Rome Guide
Bashanah haba - Next year (Jewish traditional song)

The Jewish Quarter or "Ghetto",
and the Roman Jews

Rome's Jews are Europe's longest surviving Jewish community and occupy a unique place in the history of the Diaspora. Jews have been living in Rome, as well as in other Mediterranean cities, since the 4-5th century BC. Palestine was an overcrowded land, at times troubled also by military occupations. The Jews migrated to the other Mediterranean towns, where they formed communities. In ancient Rome they were generally well tolerated, and there were emperors like Julius Caesar who established good relations with the community.
Compared to the rest of Europe, the Jews had a surprising degree of security, although there were hard times here too.


"CARAVAGGIO", a large, fine and quaint studio, with separate kitchen, bathroom, foyer (2 persons).

"MARCO POLO", a one bedroom, sitting room attic with large roof garden with spectacular views of all Rome, (2-3 persons).

"BOTTICELLI": a two double bedroom, sitting room, dining room 2 bathroom apt., with patio and fireplace (4-5 p.).

The capital of the Christian Church was comparatively a safe haven, but on the other hand the Church imposed taxes on Roman Jews, the first dating back in 1310, officially for their protection from outbreaks of popular violence against them.

The Via Portico d'Ottavia is still the centre of Jewish life in Rome. It used to mark the Ghetto's boundary.
It takes its name from the porch of Octavia's market, which is situated at its end. The street is a lively hotchpotch of ancient, medieval and Renaissance architecture.

The heart of the quarter: Via Portico d'Ottavia.

Octavia's porch is still intact, while instead of the market you find presently a church (photo below).

After the bull "Cum Nisim Absurdam" issued by the anti-Semitic Pope Paul IV in 1556, the walls of the Ghetto (a word Venetian in origin) were built, separating the Jewish and Christian parts of the city. The Jews lost property rights, and suffered of trading restrictions. Although there were also craftmen, bankers, antique dealers and jewelers, most Roman Jews worked in the rag trade.
The ghetto hosted nearly 4,000 Jews, cramped in a small neighbouhood in squalid conditions.

The Portico d'Ottavia (Octavia's market porch)

Moreover, oppression was present in everyday life. The Jews were periodically compelled to attend mass in churches, where they were lectured to convert.

A marble slab in the front of a Catholic church bordering the quarter remembers the atmosphere of those years. In two languages (Hebrew and Latin), it enshrines an offensive interpretation of Isaias' profecy (Chapter 65):

"I have spread forth my hands all the day to an unbelieving people, who walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts. A people that continually provoke me to anger before my face."

Marble slab in the front of a bordering church

When the unification of Italy occured in 1870, the new Italian government destroyed the walls of the Ghetto, and the Jews enjoyed a process of emancipation. They became a normal and essential part of the Italian society. Many Jews became nationalists, and at the onset of fascism, many Jews endorsed it, or were fascists themselves. This didn't spare them from the discriminatory "Racial Laws" of 1938, in which Jews lost their public jobs, positions, and rights to attend even schools, because of their "inferior race".
The experience left a lasting memory in the Italian Jews, arising reservations whether it is wise to integrate completely in the Italian society.

In September 1943 the Nazi occupiers pretended 50kg of gold from the community, to be given in 36 hours. Both Jews and non-Jews responded and the goal was reached, but the Nazi still deported over 2,000 Jews to Auschwitz. One fourth of Rome's Jews died, yet the number would have been higher had it not been for the help of wide sections of the Roman society, including the Catholic priesthood. Pope Clemens XII though did not utter a single condemnation of the persecution, as he followed a policy of "neutrality", officially not to stir further hatred by the Nazis.

Currently the Jews can be found in all professions, and they contribute to the broader Italian culture also with many intellectuals. Most Italian Jews are quite happy to consider themselves Italian, and are considered by their compatriots an essential variant of the broader Italian society. Some Jews even applied Hebrew root words to the word "Italia", deriving it from "I Tal Yah" - island of the dew of God.

The Italian Jews follow their own rite, as their presence occurred before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD, and they are also not Sephardi (Oriental or Arab countries Jews), nor Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe Jews).
The imposing synagogue was designed by the two architects Armanni and Costa (1904 AD). It has a "neo-Assyro-Babylonian" style, and terminates in a large aluminum dome.
The synagogue incorporates the Museo d'Arte Ebraica, a small museum of Roman Jewish life and ritual, of which the Jews are very proud (entrance 5 Euro).
The main Synagogue ("Il Tempio" or temple ).

Officially the entrance of the synagogue is allowed to all. The custodians of the temple ("Shammash") though have a reputation of being rude and whimsical, and may not let people enter with very flimsy excuses.

An old palace of the ghetto in Via Portico d'Ottavia showing the degraded conditions of the quarter at the times of the ghetto. This photo was snapped in 1998. Presently this palace, and many others, were entirely renovated.

Pastry shop in the same street. It is a tiny unmarked corner shop, with an all-female personnel preparing legendary "torte di ricotta e visciole" (ricotta and damson tarts), and also - only at sunset - fresh made irresistible crunchy biscuits with sultanas and nuts.

Only 4,000 Italian Jews migrated to Israel in the last 50 years (out of a community of 30,000 members). Most of them migrated just after WW2, after the disastrous experience of the holoucast and to contribute to the foundation of Israel. Typically, another part - still a minority - moved later motivated by cultural / religious reasons. They usually stay in Jerusalem for its special religious appeal, and generally have a good economic background (on the contrary of the majority of the Jews migrating to Israel).
A third and final group, again a small minority, comprises those who move temporarily to Israel. They are generally moved by cultural interest, as well by political motivations (to contribute to the Israeli society and to Zionism). In Israel they usually undergo professional experiences which can be prolonged. Some serve in the army, to support Israel.
Yet Roman Jews are mostly attached to Rome. "Next year in Jerusalem?" Yes, but only in prayers and in toasts: the large majority of Roman Jews plan to spend it in Rome... They are often scoffed at with affection by the other Jews as "the Pope's Jews", especially by the Israeli, who find them all too Italian.





The only real change after WW2 was the settlement in 1967 of 3,000 Libyan Jews, thus Sephardi or Oriental Jews, who fled persecution from the Lybian radical mob, endorsed by Gadhafi's regime. Initially the Roman Jews, who are creatures of habit, used to their traditions and quite conventional, felt uneasy interacting with the refugees. Yet the Libyan Jews ardently follow the same religion, they are also the wealthiest Libyan Jews (the less wealthy moved mostly to Israel), and they are also hard working, creative professionals. Moreover, they are dynamic and imaginative in their social interactions, and increasingly cultured. This brought the two communities together, with many mixed marriages. Ultimately the Roman community gained new energy, and new life.

Fountain delle Tartarughe (by Taddeo Landini) and Palazzo Mattei (at its right)

The Tiberina island

In the quarter you find also masterpieces, like the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtles Fountain) by Taddeo Landini, with nearby the Palazzo Mattei (16th century), with its fine interior marbles, statues and decorations.

The quarter ends on one side with the Tiber. The most ancient bridge in Rome, the Ponte Fabricius, leads to the little Tiberina Island, which includes the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, the Catholic hospital Fatebenefratelli, the Jewish hospital, and the Jewish review "Shalom". Beyond the island you find the Trastevere quarter (from the root words "Trans Tiber", beyond the Tiber).

In the quarter you can find also many renowned Jewish restaurants, serving the Roman Jewish cuisine, and also some oriental Jewish recipes.

"Giggetto", a popular restaurant

To visit the immediately adjacent quarters, please go to:

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