|A brief overview of the Jewish Community in Rome
On Sunday afternoon, 17
January , the Holy Father's Visit to the Jewish Community of Rome
took him to the "Tempio Maggiore" (Major Temple), the Great Synagogue
that stands on the banks of the Tiber. He also went to the Spanish
Synagogue beneath it and to the adjacent Jewish Museum, where he
inaugurated an exhibition "Et Ecce Gaudium: The Jews of Rome and the
Investiture Ceremony of the Popes".
Benedict XVI is the second Pope to visit the Great
Synagogue of Rome. Pope John Paul II visited it on 13 April 1986 and is
still remembered. The Holy Father is living up to the intention he
expressed soon after his election in his first Message to the Cardinals
on 20 April 2005: "I will make every conscientious effort to continue
the promising dialogue initiated by my Venerable Predecessors with the
different civilizations, so that mutual understanding may create the
conditions for a better future for all". And the Roman Jewish monthly,
Shalom, reported in its January edition that the Council
of the Jewish Community had unanimously affirmed "the importance of
interreligious dialogue of which the upcoming visit of Benedict XVI to
the Synagogue of Rome is a fundamental stage".
Benedict has had various
contacts with the Jews. On 12 February 2009 he received a
delegation composed of the Presidents of the major American Jewish
organizations and announced that he would be going to the Holy Land. On
that Visit (from 8 to 15 May 2009) he prayed in silence at the Memorial
of Yad Vashem for the six million victims of the Shoah, he
placed a prayer in a crack between the stones of the Western Wall and he
met the two chief Rabbis of Israel, Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and
Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The Pope has visited two other Synagogues:
on 19 August 2005, in Cologne during the World Youth Day, and on 18
April 2008, at Park East, New York, during his Apostolic Visit to the
United States of America.
Benedict XVI's choice of 17
January for his meeting with the Jewish Community of Rome is symbolic.
The date is also the Giornata dell'approfondimento della conoscenza
dell'Ebraismo (Day for the Deepening and Development of Dialogue
between Catholics and Jews), established by the Italian Episcopal
Conference in 1990. This year it coincides with the day in the Jewish
calendar, 2 shevat 5770, on which Mo'ed Piombo is
celebrated by Roman Jews.
Laura Calabi, a guide in
the Synagogue and the Museum, explained that Mo'ed means "feast"
and Piombo means "lead". The celebration commemorates a
miraculous downpour in 1793 that saved the Jews in the ghetto of Rome
from an anti-Semitic attack in which the ghetto was set alight. The sky
turned the colour of lead and heavy rain put out the fire. The Chief
Rabbi of Rome, Dr Ricardo Di Segni, explained in an interview with
Vatican Radio a few days before the Pope's Visit that the mob had set
fire to the ghetto because the Jews were thought to be sympathizers with
the rights promoted by the French Revolution. As the Chief Rabbi said,
the Jewish Community living in the ghetto "could obviously no longer
bear to be thus confined and restricted".
Jews are possibly the only
inhabitants of Rome who can claim an uninterrupted presence in the
Eternal City for about 2,200 years. The banks of the Tiber were the site
of the earliest Jewish settlement in Italy. The original nucleus grew
with the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 [AD] and the arrival of
prisoners brought to Rome from 63 to 61 BC, following Pompey's campaigns
in Judaea. Bas-reliefs on the Arch of Titus portray the emperor's
triumphal procession with the menorah, the seven-branched solid
gold candelabrum described in the Bible (Ex 37:17-24), plundered from
the Temple, carried by the Jewish prisoners being brought to Rome. The
Jews of Rome always avoided passing under this Arch and it was only in
1948, after the proclamation of the State of Israel, that they solemnly
passed beneath it
but in the opposite direction to that of
the ancient triumphal processions.
The arrival of the slaves
brought by Titus and then a large number of exiles made Rome the most
important community of the Diaspora: there were about 50,000 Jews in
ancient Rome, 10 percent of the population. By the second century there
were 12 synagogues. Ms Calabi said that today there are 14,000 Jews in
Rome out of a total of 25,000 who live in Italy. There are now 16
synagogues in Rome, she said.
The different branches of
Judaism developed different rites. For example, the Italian Jews follow
their own rite, known as Nusach Italki. Thus after Queen
Isabella of Castile expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492 there were
synagogues for Catalan, Aragonese, Castilian, Sicilian, French and
German Jews in Rome.
By the end of the 16th
century there were five scole, temple schools or
However, uneasy relations
between them, the sack of Rome in 1527 and increasingly severe papal
rulings forbidding the Jews to have more than one synagogue meant that
by the end of the 16th century the five scole (the Catalana,
Castigliana, Siciliana, Tempio and Nova), were
all housed in one building.
With his Bull of 14 July
1555, Pope Paul Iv established the ghetto in which the Jews of Rome were
obliged to live, separated from the rest of the population, for more
than 300 years. The word "ghetto" thus entered the English language. The
seven-acre space was at first inhabited by some 1,75o people but by
1870, the year of the Unification of Italy when the ghetto was
dismantled, there were about 5,000 living in this densely populated
area: houses expanded in the only possible direction, raised
precariously to six or seven storeys. The gates were unlocked at dawn
and locked at dusk. Jews could not own property and the only profession
open to them was the second-hand clothes trade.
The community developed a
dialect of its own, giudaico-romanesco, Jewish-Roman, that
incorporated more and more Hebrew words, partly as a means of self-defence
to prevent spies from eavesdropping. It also developed its own cuisine
and still today deep-fried artichokes alla
giudia may be eaten in Rome and
pizza dolce, a sort of fruit
cake, is made by Boccione, the Jewish bakery, in the area that is still
known as "the Ghetto".
The whole history of the
community in Rome, even to the house-to-house raids by the Nazis on 16
October 1943, took place in the shadow of the Portico d'Ottavia, the
Roman ruins that incorporate the Church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. On
that "Black Saturday" they seized more than 1,000 men, women and
children. Only 16 men and one woman returned (cf. Lazio Jewish
Itineraries: Places, history and art, Marsilio Regione Lazio,
March 2001). A plaque near the Portico commemorates these victims of the
In 1904, the President of
the Rome Community said in the speech he made for the inauguration of
the Synagogue that 30 years after their emancipation the Jews wanted "a
majestically free Temple, surrounded by the pure and free light of the
sun, an expression of freedom, equality and love" (cf. Lazio Jewish
Itineraries... op. cit). Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni,
the two architects of the present-day Great Synagogue of Rome, did their
best to comply. After 13 years of tough negotiations, the Jewish
Community purchased one of the four plots of land created by the ghetto
clearance programme. Building began in 1901.
There is no set blueprint
for synagogues. They were built in the architectural style of, the time
and place; the plan of the interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome,
therefore, in the form of a slightly elongated Greek cross, resembles
that of a Christian church, with the bimah (podium) and the
aron (ark) in the ornate central aedicule opposite the entrance. The
Tables of the Law above bear the Hebrew inscription: "Holy for the Lord.
Know before Whom you stand".
The sumptuous eclectic
style was inspired by ancient Greek architecture and influenced by Asian
and Assyrian motifs. The inside of the squared dome is lined with
aluminium that enhances the luminosity of the art-nouveau scales design,
painted in the colours of the rainbow (a symbol of peace), which rises
to the square lantern. The base of each quarter segment of the dome is
decorated alternately with a palm tree or a cedar of Lebanon, reflecting
Jewish symbolism and the Oriental influence. The women's galleries are
enclosed by iron balustrades. The Synagogue contains many of the art
treasures from the Five Schools which helps to create continuity between
past and present.
On the Via Catalana leading
to the Synagogue there is a plaque commemorating the attack on 9 October
1982 in which a two-year old Jewish child was killed and dozens of
people were injured.
Beneath the Synagogue, in
the Jewish Museum, the Et Ecce Gaudium exhibition will run until
11 March 2010. On show are 18th-century panels, believed to have
been lost, made by the Jewish Community in honour of the coronation of
the Supreme Pontiffs to decorate a stretch of the route down which the
new Pope would ride in a procession from the Vatican to St John Lateran.