Are you ready for a 'Roman Holiday'?

Italy makes a pitch to the Israeli traveler.

Jewish ghetto in Rome 248 bloomberg (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Jewish ghetto in Rome 248 bloomberg
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Long before all roads led to Rome, Jews knew how to get there. Some 160 years before the birth of Jesus, Judah Maccabee sent two Jewish emissaries from the Holy Land to Italy. The romance of Rome, capital of the Lazio region, attracted some Jews to settle in the city, and a section on the Tiber known as Trastevere became known as a Jewish area. Italian tourist operators who want to lure Israelis to make a similar journey held a promotional dinner at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv last week to highlight the attraction of Rome and the broader Lazio region, and its ancient connection to Jewish history. Besides having the oldest Jewish community in Europe, it was in Italy, for example, that the first complete Hebrew edition of the Bible was printed and that Jews were first herded into a ghetto. Annamaria Carrer, director of the Agency for the Promotion of Tourism for Rome and Lazio, and the agency's president, Federica Alatri, were among those who touted the marvels of Lazio, which they claimed rivaled the better known Tuscany region. Israeli sports fans may be more familiar with Lazio because of its fine soccer team. But Carrer and Alatri want Israelis to associate it with Jewish history, fine food, art and culture. They held the dinner on the sidelines of a two-day International Mediterranean Tourism Market in Tel Aviv. Hosted by the Tourism Ministry, it drew industry representatives from 20 different countries. Of all the literature laid out across a long table leading to the room in which Carrer narrated a power-point presentation, what instantly stood out was a book called Lazio Jewish Itineraries, a pamphlet on Jewish Rome and another on Museo Ebraico di Roma, the Jewish museum in the Italian capital. The museum is a gold mine of historical, cultural and artistic artifacts dating back to the mid-15th century, when the Jews of Rome were confined to a ghetto where they lived under the most overcrowded conditions until the end of the 19th century. The museum, located on the premises of the Great Synagogue of Rome, was established in 1960 and has documented evidence that Jews lived in Italy for more than 2,000 years. The Great Synagogue of Rome was built shortly after the unification of Italy in 1807. The ancient synagogue of Ostia Antica is one of the oldest in Europe, having been originally built in the first century BCE. Most synagogues in Italy remained intact during the Holocaust, while a few others have been restored in recent years. Italy's estimated 35,000 Jews are today concentrated in Rome and Milan. There are several kosher restaurants in Rome, with a prominent one located in the former ghetto to create an aura of authentic antiquity. Italian Ambassador Luigi Mattiolo put in a personal pitch for Lazio, not only because that's part of his job as an envoy, but also because he happened to be born there and is familiar with all it has to offer the visitor. Mattiolo claimed that Lazio has the biggest concentration of culture, history and art in the world. Italy takes tourism very seriously, he said. It hosts 36 million tourists a year, and is the 50th most visited country in the world. Not only does Italy have one of the oldest Jewish communities outside Israel, he said, but the community is also "one of the most authentic." Roni Benatoff, president of the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce (one of the sponsors of the event), said that whereas Turkey used to be the most popular tourist destination for Israelis, strained bilateral ties over Operation Cast Lead have provided an opportunity for Italy to take advantage of this new reality. People who live in Mediterranean countries are famous for their appetite for good food, and the evening naturally concluded with a festive Italian meal. The Italians brought their own chef with them, who worked his culinary magic in conjunction with the chef of the hotel. For those with an appetite for travel, Lazio seems to have something for everyone.