The Great Synagogue and the Ghetto

Author: Kate Marcelin-Rice

The Great Synagogue and the Ghetto

Kate Marcelin-Rice

A brief overview of the Jewish Community in Rome

On Sunday afternoon, 17 January [2010], 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 12February 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 synagogues.

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 andstill today deep-fried artichokes alla
giudia may be eaten in Rome andpizza 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 Shoah.

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 11March 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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 January 2010, page 8

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