What’s even older than Italy’s Christian heritage? That’s right, its Jewish heritage. The reasons for this are complex, but the Jewish presence in Italy predates even the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Most of the Jews who lived in ancient Rome during the Roman Republican period actually spoke Greek. Emperor Augustus didn’t have a great grasp of Jewish customs and traditions, but Julius Caesar by contrast maintained very good relations with the Jews of Rome. Of course, many Jews arrived as slaves following Roman conquests in the area known as the Holy Land.
And the Jews were not just confined to Rome. Sicily as well as Calabria and Puglia have some of the most ancient Jewish heritage in the world. The Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1493, but even today in the heart of Siracusa, you can visit the ruins of an ancient mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath.
Today, the most famous of the former Jewish ghettos in Italy are in Rome and Venice. Life was never all fun and games (at least, not for the Jews) in these cramped, enclosed quarters. It’s hard to get a sense today of just how hard it was, but if you have the time it’s worth a wander around the rione Sant’Angelo where Roman Jews lived in the Middle Ages: the Serraglio delli Ebrei, or Jewish Enclosure. This area is near the marvelous ruin of the Porticus Octaviae, near the Tiber. Some restaurants here still serve the ancient Roman Jewish specialty of fried artichokes (carciofi all giudia), and they are really, really good. The Synagogue of Rome is also located here.
The Great Synagogue of Florence, completed in 1882, is a beautiful structure that integrates many Mediterranean architectural elements. Florence’s Jewish community is very small but has ancient roots not just in the medieval era but also from ancient Roman times, when Jews lived in the Oltrarno quarter south of the Arno.
Perhaps the most famous Jewish community of all in Italy, and certainly in Europe prior to World War II, was that of Venice. If we have Shakespeare to thank for preserving some of the flavor of Venice’s Jewish ghetto in The Merchant of Venice, more debt is owed to the Venetian Republic itself, and the special relationship that the city’s elites maintained with the Jews. According to the Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia, “when on March 29th, 1516 the Government of the Serenissima Repubblica issued special laws, the first Ghetto of Europe was instituted. It was an area where Jews were forced to live and which they could not leave from sunset to dawn. The area was closed by gates watched by guards and up till now the marks of the hinges are visible there. Jews were allowed to practice only some professions: they were doctors, because they were the most prepared and able to understand Arab writings, money lenders, because Catholic religion forbade this practice, merchants and strazzarioli, or ragsellers. The Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries, until Napoleon conquered Venice and finally opened and eliminated every gate in 1797.”
Today it’s possible to visit the five ancient synagogues of the Venice ghetto, as well as a fine museum, all in the Cannaregio sestiere (district) of the city. Jews also had a presence in Verona, notably in the San Sebastiano quarter, though no trace of the synagogue they built in the Vicolo dei Crocioni exists today. A community of some 600 Jews still remains in Verona. And in Trieste, home of one Italy’s most amazing piazzas and birthplace of Jewish Italian author Italo Svevo, a Jewish community was founded as early as 1236. The Great Synagogue of Trieste serves about 600 Triestino Jews today.