All walking tours lead to Rome

Discover the fascinating history and rich heritage of Rome’s Jewish community.

October 29, 2010 16:26
4 minute read.
Rome, Italy

"The Ghetto" in Rome 311. (photo credit: Stephen Burstin)

Heard the one about the pope who presided over the cruel imprisonment of thousands of Jews and yet had the hutzpa to ask the Rothschild banking family for a loan? It’s no joke! Neither is the one about the rabbi whose synagogue is now a top-class restaurant with the mikve accommodating a much revered wine cellar.

And there’s the other rabbi who regularly conducted Shabbat services in his synagogue under the noses of Nazi troops patrolling outside.

It’s all true and just a few of the incredible tales and amazing sights on my walking tour of Rome’s Jewish ghetto. The three-hour excursion is one of the most popular of a variety of tours provided in the Italian capital.

Visitors are astonished to discover just how fascinating is the varied history and rich heritage of Rome’s Jewish community.

Jews have had a helter-skelter existence in Rome from ancient times to the present, with periods of tranquility and times of sheer torment.

My family in Rome proudly boasts roots going back more than 2,000 years to the first Jewish settlers in the Eternal City. It has given me a unique insight into the struggles and joyous moments in the enthralling history of Rome’s Jewish community.

A typical ghetto tour starts 200 meters from the ghetto itself in the area of Trastevere where the first Jewish settlers in Roman times lived and remained until the ghetto was set up in 1555. A short stroll through narrow alleyways in Trastevere, some still retaining their medieval charm, reveals little-known sights of Jewish interest, including that former synagogue from the Middle Ages that today provides gastronomic sustenance rather than the spiritual kind.

Then, in the short distance between Trastevere and the ghetto, visitors step onto the tiny quaint island of Tiberina, in the middle of the Tiber River, where one can hear tales of Jewish survival and courage.

Next is the ghetto quarter itself, first for a visit inside the awesome Great Synagogue built just over a century ago on a site bought from the city council – but only after 13 years of tough negotiation. There are some puzzling questions to be answered while sitting in the synagogue, including why there are two bimot and why there is a separate Spanish mini-synagogue tucked away in the basement.

Within the Great Synagogue is the Jewish Museum boasting an enormous collection of exquisite Torah covers with a colorful history, precious ritual objects and a host of other exhibits relating to the 2,200-year-old community, the oldest continuous Jewish presence outside Israel. Walking around the small ghetto, visitors hear about the Roman Jewish community’s 300 years of incarceration behind locked gates and its seemingly impossible desire to practice the faith, yet accomplishing it with fortitude and a rich helping of trickery against the authorities.

Also the community’s attempts to overcome its tormentors’ constant imposition of new cruelties, eventually emerging from the ordeal stronger and prouder than ever.

With the unification of Italy in 1870 and the end of the papacy’s political power, the ghetto was disbanded. But it was to be only a short respite in the suffering of Rome’s Jews, for 50 years down the line Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party came on the scene, with further fatal trials awaiting the Jewish people when the Nazis later occupied Rome. But tales of heroism and escape will grip the listener.

Today, the ghetto is a vibrant and bustling quarter where many of the Jewish community gather to chat, enjoy a meal in one of the numerous kosher restaurants or quietly sit on a bench devouring Carciofi alla Giudia, the delicious Roman Jewish delicacy of fried artichoke. The ghetto piazza is also the ideal setting to hear a few anecdotes and humorous stories over a drink at a pavement café bar.

One can see on tourists’ faces that much of what they hear and see before them is a revelation. For everyone it is most entertaining and for many it can also be quite inspirational.

Even tours that feature famous sites like the Coliseum and Roman Forum have points of Jewish interest that seem to amaze everyone. Rome’s Jews are the longest standing of any religion or community in the Eternal City and examples of their presence and influence are everywhere – if you know where to find them.

And with most cruise ships making nearby Civitavecchia a port of call for a day, cruise passengers can sign up too for ghetto tours, with transfers also arranged. After a lunch break, and before the drive back to the ship, there’s an opportunity to view some of Rome’s famous highlights, including the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, Vatican and Circo Massimo, the ancient chariot race arena, made famous by the movie epic Ben Hur.

For more information on Stephen Burstin’s Jewish Rome tours, visit his website at

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