The History of Jews in Italy goes back over 2,000 years. Jews first
appeared in Rome in the 2nd century B.C.E when Judah Maccabee sent
envoys to the Roman Emperor. The Jewish community in Rome is one of the
oldest Jewish communities in Europe and also one the oldest continuous
Jewish settlements in the world. After the Romans invaded Judea in 63
B.C.E., Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves; Jewish
delegates came to Rome on diplomatic missions and Jewish merchants
traveled to Rome seeking to do business in the Imperial capital. Many
of those who visited Rome stayed and the Jewish population began to
The Jewish community in Rome was actually treated better that the Jews
who remained in conquered Judea. Julius Caesar, who was known to be a
friend of the Jews, allowed them to settle anywhere in the Roman
Empire. It is said that when Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., Roman
Jews wept at his tomb. His successor, Augustus, also acted favorably
toward the Jews and scheduled his grain distribution so that it would
not interfere with the Jewish Sabbath. The Emperor allowed synagogues to
be built in Rome without restriction.
During the Jewish Wars in Judea, prisoners were brought back to Rome as
slaves. Many of the oldest Jewish Roman families trace their ancestry
to this period. Judea was of course crushed, the Temple destroyed, and
world Jewry changed forever. Upon his victory over the Jews, the
Emperor issued a coin stamped with the words “Iudea Capta” – “Judea
Captive”, and the Arch of Titus erected. The Friezes on the arch depict
the destruction of Jerusalem and the treasures of the Temple being
carried off as spoils of war. Jews were granted the privilege of
becoming Roman citizens in 212 C.E.
By the second half of the first century C.E., the Roman Jewish community
became firmly established. Jews were shopkeepers, craftsman and
peddlers, but other Jews became poets, physicians and actors. The
satiric poets of the time depicted the boisterous activities of Jewish
peddlers and beggars in their poetry.
Life for the Jewish community in Rome and the rest of the Empire was
good until the rise of Christianity and the reign of Constantine.
Constantine enacted laws limiting the rights of Jews as citizens.
Synagogues were destroyed by Christian mobs in 387-388 C.E. and in
493-526 C.E. When Rome was captured by Vandals in 455 C.E., the captured
treasures of the Temple were taken to North Africa and lost to
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish community of Rome and the rest of
Europe suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Christians. Jews were
seen as a threat to the flimsy Christian mythology, and therefore
persecuted and exterminated at every opportunity. The Jewish community
of Rome continued to flourish and there was a revival of Hebrew studies,
centered on the local yeshiva, Metivta de Mata Romi. A number of
well-known scholars, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Moses and Rabbi Jacob "Gaon"
and Rabbi Nathan ben Jehil, taught in Rome. Roman Jewish traditions
followed those practiced in the Land of Israel and the liturgical
customs started in Rome spread throughout Italy and the rest of the
The Jews of Rome fully participated in the glories of the Renaissance,
becoming merchants, traders and bankers, as well as artisans. This glory
did not last long for the Jews. Pope Alexander VI imposed a tax on
Jews to pay for one his military campaigns against the Turks. In 1555,
Paul IV was the first ruler in Europe to segregate Jews from the rest of
the population by forcing them to live in a Ghetto. They were also
forced to wear a yellow hat or badge, and were forbidden from leaving
the Ghetto at night. They were only allowed to have the most menial of
jobs. They were not allowed to study in higher education institutions
or become lawyers, pharmacists, painters, politicians, notaries or
architects. Jewish doctors were only allowed to treat Jewish patients.
Jews were forced to pay an annual stipend to pay the salaries of the
Catholic officials who supervised the Ghetto Finance Administration and
the Jewish Community Organization; a stipend to pay for Christian
missionaries who proselytized to the Jews and a yearly sum to the
Cloister of the Converted. These abominations would be revived by the
During the Reformation the Talmud was banned, and on Rosh Hashanah 1553
it was publicly burned with many other Jewish volumes. The Jews were
continually harassed in the Ghetto and humiliated at every opportunity.
Jews were forced to inhabit the Ghetto for 300 years. The Ghetto was
finally dismantled in 1870 when Italy was united under King Victor
Emanuel. He also gave the Jews full citizenship.
Today there are about 15,000 Jews in Rome. The community is very
diverse and vibrant. The area that was once the Roman Ghetto is still
the heart of the Jewish area, where Jewish shops and kosher restaurants
The cooking of Roman Jews is legendary. All of the glories of Italian
Cuisine tempered by the laws of Kashrut are at the fingertips of the
Roman Jews. Specialties include whole artichokes fried in olive oil,
salt cod, dried beef, and many cheeses. Fresh fish are also very
The following recipe is for a traditional Roman Passover almond cake.
Called Torta del Re, this recipe can be traced back to the Sephardic
Jews who found their way to Rome after being expelled from Spain in
Torta del Re
Serves 8 to 10
Extra virgin olive oil for greasing pan
5 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 ½ cups ground almonds
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Juice of half a lemon
Passover confectioner’s sugar for dusting
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted.
1. Prepare a 10 inch spring-form pan by oiling with olive oil and lining bottom with parchment paper.
2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Beat the egg whites, half the granulated sugar, and salt to firm peaks.
4. Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining granulated sugar until they
are foamy and lemon-colored. Add the ground almonds, lemon juice, and
zest. The batter will be quite stiff.
5. Mix 1/3 of the egg whites into the nut mixture to lighten it. Then delicately fold in remaining egg whites.
6. Pour the batter into prepared cake pan and bake for 1 hour.
7. After 1 hour, turn off oven, open the door a crack, and allow to cool for 15 minutes.
8. After 15 minutes, remove from oven and cool cake in the pan upside
down on a rack until cooled completely. When completely cooled, remove
cake from the pan. Dust the top with confectioner’s sugar and sprinkle
with toasted almonds.