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In Rome, the Jews' Proud Legacy

By John McMurtrie
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page E02

In Rome, the center of Christianity, one can hardly walk down a street, it seems, without coming across a church. But it wasn't until my fourth visit to the Italian capital that I discovered that long before any pope reigned, another religion thrived here: Judaism.

On a muggy August afternoon, I left the Vatican--crowded as usual with tourists--and after a short stroll along the Tiber River found myself in the peaceful confines of the ancient Jewish quarter, the Ghetto. At first glance, the tiny riverside neighborhood resembles many of the other sleepy, age-old districts of the Eternal City. Narrow, curving streets cut their way through blocks of crumbling ocher apartment buildings, and a stray cat or two are often the only sign of life.

A closer look, however, reveals a distinct and cohesive community. Kosher food signs hang at corners, men in skullcaps go about their daily business, and spray-painted Stars of David line alleyways.

Technically, the Ghetto ceased to exist in 1846, when its walls were torn down. But Jews continued to live in the neighborhood, keeping its name, and to this day it remains home to Europe's oldest Jewish community.

To get a sense of the history, I visited the Great Synagogue, which rises above the banks of the Tiber, opposite Tiber Island. It's a tall structure adorned with the Star of David and menorah--an unmistakable gateway to the Ghetto. Before I could enter, I had to pass by armed carabinieri and was then frisked--a legacy of a terrorist attack outside the synagogue in 1982.

The ornate, colorful synagogue may date only to 1904, but a small museum within the temple displays centuries-old manuscripts and objects of worship that document the Jews' rich Roman legacy. The history of the Jews in Rome dates to about 161 B.C. At that time, the Jewish patriot Judas Maccabaeus sent ambassadors to Rome to seek further protection against invading Syrians. Many Jewish traders then moved to Rome to take advantage of its ideal setting in the Mediterranean. They, along with freed Jewish slaves, were accorded the rights of citizens of the Roman Empire.

The Romans, meanwhile, were colonizing the Land of Israel. Jews rose up in opposition, but the Romans eventually defeated them in the Jewish War, which culminated in 70 A.D. with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. This series of events is etched in stone on Rome's Arch of Titus, which depicts Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the Temple. A stone's throw from the arch lies the Colosseum, also built, in large part, by Jewish slaves brought from Jerusalem.

The great diaspora that followed the fall of Jerusalem brought 40,000 Jews to Rome. They lived in at least 13 sinagogai, or communities, and played an important part in Roman society. But all that changed as Romans converted to Christianity and discrimination became widespread. In the early 13th century, for instance, the Catholic Church ordered Jews to wear a distinctive sign on their clothing (an eerily familiar yellow circle for men and two blue stripes for women).

Antisemitism grew to the point where, in 1556, Pope Paul IV confined all Jews to a small, poor section of the city that became closed in by high walls. Four decades earlier, the Venetians had done the same to its Jewish population, on the site of a cannon foundry, or getto. The name stuck.

In all, Jews were forced to live in the Ghetto for three centuries. It wasn't until 1870, with the unification of Italy, that Jews finally secured equal rights. But the pendulum swung back in 1938, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini instituted laws that prohibited Jews from marrying outside their religion and holding government jobs.

Over the past few decades, relations between the Italian state, the Vatican and Jews have improved. As for the Ghetto, only about 400 Jews live in the neighborhood today. But it's still a meeting point for the Jews of Rome. Even on the sleepy afternoon when I visited, it was easy to feel the history come alive.

I stopped by Zi Fenizia, where I ate some of the finest thin-crust pizza I've ever had. Hebrew lyrics were framed on a wall at the counter, as was a letter honoring the restaurant's owner as an apprentice to the master of his temple. And there was the owner, at the oven, singing and welcoming guests as he baked.

The Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Rome are on Lungotevere Cenci. Information: 011-39-6-68-40-06-61.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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