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Italy’s Jews to Israel’s Rabbinate: Hands off Our Artichokes!

Our community has enjoyed the dish and found it kosher for hundreds of years. Stating otherwise is unnecessary and disrespectful.

Simone Somekh
April 13, 2018
carciofi alla giudiaShutterstock
carciofi alla giudiaShutterstock

When Ba’ghetto, the oldest Jewish restaurant in Rome, announced the opening of its new location in Milan, someone must have made a quick phone call to inform the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that the restaurant would be serving the world-renowned Jewish Roman dish, carciofi alla giudia. And the rabbis weren’t happy.

After being served for at least 500 years in the homes and diners of the two-thousand-year-old Jewish community of Rome, the specialty dish has now been declared treif, non-kosher, by the Israeli rabbinate, as Haaretz revealed in early April.

Insidious insects and worms may infest the heart of the vegetable, making it non-kosher, and because, according to the recipe, the artichoke must be almost intact when deep-fried in olive oil, it’s harder to clean it and ensure no insects are inside by the time it’s served.

At publication time, Italian Jewish leaders are yet to comment on the ban; also, the main media outlet published by the umbrella organization of the local Jewish communities has been carefully quiet about it. But many Italian Jews, outraged, have taken over social media to express their dissent. Some posted angry “Je Suis Carciofo” memes, others even wrote poetry about the vegetable, and many journalists thought it would be hilarious to sensationalize the news.

Yes, the idea of an “artichoke war” is entertaining, but is it all about a deep-fried, crunchy, light, delicious vegetable, with a buttery heart and a gentle sprinkle of sea salt on top?

“This is not our policy,” Rabbi Yitzhak Arazi, head of the Import Division at the Israeli rabbinate, said, “this is Jewish religious law.”

But this is not just about religion. This is about politics, history, and tradition. It’s about collective pride, too.

This recipe is one of the most precious documents of the millennial Jewish history of the Italian Peninsula. The few thousand souls who still populate the community of Rome feel the responsibility to protect their identity and traditions. A foreign rabbinate that dictates on a local, rich, distinguished community can easily come across as irritating and disrespectful.

In Italy, there is hardly a distinction between different denominations of Judaism. The vast majority of Jewish communities belong to an umbrella organization known as “UCEI.” One could call Italian Jewry traditional—its rabbis are orthodox, but most of the local Jews are not. The members of the communities often do not identify with their own scholars, let alone the foreign ones.

“Over the last decades, because of immigration and some other contingent historical reasons, Italian Jewry has taken a new turn, slightly more rigorous,” wrote Dario Calimani, a university professor who is also the former president of the Jewish community of Venice. “The existence of the Jewish State, with its Central Rabbinate, is one of these reasons.”

As the Italian Jewish community has increasingly recognized the authority of Israel, Calimani continued, it has also admitted its own weakness and fragility. “The more we adapt to the rigor [the Israeli rabbis are requiring], the more our Judaism creaks under the blows inflicted by a rigidity to which Italian Judaism has never been accustomed.” Not every decision of the rabbis, he warned, should be regarded as the ultimate law of the Torah.

How is it possible, some asked, that the Italian rabbis of the past—including some of the most important figures in Jewish history, namely Obadiah of Bertinoro, Leon of Modena, and the Yad Malachi—never prohibited the carciofi alla giudia? It feels like the Israeli rabbinate is stepping over their memory, as if it were informing us that their rulings were unworthy and incomplete.

The more rigorous version of the halakha requires to detach all of the leaves from the artichoke when cleaning it. Other rabbis, however, think that it’s enough to dip the vegetable in salted water, vinegar, or lemon for at least six minutes, rinse it, and then check for insects. The Israeli rabbinate may not be aware that for the traditional recipe of the carciofi Roman Jews use a local kind of artichoke, the cimarolo or mammola, which has a different shape from the more common type and supposedly attracts less worms.

This is not the first time that some Jews in Italy protest an interference of the Rabbinate of Israel in their local practice.

Shortly before the beginning of Passover in 2010, the chief rabbi of Israel ordered the Roman community not to allow the sale of flour for the preparation of the ciambellette, a traditional Passover dessert made with flour, eggs, and sugar. The recipe, he thought, was too risky and the possible contact with water may turn the product into chametz, forbidden during the holiday. Many protested; “Free the flour” graffiti appeared on the walls of the Roman ghetto.

The war is not about the artichokes. It’s about a community that is decreasing in numbers, slowly languishing, and its fear that a foreign religious authority that hardly understands local needs and traditions will take over. Italian Jewry may be small in numbers, but its presence is still an intrinsic part of Judaism around the world, as well as of the Italian people as a whole.

Certainly the rabbis of Italy can educate the members of their communities on how to check for bugs in a vegetables without the need of the Israeli rabbis to interfere. If needed, the Israeli rabbis can do a more delicate, less boisterous, phone call to their colleagues in the Peninsula. Even more so, if we consider that the Israeli rabbinate should first and foremost take care of its own dirty laundry.

Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.