Monday, October 3, 2005

Jewish Ghetto and the Synagogue

Kayanna Warren
Honors in Rome - Summer 2005

I. Introduction

The Tempio Maggiore and the current Jewish Ghetto area did not exist in their present form until the end of the nineteenth century, when the rules relegating Jews to that area and restricting religious freedom were lifted.

The history of the walled Jewish Ghetto began in 1555, but Jews lived in Rome since the reign of Emperor Titus, around 70 AD. There is evidence of the presence of Jews in Rome since 161 BC as envoys of Judah Maccabee, making this the oldest Jewish community in Europe. Other envoys came from Jerusalem in 150 and 139 BC, and after the sacking of Jerusalem in 63 AD, Jewish slaves were brought to Rome. Jewish delegates and merchants also began to come to Rome, and a permanent establishment began to grow. By the 8th Century, there were 12 or 13 synagogues in Rome. The way Jews were treated, from the adoption of Christianity by Roman emperors and during the Middle Ages, fluctuated from emperor to emperor and from Pope to Pope. Sometimes, they were forced to live outside the city walls. Synagogues were often burned down on official orders. Often, there were periods of frequent public tortures and humiliations.

Shortly following the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century came the Roman Inquisition of the 16th century, begun by Pope Paul III in 1542. He established a body to safeguard the integrity of Catholicism and, while not as intense as the Spanish Inquisition, this period marked a steadily crumbling tolerance towards Jews in Rome.
Treatment of Jews, Middle Ages
This picture is widely ascribed to be a representation of periodic treatment of Jews in Rome in the Middle Ages.

There were several events leading up to the walling off of Jews in the Ghetto. On Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) of 1553, by order of Pope Julius III, copies of the Talmud were confiscated and publicly burned. Following Pope Paul IV's accession to the papacy in 1555, he ordered Jews to wear yellow veils and hats.

On July 12, 1555, Pope Paul IV issued his "cum nimis adsurdum" policy (when enough is enough), marking off an area of Rome on the east side of the Tiber meant to contain all the Jews of Rome. The reason for this action was not so much to keep the Jews away from Christians, but was rather to increase the likelihood of converting the Jews, although there was only an average of about 10 conversions per year. The Ghetto in Rome was the first Ghetto in Europe. The Ghetto in Rome likely took its name from the Jewish quarter of Venice. The walls of the Ghetto were finished in 2 months. The cost of the wall was exacted from the Jews in Rome. By July 26th, all Jews were moved into the Ghetto.
Map of the Old Ghetto, circa 1676
A map of the Jewish Ghetto. The circles show four gates. The left arrow points to the Pourch of Octavia.
right arrow points to the small church of St. Gregory.

At the main entrance was the Piazza Giudea. The Portico d'Ottavia was the main gate into the Ghetto and was also near the Piazza Pescheria, formerly a fish market. The Portico d'Ottavia was erected by Augustus in 146 BC to honor his sister Octavia, and some of its columns are incorporated into the Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. The Portico pre-dated the Jews' existence in Rome, but this church was where many Jews were forced to hear Catholic sermons (although legend has it that many put wax in their ears to avoid hearing it). There was another gate at the Ponte Fabricio, a bridge built in 62BC that crosses the Tiber River. Most of the enclosure was building mass. Only a little wall was needed. Fragments of the wall still remain, attached to the Portico d'Ottavia.

Small piazzas riddled the Ghetto and were important for community and for information dissemination, since there were no synagogues in which to do so. All the synagogues were closed down, save one that was a merging of all of their previous synagogues into one. This synagogue was called the Cinque Scole, or 5-Temple Synagogue. It housed 5 schools of Italian Jewish practices (and some Sephardic after the Spanish Inquisition)- Roman, Lazian, Sicilian, Catalan, and Castillian. The Cinque Scole was moved outside of the enclosing wall in 1566 by order of Pope Pius IV.

Theater of Acculturation, by Kenneth Stow
Cinque Scole
The 5 Temples.

Near this space, at the end of the Via della Reginella, was the Piazza Mattei. The Mattei family was the official gentile gatekeeper, and one set of gates was named for them. The Piazza Mattei still remains, with a few fragments of the original walled ghetto. In the middle of the piazza is the Fontana delle Tartughe (Fountain of the Tortoises), commissioned by and dedicated to the Mattei family. The fountain has additions done by Bernini. Between 1555 and 1848, this fountain was the only public fountain and clean water source for the public inside the Ghetto.

The conditions in the Ghetto were squalid. A high population density meant that large families lived in cramped apartments, usually heavily added on to with wood. Floods were frequent, as the ground level was below that of the nearby Tiber River. During the Plague between 1647-1650, the Ghetto was sealed off for 9 months. In 1824, with its population at its maximum, an extension to the Ghetto was added on the North end. At this point, there were 8 gates, which were the only points of entry. About 7,000 Jews lived within an area of 33,000 square meters, or about 4 city blocks. No building could exceed 5 stories, meaning that apartment space was severely limited and cramped.

Theater of Acculturation, by Kenneth Stow
View of the Ghetto
View of the Ghetto and the Ponte Fabricio from the Tiber River, around the turn of the Century.

Jews in Rome had to live under immense regulation between 1555 and 1848. Jews could not own land or the buildings they rented. They had to wear distinctive markings. They could not practice medicine with Christians. Christians were not allowed inside the gates. Jews were allowed to exit only after sunrise and required to re-enter before sunset. They could not engage in commerce, other than selling second-hand clothing. They could not make a profit, yet they had to pay higher taxes. The dead were buried in unmarked graves. There were Inquisition burnings in 1583. The Jews underwent forced baptisms, and were forced to convert. Pope Gregory XIII made attending masses mandatory in the late 1500s. If Jewish children were seen outside the gates, they were often kidnapped and forced to convert. The Talmud and other writings were confiscated and burned in the Campo de' Fiori. The community took to passing around one Talmud between families to lower the risk of confiscation, and each family would make notes in the margin to continue the tradition of scholarly dialogue.

On Passover of 1848, the walls of the Ghetto were razed during relief brought by Pope Pius IX, who abolished some of the Ghetto regulations. By 1849, however, the Ghetto regulations were reinstated.

On September 20, 1870, Italy became unified by Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 1885, the Ghetto was razed and rebuilt for reasons of public health and renewal. Many Jews began to move out of the area, and the Ghetto was absorbed back into Rome. After the Ghetto was leveled, it was rebuilt in a 20th-century block structure.

In 1893, the Cinque Scole, originally left standing, was burned by a fire. The construction of the new synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore, began shortly thereafter, and was completed July 28, 1904. A tablet commemorates King Victor Emmanuel III's visit to the synagogue in 1904.

Theater of Acculturation, by Kenneth Stow
Building of the Tempio Maggiore
The modern Ghetto area is being built around the synagogue.

Jews in the Ghetto experienced a period of respite from direct oppression until the German occupation of Italy. The Jews were at first protected by the Pope, but in 1943, Jews began to be deported to concentration camps. The area between the Portico d'Ottavia and the Tempio Maggiore was the site of Jewish deportation during German occupation in 1943.

Many Jews continue to live in the Ghetto area, although many are moving out due to rising rent prices. Some surnames visible on doorplates around the neighborhood are recognizable as Jewish, in existence in Rome since the first convoys. The surname Anav is said to be one of the first Jewish surnames present in Rome, and its Italian and Spanish variations include Delli Mansi, Almansi, Umani, and Piattelli. In addition, there were Levi's and Coen's present in these convoys, two of the oldest surnames in existence.

II. Description
Houses Dating to 15th or 16th Century
These houses on the via del Portico d'Ottavia date back to the 15th or 16th century.

The Jewish Ghetto is now comprised of about 4 blocks that look more or less like other parts of Rome, but in the time of the Ghetto, they were crammed with wooden buildings and often flooded. There was one jumble of 5 synagogues known as Cinque Scuole, and sanitary conditions were poor.
Hinges from the Gates
Remnants of gates of the Ghetto still remain.

The Tempio Maggiore was completed in 1904. Inside, it contains all the important elements of a synagogue, including an ark, no human images, etc. It has the only square dome in Rome, which is made of aluminum, and the underside is painted as a rainbow, the symbol of the covenant.

It is interesting to note that the interior resembles churches seen around Rome. There is much use of marble and columns, and even what resembles a square central nave. When I asked about motives about design - to resemble churches or look distinctly different, I was told that "this is Rome. There are columns and marble."

The synagogue also has a museum inside with artifacts from all over Italy that have been donated by individual families. Artifacts range from torah covers to Nazi papers, spanning several centuries of time.

III. Function
Tempio Maggiore
The synagogue of Rome.

The Tempio Maggiore functions as a main synagogue for Jews in Rome, of which there are about 16,000. To give you an idea of population scale, there are about 37,000 Jews in Seattle. Jews have been in Rome, however, for over 2,000 years. The synagogue follows an Orthodox Italian tradition of Judaism. The chief Rabbi of Italy officiates at the Tempio Maggiore, heading Italy's rabbinical council.

The synagogue functions to give Jews a permanent place of worship, a sense of having a place after so long of being cramped in a small place and not being allowed to practice religion freely. There is nothing cramped or stooped to suggest the Ghetto lifestyle. In addition, it is a monument, its way, to the oppression of the Jews in Rome.

The Portico d'Ottavia and the pieces of wall attached to it are some of the only remnants of the old Ghetto walls. They have been left and preserved, but in a way that does not suggest pride. The Piazza Giudea is now the Piazza Santa Maria del Pianto; the name change echoes the desire to leave behind the Ghetto. The area has relatively little foot traffic, and if it were not adjacent to the Theater of Marcellus, would have the feeling of being tucked away in a corner. The Jews of Rome were getting across the message of moving on from the indignity of former Ghetto life.

IV. Patron
Aesthetically, the synagogue stands for a rebirth of cultural vibrancy following Jewish emancipation in the wake of a unified Italy. It sheds the image of the Ghetto. The usage continues today to inspire community. There is a kiosk at the entrance with information about Jewish cultural events in Rome. The synagogue also meets the needs of the Jewish community as a place for prayer. Having been in Rome so long, however, Jews have added, in addition to the necessary elements of the synagogue, many heavily 'Roman' elements.

In addition, it addresses the concerns of the Jews in Rome about having a central place to build community and to preserve the memory of their long history in Rome. There is a museum in the synagogue that houses Italian Jewish artifacts. A plaque on a building near the site of Nazi deportation reads, "On October 16, 1943, here began the merciless rout of the Jews. The few who escaped murder and many others, in solidarity, pray for love and peace from mankind and pardon and hope from God." These serve to increase solidarity within the community and awareness without.

V. Conclusion
Because most of the Ghetto area has been totally transformed and only few remnants remain, those that do remain become much more significant in marking the site of former oppression amongst an area of cultural rebirth.

The Tempio Maggiore has certainly been influential to future generations in that it has provided a central synagogue for Jews to pray and to form community. In addition, the synagogue has established guided tours, indicating the presence of foreign visitors interested in seeing the synagogue or learning about the history of the Ghetto. Most of these visitors are curious about the name of the area – the Jewish Ghetto – but can find few traces of it visible outside the synagogue. Curious to know more about this community that survived through these atrocities, visitors come to the Tempio Maggiore.

The Portico d’Ottavia and Piazza Mattei stand as reminders of the walls that once stood, for the informed viewer. There is a sense of hope in increasing this kind of awareness – the hope that we will learn from history and not repeat these kinds of actions. This is why we still have the urge to visit places that mark previous horrors and also stand for new hope.

VI. Personal Observations
I was surprised that so little of the previous wall remains, but that some of the names are still present. I was surprised that so little is known about the Ghetto, even if it was ended only 135 years ago.

It was interesting to learn, however, that the presence of Jews in Rome outstripped that of Christianity, and that Jews did not have much of a problem living in Rome until the advent of Christianity.

VII. Bibliography
Bolton, Glorney. Roman Century: 1870-1970. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970.

Curious and Unusual: Rome’s Ghetto. Accessed: Sept. 6, 2005.

The Italian Jewish Experience. Edited by Hon. Thomas P. DiNapoli. Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum Publishing, 2000.

“The Jewish Ghetto in Rome.” InfoRoma: the Rome Experts. Accessed: Sept. 6, 2005.

Jews of Italy: Memory and Identity. Edited by Bernard D. Cooperman and Barbara Garvin. Bethesda, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2000.

Martin, Leah C. “Suspending Cultural Latency: Unearthing the History, Faith, Subjugation, and Pride of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.” Architecture Masters Thesis, University of Washington, 1998.

Stow, Kenneth. Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the 16th Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Rome. By Rebecca Weiner. Accessed: Sept 6, 2005.

Vogelstein, Hermann. History of Jews in Rome. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1941.