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The Apostasy of Rabbi Zolli

Right after World War II, the chief rabbi of Rome scandalized fellow Jews by becoming a Christian

Shalom Goldman
March 04, 2016
Photo: Outreach Judaism
Israel Zolli (R) walking with Padre Gosselino Birola, who hid him from the Nazis on the grounds of the Gregorian Institute, 1945. Photo: Outreach Judaism
Photo: Outreach Judaism
Israel Zolli (R) walking with Padre Gosselino Birola, who hid him from the Nazis on the grounds of the Gregorian Institute, 1945. Photo: Outreach Judaism
Do you think I love the Jews less because I have become a Catholic? … No, I shall never stop loving the Jews. I did not compare the Jewish religion to Catholicism and abandon one for the other. This is the greatest tragedy of my life. I slowly, almost imperceptibly became a Christian and could no longer be a Jew.
—Israel Zolli

On Feb. 13, 1945, in a private ceremony conducted in the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, prominent members of the Jesuit order officiated at the baptism of Israel Zolli and his wife Emma Majonica into the Catholic Church. At the time, the 64-year-old Zolli—who died 60 years ago this week—had been the chief rabbi of Rome for seven years. In honor of Pope Pius XII, he took the first name Eugenio. He and his wife, who was several years younger, had two adult daughters. Miriam, the younger daughter, would join the Church a year later.

Neither his rabbinical colleagues, nor his congregants, had any idea that Zolli was planning to convert to Catholicism. Nine months before his baptism, in June 1944, Zolli had officiated at a Sabbath ceremony held at Rome’s central synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore, to commemorate the war dead and celebrate the liberation of Rome from German occupation. Several thousand people attended this ceremony, including many of Rome’s surviving Jews. In his remarks, Zolli offered a message of hope and rejuvenation: “Everywhere Abel’s blood comes from the earth, blood of innocent Abel slain by Cain. Nevertheless, we shall rebuild the ruins and reconstruct upon the ruins.” The rabbi’s words that day moved many to tears. Nine months later, news of the rabbi’s apostasy would again move many members of the congregation to tears, but these would be tears of sorrow.

Following their rabbi’s apostasy, the congregants of Tempio Maggiore gathered to sit shiva, ritually mourn, for Zolli. More people attended this meeting than had attended the earlier service commemorating the liberation of Rome from the Nazis. Zolli’s Jewish critics saw his apostasy as sudden and unexpected. They portrayed Zolli as a coward and an opportunist who left Rome’s Jewish community at the moment of its greatest need. In the words of American Rabbi Louis I. Newman, “Conceived, as we shall see, chiefly in spitefulness and spleen against his own flock, Zolli desired his apostasy to be given the greatest publicity. Only thus could he feed his revenge.”

According to Newman’s theory, which was shared by others, this spitefulness and desire for revenge stemmed from Zolli’s frustration with the way he was treated by the leaders of Rome’s Jewish community during the war. Italian Jews had faced official discrimination beginning in 1938, but they were not threatened with extermination until German forces moved into Italy after Mussolini’s fall in 1943. When the Nazis took over Rome, Zolli and his family went into hiding with a Catholic family. The presidents of the synagogue and the community, however, expected Zolli to remain in public view, and they criticized the rabbi for shirking his leadership role. Zolli responded with the assertion that the Germans certainly would have killed him as soon as they found him, just as they had systematically killed the chief rabbis of other Italian cities. Regardless of the dangers Zolli and his family may have faced during the war, Zolli’s postwar critics considered his apostasy to be an act of retribution against a community that had criticized his behavior during the German occupation.

Zolli’s decision to convert to Catholicism, however, was not sudden. It was the culmination of a process that had begun decades earlier. In 1917, when he was 36 years old, Zolli had the first in a series of mystical visions of Jesus. Thus began his fascination with Jesus, but it did not lead him to contemplate leaving Judaism. It would be another 28 years before he would consider converting to Catholicism. It was his misfortune to convert right after the near-destruction of European Jewry, at a time when his personal journey would seem most calculated to affront his fellow Jews.

A week after Zolli and his wife were baptized, T. S. Mathews, the Rome correspondent for Time, interviewed Zolli. Mathews asked about Zolli’s renunciation of Judaism, and Zolli replied, “Do you think I love the Jews less because I have become a Catholic? … No, I shall never stop loving the Jews. I did not compare the Jewish religion to Catholicism and abandon one for the other. This is the greatest tragedy of my life. I slowly, almost imperceptibly became a Christian and could no longer be a Jew.” Mathews concluded that Zolli was “happy about his conversion, miserable about his apostasy.”

Israel Zolli was born Israel Anton Zoller in 1881, in the town of Brody, in Polish Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now is part of Ukraine. When Zolli was young, his father owned a small textile mill, and his parents were well to do. The youngest of five siblings, he lived in a comfortable, middle-class home in which Orthodox Jewish ritual ruled daily life. His mother, who was descended from a long line of rabbinic scholars, insisted that her youngest son study for the rabbinate, and he was accepted at the Italian Rabbinical College in Florence. In addition to his rabbinic studies at the seminary, Zolli attended the University of Florence, where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy.

In 1918, Zolli became rabbi of Trieste. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, the city of Trieste had become Italian territory. Enthusiastic about the city’s new Italian identity, Zoller Italianized his surname and became an Italian citizen. He would spend the next 20 years, from 1918 to 1938, in Trieste. During that time, Zolli would become an important and recognized cultural figure in the city. He participated in numerous debates and conversations that engaged topics from politics and culture to psychoanalysis and literature.

The Jewish community of Trieste included many influential businessmen and assimilated intellectuals. As Zolli came into contact with these cosmopolitan Jewish leaders, they became sources of new political and cultural ideas. We get a sense of Jewish life in early-20th-century Trieste from the journals of James Joyce and his brother Stanislaus. James Joyce taught at the Berlitz School in the city off and on from 1905 to 1915. He was surprised to find that many of the students in his English classes were Jews. Among Joyce’s Jewish students and friends was the writer Aron Ettore Schmitz, who wrote under the name Italo Svevo and is known today as the author of the novel Confessions of Zeno and as a model for Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.

In addition to his rabbinic service in Trieste, Zolli was also an Italian academician with an extensive publishing record, which culminated in the 1938 publication of his book The Nazarene: Studies in New Testament Exegesis. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Zolli taught at the University of Padua. As one of his synagogue congregants noted, “It was understood at Trieste that Zolli wished to be considered, first and foremost, as a scientist and a professor.” Between 1920 and 1940 Zolli published many scholarly articles, ranging over diverse topics, from modern Hebrew literature to Italian Jewish history, even articles comparing Jewish and Christian ritual.

Zolli yearned to be a full-time professor, but his primary job was in the rabbinate. During the 20 years Zolli spent in the Trieste synagogue, the demands of his congregation grew in intensity. Congregants in the large Italian communities of Trieste, Venice, Florence, and Rome expected their rabbis to be both interlocutors with the Catholic authorities and defenders of the Jewish faith. These congregations called on their rabbis not only to articulate Judaism’s positive qualities, but also to shepherd and strengthen the Jewish community’s resolve to preserve its integrity within the larger Catholic culture and to resist the Church’s constant pressure to convert.

In the history of Italian Jewry, the Church had played an aggressive and pronounced role in forced conversions, often coercing Jews into apostasy. In Italy, more than in Germany, France, and the Low Countries, the specter of forced conversion hovered over Jewish communities through the late-19th century and into the early 20th. Past experiences of mass forced conversions, such as in the town of Brescia in the 14th century, haunted the Italian Jewish collective memory. Under papal order, Church officials continued through the middle of the 19th century to preach sermons in Italian synagogues that emphasized conversion. At times, social pressure easily spilled over into brute force, for example in the notorious Mortara case of 1858, when a Jewish boy was taken forcibly from his home in Bologna after being secretly baptized by a family servant.

Thus Jewish communities expected their rabbis to protect their congregants from the Church’s attempts to bring them to the baptismal font. The idea that a rabbi would himself become a Christian was inconceivable. And if a Christian inquired about the possibility of converting to Judaism—not that many Italian Catholics did—the community rabbi’s job was to discourage him or her politely but firmly.

But that situation began to change in the 1930s, when a group of peasants in Apulia sought to convert to Judaism. Led by their charismatic “Prophet,” Donato Manduzio, these villagers from southern Italy had consulted with Zolli about the many details of the conversion process. From 1938 to 1945, Zolli was one of the primary rabbis who advised Manduzio’s followers in their conversion efforts. Thus, as he was slowly moving closer to the Catholic Church, Zolli was in the difficult if not impossible situation of advising Catholics on how to become Jews. We can only imagine the response of these villagers, who had placed their trust in Rabbi Zolli as a Jewish authority, when they discovered that he had in fact decided to join the Catholic faith that they so recently had chosen to abandon. In 1946, the year after Zolli’s apostasy, many in Manduzio’s community became Jews.

And yet according to Zolli’s account in his autobiography Before the Dawn, they were crossing paths—as the new Jews entered the faith, he was exiting. In an interview conducted soon after his conversion Zolli said, “I was a Catholic at heart before war broke out; and I promised God in 1943 that I should become a Christian if I survived the war. No one in the world ever tried to convert me. My conversion was a slow evolution, altogether internal. I am beginning to understand that for many years I was a natural Christian.” As an explanation for why he delayed his conversion for so many years, Zolli cited the example of a prominent European Jewish intellectual, French philosopher Henri Bergson. Zolli quotes Bergson, who wrote in 1937, “My thinking has always brought me nearer to Catholicism, in which I saw the perfect complement of Judaism.” But unlike Zolli, Bergson ultimately chose not to convert, as he wrote, “I would have embraced it if I had not witnessed the frightful wave of anti-Semitism which for some years deluged the world. I prefer to remain with those who would be persecuted tomorrow.” Bergson did not want to abandon his coreligionists in their darkest hour.

For some time, Zolli, like Henri Bergson in France, was constrained by concern for his fellow Jews. Following years of increasing anti-Semitism beginning in the mid-1930s, Italian Jews now faced new and greater dangers. With the fall of the Mussolini government in 1943, the German army moved into Northern Italy and soon after into Rome. During the German occupation, the Nazis attempted to extend the “final solution” to Italy. The Gestapo, under Himmler’s direct orders—and contrary to the orders of Gen. Reiner Stahel, the German military commander for the city of Rome—rounded up thousands of Jews and sent them to their deaths.

The key event for Zolli was a vision he had on Yom Kippur of 1944. While “presiding over the religious services in the temple,” he would later write, he found himself “devoid of thought and feeling.” Then he had in his mind’s eye an image of Jesus in a meadow. “I experienced the greatest interior peace.” He thus situated this crucial experience between the June 1944 synagogue ceremony celebrating the liberation of Rome and the February 1945 church ceremony in which he and his wife Emma were baptized. When the Allied Forces drove the Germans out of Rome in early 1945, Zolli seems to have felt freed from his reservations about conversion. He no longer needed to stand with the persecuted, for they had been liberated from persecution.

Immediately upon Zolli’s conversion, American Jewish leaders mounted a vigorous campaign to discredit him. The New York Board of Jewish Ministers (later the New York Board of Rabbis) sent a letter to its membership before Passover of 1945. It read in part, “The apostasy of the ‘rabbi’ of Rome must be made known to our people as an act of desertion and apostasy.” Rabbi Louis Newman’s 1945 book A ‘Chief Rabbi’ of Rome Becomes a Catholic: A Study in Fright and Spite further extended the campaign. The seeds of the book were planted in a sermon that Newman preached in his synagogue, New York City’s Temple Rodeph Sholom, in the spring of 1945. It is one of the many ironies of Newman’s involvement in the orchestrated critique of Zolli that, as far as Zolli was concerned, Newman was not a fellow rabbi at all. Zolli, like his European Orthodox Jewish colleagues, did not consider American Reform rabbis such as Newman to be true rabbis, but merely pretenders to the title.

After his apostasy, Zolli was free to lead a life of seclusion and scholarship, devoting all of his time to teaching and research. He would teach at the University of Rome and at the Gregorian University’s Pontifical Biblical Institute—as a full professor at a Catholic university. In 1953, Zolli, now known as Professor Eugenio Zolli, organized a conference in Rome on “The Messiah in the Old Testament.” It was a return to a topic he had first addressed in his 1938 book The Nazarene: Studies in New Testament Exegesis. As a rabbi, Zolli had written about Jesus, but he had done so in an objective, scholarly fashion. Writing as a Catholic scholar, he now could emphasize the doctrine of the “harmony of the Old and New Testaments.” According to this Christian concept, all references to the messiah in the Old Testament prefigure the coming of Jesus in the New Testament.

In 1953 Zolli visited the United States, where he delivered a series of lectures at Notre Dame University. As a recipient of one of the first fellowships awarded by the Fulbright Visiting Scholars Program, Zolli taught a summer course for adults on “The Hebrew and Rabbinic Background of Christian Liturgy.” Twenty-six students enrolled. Among them were nine priests, eight nuns, and eight lay persons. An equal number of students enrolled as auditors.

But Zolli’s summer course at Notre Dame, while a great success, was not free of controversy. Some in the American Jewish community, who remembered Zolli’s apostasy some seven years earlier, were troubled that the State Department was making Zolli a Fulbright Fellow and that he would be teaching at Notre Dame. In a syndicated newspaper column that appeared in many local Jewish newspapers, the well-known journalist H. Ziprin penned an attack on Zolli. In an article with the acid title, “They can have him,” Ziprin writes, “It will be remembered that Zolli did not embrace Catholicism while in Vatican hiding but after returning to his rabbinic post in Rome after the liberation of Italy, and it would therefore be within his character to make or contemplate the change now that he is away from Vatican surveillance, though for our part they can have him for the rest of his life.”

In 1954, in The Catholic World, Zolli published an article titled “The Status of the State of Israel.” He presents the State of Israel in a thoroughly Christian context, but his assessment is infused with a Jewish Zionist understanding of the state. The essay opens with a survey of ancient Israelite history and an examination of the “fulfillment” of Israel’s purpose in the life and death of Jesus. Zolli writes, “Jesus saw and forewarned the Jews of the approaching fall of the national State of Israel, and approximately 40 years after his prophecy, a terrible page of history was written by Titus in letters of blood and fire.” This was at the time the Catholic view of Jewish destiny.

But Zolli adds a Jewish perspective: “The countless victims of Nazism preceded the heroes who died to create the modern State of Israel. Now, after indescribable martyrdom under Nazism, after the terrible night of nameless misfortunes, the rosy outlines of dawn for the Hebrew state are taking shape.” Zolli’s reference to the Israel of Jesus’s time as “the national State of Israel” implicitly establishes the connection between the ancient and the modern that is at the core of Zionist thought. In 1949, these ideas were antithetical to most Catholics. In Catholic theology, “Israel” was the church, not the descendants of biblical Israel. Zolli concludes his essay by exhorting modern Israelis to embrace Jesus: “But let not Israel’s pilgrimage end now. Let not the State of Israel become the last and only objective of a suffering people, but may it go on to a more glorious destination. May Israel become God’s pilgrim again.”

In 1956, three years after he returned from his sojourn to the United States, Zolli fell ill with pneumonia. He died in Rome in 1956 at the age of 75, having spent his last decade as an active Catholic thinker, writer, and teacher.

In the past decade, a body of Italian scholarship has emerged that focuses on Zolli’s life and scholarly work. In 2004, Zolli’s 1954 autobiography, Before the Dawn, was at last published in Italy, where it became a best-seller. In 2009, scholars from Padua, Milan, and Rome published an edited volume that examined Zolli and his work. Then in 2010, Zolli’s 1935 book The Nazarene: Studies in New Testament Exegesis was republished in Italy to critical acclaim. As historian Ana Foa wrote in her review of the book, “Zolli was … a liminal figure whom the Jews, understandably hurt by his defection, did not understand, and whom the Church in the postwar period, at a time still light years away from Jewish-Christian openness, preferred to leave to the side.” In the 21st century, Zolli and his work had at last emerged from obscurity.

In 1998 Stefano Zurio, a journalist for Il Giornale, interviewed Zolli’s daughter Miriam, a practicing psychoanalyst in Rome who had for decades deflected questions about her parents’ conversion. Now, at age 76, she wanted to make clear that she did not consider her parents’ conversion an act of apostasy. During the interview, Miriam told Zurio, “It is important that you make clear that my father never abandoned his Judaism. He felt he was a Jew who had come to believe in the Jewish Messiah. But there was no rejection of his Jewish roots or of the Jewish people. So many find that impossible to understand.”

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.