The Jewish Community of Rome :
a short history




The Jews of Rome are the most ancient citizens of the city

The Jewish Community of Rome is the most ancient in Europe. We know that some of the first Jews arrived there in the year 161 B.C.E. They came as ambassador of Judah Maccabe, seeking Roman protection against the Hellenistic, Syrian emperor Antiochus IV. Subsequently, many Jews decided to move to Rome, because it was a major Mediterranean trading centre. The Jews brought with them rituals and traditions that were in use in the Temple in Jerusalem, which today are commonly referred to as the “Italian tradition and rite”. They originally lived in Trastevere, where all foreigners were required to reside. At that time Jews were not citizens of Rome because Israel and Judea were not jet part of the Roman Empire. Later, after both Israel and Judea became client states of Rome, there was a Jewish uprising which was repressed in 70 C.E. by the Roman general Titus, who destroyed and sacked Jerusalem and the Temple; many thousands of Jews were killed. Many of the Jews who survived, escaped in two different directions (iaspora dispersion): one group went to the Mediterranean area and they are known as Sephardic (Spanish) Jews; while another group migrated to Northen Europe, and they are known as Ashkenazi (German) Jews. Titus brought a third group of Jews to Rome seized in the uprising and who became slaves. Subsequently, they joined the Jewish Community living in Rome.

During the Middle Ages, many Jews moved from Trastevere to the area round Ponte Fabricio. However, as a result of the attitude of the Papacy, there was discrimination and the Jews were separated and isolated from the rest of population. In 1215 the Church forced the Jews to wear distinctive insignia on their clothing identifying them as Jews. In 1492 the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews from Spain and the Kingdom of the Two Sicily (Sicily, Calabria and Sardinia). While the Borgia Pope Alexander VI allowed these Jews to remain in the Papal States, in 1555 his successor, Paul IV, established the Ghetto in Rome and required all Jews to live there. The Ghetto area was very small, surrounded by a wall with five gates and living conditions were very unhealthy with constant flooding in winter. The Jews were allowed to leave the Ghetto during the daytime, but were required to wear Jewish insignia. Only two professions were permitted: money lending and selling used clothing. In th Ghetto there were five Synagogues: Scola Catalana, Scola Castigliana, Scola Siciliana, Scola Tempio and Scola Nova. Some of the objects that were used in these synagogues are exhibited in the Jewish Museum of Rome.

The Jews were emancipated and obtained full citizenship after 1870, when Italy was unified. The Ghetto was abolished and the Jews remained full citizens until 1938, when the anti-Semitic and discriminatory Italian Racial Laws were adopted by the Fascism. During the German occupation (from September 1943 until June 1944), 2091 Jews were deported to extermination camps, mainly Auschwitz. From Italy 6.806 Jews were deported, only 837 came back; during the round-up of the Nazis, helped by the Fascists, in the area of the Ghetto on 16 October 1943, 1022 Jews were deported (200 babies) and only 16 came back (15 men and 1 woman). In 1944, in the caves outside of Rome (Fosse Ardeatine), the Nazis killed 335 Italians, including 75 Jews.

During the World War II, Rome was declared “Open City” due to the presence of the Pope, Pius XII. The Nazis did not destroy any monuments in Rome, including the Synagogue, which was sealed and reopened after the war.

In 1948 and in 1967 many Jews from Arab countries came to Rome and they became part of the Community. In 1982, immediately following the feast of Simchat Torah, the Synagogue was attacked by Palestinian terrorists: a two-year-old boy was killed and many injured. In 1996 the Pope Johan Paul II was the first Pope to visit the Synagogue.

Now there are about ten Synagogues of different traditions in Rome, all Orthodox (Italian, Askhenazi, Sepahrdic). The Community organizes several events to promote Jewish culture inside and outside the Community. There are several Kasher restaurants and shops where it is possible to buy Kasher products. There is some antisemitism, but the Government of Italy is strongly against it. We can say that for a Jew there is a good life in Rome.


Silvia Haia Antonucci


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- Copyright © 2004: Moïse Rahmani -