. Many Italian Jews cite high levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling as motivators to leave. Jewish buildings have been heavily guarded in Italy since 1982, when Palestinian terrorists threw bombs into Rome’s Great Synagogue and sprayed Shabbat worshippers inside with bullets, killing a two year old boy and wounding 34 congregants.

A 2015 study found that 63% of Italian Jews believe anti-Semitism to be either a “very big” or “a fairly big” problem; 68% report they feel-Semitism is increasing. Only 1% of Italian Jews describe anti-Semitism as not being a problem. Self-defense groups have sprung up in Roma and other cities to help combat anti-Semitic violence and threats. In 2014, 340 Italian Jews moved to Israel, double the figure for 2013.

About the Author

Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor. It has been praised as “life-changing”, a modern classic, and used in classes and discussion groups around the world.

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