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Amid Rising Anti-Semitism in Western Europe, Italian Jews Are Staging a Surprising Revival

A strong communal response to a terrorist attack in the 1980s seeded a new generation of dynamic leaders

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A demonstration organized by the “Amici di Israele” (friends of Israel) on Oct. 7, 2010, in front of Temple of Hadrian in Rome. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
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On March 20, Shalom Bahbout, chief rabbi of Naples and Southern Italy, sent a letter to the governors of the six regions that comprised the old Spanish Viceroyalty—Sicily, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, and Puglia—calling on them to institute an annual holiday for “research and memory” about the expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews from those regions on Oct. 31, 1541.

“The departure of those people, by all rights native Italians, created grave damage to the cultural, economic, and social patrimony of the southern regions,” Bahbout wrote. His letter stressed that remembering the episode—which is rarely studied or seriously discussed in schools and universities, if at all—was important not only for Jews, but for promoting tolerance of all those considered different or outside the mainstream of society.

Yet, while southern Italians may have forgotten the details of how their ancestors treated local Jews, whose presence on the peninsula stretches back more than two millennia, they are in the midst of a widespread—and surprising—revival of contemporary Jewish life. From Rome to Palermo, Jewish religious activity is visibly on the rise, and Jewish-themed festivals have become regular events throughout the country, with religious leaders celebrating in some of the country’s most famous public squares—and even the legendary San Paolo soccer stadium in Naples. Last December, for Hanukkah, Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta hosted Benjamin Netanyahu for a menorah-lighting in Rome, and candles were lit in Naples’ elegant Piazza dei Martiri and at Palermo’s Palazzo Steri, the old site of the Spanish Inquisition tribunal and prison. Meanwhile, Italian Jews—particularly in Rome—have organized new self-defense groups to combat outbursts of anti-Semitism, and leaders, Bahbout only one among them, have demanded that public officials confront the darker moments of Italy’s relationship with its Jews.

This is driven, at least in part, by the fact that a considerable number of southern Italians have reason to suspect or believe that their ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism 550 years ago. Some are interested in exploring their families’ Jewish roots, and that in turn has generated a wave of interest in conversion—but there are also some remarkable cases of recent conversions involving those without Jewish ancestors at all. The result has been an injection of new energy into congregations ranging from Orthodox groups operating under the umbrella the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in Rome to a lively Reform shul in Calabria that is now under the spirited leadership of Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italo-American who recently returned to her father’s birthplace of Serrastretta after spending years working in Milan.

It is hard to get accurate dimensions for this largely unnoticed phenomenon, perhaps because it runs directly counter to the larger theme of intensifying anti-Semitism in so much of Western Europe. Italian Jews have also traditionally preferred to maintain a low profile and are consequently reluctant to discuss their affairs, especially with outsiders. Chabad certainly has played a role—the group is especially active in Florence and Venice, where it operates popular kosher restaurants—but the central components are Italian. The rabbis themselves are unsure of the numbers involved. As Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, recently told me, they themselves are a bit baffled. “Yes, it is certainly real, all of us agree,” Di Segni told me. “But I can’t give you an explanation.”

***

Italian Jews have seen plenty of oppression—“ghetto” is, of course, an Italian word, originally used to describe the area in Venice where Jews were restricted to living—from the time of the Inquisition forward to the Fascist period, when Benito Mussolini passed racial laws more restrictive than Berlin’s. But while there have certainly been, and still are, Italian anti-Semites, Italians by and large never participated in the popular European anti-Semitic movements, whether racist or nationalist, of the 19th and 20th centuries that contributed to episodes like the Dreyfus Affair in France or for Nazism in Austria and Germany. By 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, the country had been led by two Jewish prime ministers, Alessandro Fortis and Luigi Luzzatti; two decades later, Italian authorities declined to join in the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews.

For decades after the Second World War, Roman Judaism was quiet, even moribund. In 1973, when I married my wife, Barbara, in the big early-20th-century synagogue on the banks of the Tiber, there was only one kosher restaurant in the ghetto area. Services were sparsely attended, the median age of worshipers was advanced, Jewish holidays were observed quietly, and by and large community leaders either preferred to maintain a low profile or threw in with the secular, leftist intelligentsia. The central piazza was notable mainly for its ancient bakery, which still produces spectacular sweets. It wasn’t a very chic place to live and was mostly populated by poor Jews, the shopkeepers in the neighborhood, or by a small group of movie people.

No more. The ghetto is now a beehive of tourism—foreign and Italian, Jewish and gentile—and there are many kosher restaurants, some very good indeed and frequented by lots of well-to-do non-Jews. A second bakery has opened featuring Eastern and Central European specialties. The Jewish schools, which had been across the river, have now moved into the ghetto and are flourishing, and the synagogue is well-attended both on holidays and for regular weekly services.

Moreover, Judaism is booming in other Roman neighborhoods. At last count there were 18 shuls in town, most Sephardic or Roman—a tradition all its own, with a unique t’filah—and with various approaches to would-be congregants, from very strict, demanding formal proof of the mother’s Judaism or of an official conversion, to very open, including non-Jews who are considering conversion.

It helps that Pope Francis is openly philo-Semitic, and the third such pope in a row. This counts for a lot in Italy, even in a period of greatly increased secularization. Three decades ago, John Paul II’s embrace of “Jewish fathers” and his historic trip to the Rome synagogue were major changes in Vatican doctrine and practice. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI was Pope John Paul’s theologian and drafted many of his declarations; he also wrote that the Jews were innocent of Jesus’ death and followed in John Paul’s footsteps to the Roman synagogue and to Israel. Pope Francis famously welcomes his Argentine Jewish friends to the Vatican and serves them kosher takeout from the ghetto; next month, he is scheduled to make his first official visit to Israel in the company of Abraham Skorka, a close friend who is rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires.

But it turns out that the Rome community, which I had always considered one of the most timorous I had encountered anywhere, began organizing itself in the early 1980s in response to a wave of anti-Semitic provocations, including a Palestinian terrorist attack on the synagogue in 1982—and in developing new institutions managed to nurture a new generation of brave and imaginative leaders who have galvanized—politically, socially, and religiously—a new generation of young Roman Jews.

In the aftermath of the 1982 attack, in which a toddler was killed, the schools were moved into the ghetto, and in December 1985 a new shul, the Tempio dei Giovani, was established on the second floor of the Jewish Hospital on the Tiberina Island in the Tiber, where a tiny synagogue functioned in secret throughout the Fascist period, even during Nazi occupation.

The Tempio dei Giovani was led by the hyperactive Rabbi Bahbout, who instituted a more “international” t’filah rather than the traditional Roman prayers chanted in the big synagogue nearby. Instead of viewing the new synagogue as a challenge to Rome’s Jewish establishment, the city’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff quietly offered his support. Publicly a meek, accommodating, and impeccably diplomatic man, he privately encouraged the young Jews of the capital to practice a form of Judaism with broader appeal—and to fight back against the religious and secular anti-Semites and learn self-defense, to protect the ghetto. New organizations were created, including one called the “Youth of ’48” and led by Angelo Sermonets, aka “il Baffone”—“the big mustache.”

From then on, there were firm and sometimes even violent responses to anyone who acted against the Roman Jews. The two best-known actions are the occupation of the military courtroom where the Nazi murderer Erich Priebke was tried in the mid-1980s after his extradition from Argentina, and the assault on neo-Fascist headquarters in November 1992, in Via Domodossola. The first is well-documented; the second, not so much.

In late July 1996, as the military judges were considering their verdict, it had become obvious that they were planning to accept Priebke’s “Nuremburg defense” and let him go on the grounds that he had no choice in the matter once he had received orders from the führer. The Roman Jews found this intolerable and, with Toaff’s full support, occupied the courtroom and took up positions outside the building. They were then surrounded by Italian security forces who asked the Jews to leave. They called Toaff, who was outside Rome on holiday, and asked him what to do. “Stay right there,” he said, “and don’t let him get away.” They remained in place, and the tribunal announced a double decision: The case against Priebke was dismissed, but he was rearrested because the German government was asking to try him for murder. The Appeals Court threw out the verdict, replaced two of the judges, and ordered a retrial. In 1997 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Almost everyone in Rome saw it as a great success for the Jews. Without their physical presence, Priebke might well have walked.

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Amid Rising Anti-Semitism in Western Europe, Italian Jews Are Staging a Surprising Revival

A strong communal response to a terrorist attack in the 1980s seeded a new generation of dynamic leaders