For Jews, the ‘hidden’ history of Rome is as compelling as any of its world-famous ruins or artistic splendors. My husband Don and I discovered this truth during our weeklong stay in Roma this past May. The majestic remains of the ancient Colosseum; the Biblical stories given life on the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel; the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa captured in marble inside a smaller church where people still worship daily—all were remarkable to see and experience in person. Yet we found another area, not listed on most tourist maps, equally fascinating and even more moving. Roughly the size of four square city blocks, this riverside neighborhood was once Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.
There, from 1555 until 1870 C.E., between 2,000 and 9,000 Jews were forced to live in cramped, unhealthy conditions. Anti-Semitic popes declared that all Roman Jews had to reside within the borders of this fever-ridden, damp area by the Tiber River. As the population increased over the centuries, inhabitants could only build upwards, not out. New storeys piled atop houses and sometimes blocked all sunlight from the narrow, twisting streets. Many of those houses and cobblestone streets still exist today.
Jews could leave the Ghetto during daylight hours, but they had to wear yellow caps or scarves that marked their religion. Often, this brought scorn and violence from jeering Christians. And, whether leaving the Ghetto to eke out a living or hurrying back at nightfall, Jews always had to face one of the churches that had been built directly in front of each of the Ghetto’s three gateway entrances. Don and I gasped with dismay when we saw the door of one remaining church, with an inscription above it in both Hebrew and Latin misusing one of the prophet Isaiah’s Biblical announcements. In stony words, Christian officials told Jews that God and the Church had “stretched out [its] hands to a disobedient and fallen nation that has lost its way.” Jews saw this exhortation to convert every time they stepped out of the Ghetto.
Our companions also murmured uncomfortably at this sight. Fifteen of us—including Jews from Mexico, Uruguay, and Australia, as well as the United States–were on an hour-long walking tour of the former “seraglio delli Ebrai” (enclosure of the Jews). This tour is offered once daily, except Saturdays, and begins at the area’s small Jewish Museum. Our English-speaking guide, Daniel, a Roman Jew in his early 30s, proudly pointed out his community’s achievements, including the Great Synagogue it had erected in 1904. The “Tempo Maggiore di Roma” was designed with bold pride; in this city of churches, the Synagogue is the only house of worship with a squared dome. Daniel was also eager to explain the long history and strengths of the “Romanim,” Rome’s Jews.
The Ghetto is just a middle chapter in this history. Jews inhabited Rome well before the time of Christ. In 161 B.C.E., representatives of Judah Maccabee travelled to the ancient capital. Traders followed, and a small but prosperous Jewish community soon flourished in Rome. Members of this community helped Jews who arrived in Rome in 70 C.E. under much different circumstances. That is when Titus Vespasian, soon to be Emperor, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, returning triumphantly with Jewish slaves and sacred objects stolen from the Temple. Don and I had seen in the Roman Forum the huge stone arch that commemorates Titus’s victory, with engravings of chained slaves being herded along and a looted menorah. We were surprised and happy to learn that Roman Jews of that time ransomed as many of these enslaved Jews as they could. The Romanim then helped these Judeans resettle as free members of the Jewish community.
Our guide also spoke about how this sense of community survived despite the many limitations imposed during the Ghetto years. We listened to one tale as we stood on the site of the former Piazza delle Cinque Scole (Square of the Five Synagogues). Papal law had prohibited erecting more than one synagogue in any Italian city. Yet Rome’s Jewish Ghetto contained five different congregations, each with its own traditions: the original Romanim, Middle Eastern Jews, Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 C.E., Jews from southern Italy, and some Ashkenazic Jews. They all outwitted Papal law by housing their five congregations, with separate services, inside one large building! Similarly, Jews in the Ghetto sat through the Christian sermons they were required to attend with wax or wadded up bread stuffed in their ears.
Today about 16,000 Jews live in Rome, many attending one of the fourteen synagogues scattered throughout the city. These Romanim also live in all parts of Rome, though some return to the old Ghetto each October 16 to mark a somber anniversary—the day in 1943 when 1,000 Roman Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Seeing a wall plaque marking that event, I was for a moment transfixed by historical horror heaped upon horror. A slipstream into terror. Five copper plaques with individual deportees’ names, embedded in the sidewalk, seared this moment into my memory.
But the Roman Ghetto’s deepest lessons are ones of resiliency and survival. This is evident in many different ways. Some are as big and obvious as the Great Temple or the nearby Jewish day school, with its 600 students. Other signs of Jewish strength are more subtle. After the tour, Don and I stopped at one of the neighborhood’s kosher restaurants to savor a Roman delicacy: carciofi alla giudia (artichokes Jewish-style). These beautifully fried treats are well-known and popular throughout Rome, a standard menu item, but everyone knows the best ones are found in the former Ghetto.