ROME – Rome is not only modern Italy’s largest and most populated city but it is
also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities of the entire Diaspora.
Following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, many
Jews, deported from Judea by Emperor Titus, arrived to Rome as slaves. There,
they joined a small Jewish community established some two centuries earlier. The
first Jews to arrive were reputedly diplomatic envoys sent by Judah Maccabi in
the second century BCE, giving rise to an organized Jewish community in
continual existence from the Roman Republican period to modern
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Jewish life in Rome was not without its challenges. Jews
faced partial expulsion by both emperors and popes, were compelled to pay
tithes, and, in the middle ages, were forced to wear badges identifying their
Jewish status. Despite alternating waves of acceptance, oppression, and
persecution, Rome’s Jews successfully preserved their communal identity and
their own customs. Their presence secured, Rome's Jews had become very
much a part of Italian society.
By the early twentieth century, not only
did a Jew, Luigi Luzzatti, briefly emerge as the prime minister of Italy
(1910-1911), but another Jewish politician, Ernesto Nathan, served as mayor of
The Jewish community of Rome was as diverse as it was
ancient. Jewish followers of the Italian rite (Italki) were joined by Ashkenazi
Jews from northern Italy, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Jews from
medieval France, and, more recently, Jews from Iran and Libya. Indeed,
throughout the course of Roman- Jewish history, the Jewish community was varied,
with each community – whether Italian, Spanish, or even German – maintaining
some cultural independence through the establishment of a separate synagogue for
However, the religious rites and minhagim
(customs) of the
original Roman-Jewish community remain a strong feature of Roman-Jewish life
that has persisted over the more than two-thousand-year presence of the Jews in
Today, Rome has a Jewish population of about 15,000 people served
by about a dozen Ashkenazi and Sephardic Orthodox synagogues. However, none is
more ornate, nor as large, as Tempio Maggiore di Roma – Rome‚s Great
Synagogue˜whose liturgy reflects the Orthodox Italki rite, as practiced by
Italian Jews since early Roman times.
Given the ancient heritage of
Rome’s Jewish community, it is little wonder why Pope John Paul II, in 1986,
chose to pay his respects to the Jewish people at Rome’s Great Synagogue, where
the chief rabbi of Rome continues to officiate.
Accessible to tourists
who must first pass through a security gate (vigilantly maintained ever since
1982’s violent attack on the synagogue left dozens wounded and a child dead),
this synagogue should not be missed on anyone’s tour of the Eternal City. While
Rome’s Great Synagogue is not the oldest in Italy or elsewhere (in Europe, the
ancient Ostia synagogue, excavated at Rome‚s ancient port, and Barcelona’s
Sinagoga Mayor retain this distinction), it remains a monumental architectural
Constructed following Italian unification that made Rome the
capital of Italy in 1871, the present synagogue replaced the former Ghetto
Synagogue (destroyed, for the most part, by a fire in 1893) that had housed,
under one roof, five different scole (the Italian-Jewish term for synagogues).
These five scole reflected the different Jewish rites cohabiting in Rome‚s
Ghetto, which, following Italian unification, King Victor Emmanuel II dismantled
while giving the Jews full citizenship. Within a single building, three of the
synagogues had practiced the Italian rite (Scola del Tempio, Scola Nuova, and
Scola Siciliana), and two, the Spanish rite (Scola Catalana and Scola
Castigliana). Following a three-year period of construction, the new building
was completed in 1904. After more than a century of service to the Jewish
citizens of Rome, it retains an esteemed reputation among Rome‚s many famous
Designed by Italian architects Vincenzo Costa and
Osvaldo Armanni, Tempio Maggiore – the new “Great Synagogue” – reflects an
eclectic combination of the Italian style and Assyrian-Babylonian motifs so as
not to mimic Christian churches. The former “five scole” were replaced by this
large Great Temple, retaining the Italian rite, and, beneath, a smaller
synagogue retaining the Spanish rite.
The Tempio Maggiore is both massive
and decorative. The impressive marble-lined interior, viewed with a full
upward gaze, is awe-inspiring. In a city famous for its round domes, the
building is topped by a unique square dome, the only such dome in all of Rome.
This visual distinction makes Rome’s main synagogue easily identifiable from
many viewpoints throughout Italy’s capital.
THE JEWISH Museum of Rome
should also not be missed. Opened in 1960 to house the vast collections of
Rome‚s Jewish community, the museum is located at a side entrance to the Tempio
Maggiore, at Lungotevere de’Cenci 15. The many exhibits include art objects,
documents, and other artifacts that illustrate Roman Jewry’s more than two
thousand years of history. The museum offers escorted tours of the remarkable
collections and the synagogues (but interior photography is
Each room has a theme. Room 1 has precious Renaissance
velvet coverings decorated with Baroque-era golden thread, embroidery and lace.
Room 2 contains tombstones from the Roman catacombs and the synagogue of Ostia,
as well as medieval manuscripts. While Room 3 displays objects reflecting the
mainstays of the Jewish year and holiday observances, Room 4 contains liturgical
items donated by the Jews of the ghetto to their various synagogues. Room 5
displays objects that narrate the history from the period of Jewish emancipation
to the present era. Room 6 documents Libyan Judaism, specifically how the Jewish
community of Libya has contributed to the Roman-Jewish community.
1967, Libyan Jews fled from Tripoli and Benghazi to Rome as refugees where they
added a new layer of culture to Rome’s Jewish traditions. Room 7 displays more
objects focusing on what life was like in the Ghetto of Rome.
Synagogue – overlooking the Tiber River, situated between Via Catalana and
Lungotevere de’Cenci – is adjacent to Rome’s historic Jewish Ghetto. Walking
along Via del Portico d’Ottavia, one of the Ghetto’s main streets, the
contemporary tourist is transported back to an earlier time.
by old neighborhood buildings, one gets a feel for what daily life might have
been like within the former Ghetto. Today, this street, among others in the
Ghetto (as the neighborhood is still known), is filled with locals and tourists
alike. It is a fascinating area in which to stroll, filled with several kosher
restaurants, bakeries, and Jewish shops.
No visit to Rome is complete
without a glimpse of the Arch of Titus, situated on the highest point of the Via
Sacra, leading to the Roman Forum. Depicting the end of the Jewish Wars (66-70
CE) and the Roman destruction and pillage of the Temple in Jerusalem, the arch’s
carved reliefs illustrate the sacred menora being carried off to Rome (where its
ultimate location has been lost to history).
Few Jews choose to walk
under the arch due to the oppressive symbolism, but it is a worthwhile reminder
of the precarious existence of the Jews since antiquity. Indeed, Rome’s
ancient Jewish past, like its present, serves as testimony to Jewish tenacity
and survival.Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver. This
article first appeared in the Jewish Independent.