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Rome’s Jewish Quarter, the Ghetto

Rome, Italy

Jews had long settled in Rome, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that they were segregated in a Ghetto. A guide tells us the story as we stroll through the neighborhood, with its synagogue, Judaica shops, kosher restaurants, and venerable bakery.

Complete Video Script

Rome is a collection of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own heritage and character. A good example is the ghetto, or Jewish Quarter.

In ancient times, this bridge was called “Jews’ Bridge” because Jews and other foreigners — who weren’t allowed to live in central Rome — would commute from Trastevere, over there, across this bridge, to get into town.

To understand the Jewish chapter of Rome’s story, we’re joining my friend and fellow tour guide, Micaela Pavoncello. Micaela’s family goes all the way back to the Jewish community living here before Christ, and the family line continues. Her baby is due in just a few months.

Rick: So, what’s unique about the Roman Jewish community?
Micaela: Well, first of all, we’re not Ashkenazim, and we’re not Sephardim. You know, the Ashkenazi went to Germany and Poland, and the Sephardi went to Spain. The Roman Jews came straight from Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple, so we are here since before the Diaspora.
Rick: Ah. So, when you think Ashkenazic or Sephardic, that’s after the Diaspora.
Micaela: Yes.
Rick: So, you can say this is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
Micaela: Yes, one of the oldest outside of Israel.
Rick: So, if the Roman Jews came before the Diaspora, why did they come here in the first place?
Micaela: Because they were diplomats and businessmen. And during the centuries we had to live with emperors and popes. And we were tolerated because we were good for the business, and we were not pushing our religion to the others; we were keeping it for ourselves.
Rick: So then what happened?
Micaela: Then we’re in 1500, the Reformation came, and the Church had to fight any alternative religion. And so the ghetto was established in Rome to…
Rick: Okay, so the church is fighting the Protestants and at the same time fighting the Jews?
Micaela: Yeah. And to avoid any contamination between Jews and Christians, Jews were segregated in that walled area in Rome in 1555.
Rick: So what was the life like in the ghetto?
Micaela: Well, you have to imagine 9,000 people squeezed in a four-blocks area, flooded every single winter — because the Tiber would flood every winter. So it was squalid, muddy, disgusting…it was the worst real estate of Rome.

The synagogue was the community center. It looks like a church because back when it was built there were no Jewish architects handy, and that’s what Christian builders knew how to make.

It’s Art Nouveau with a dash of Tiffany. The dome was painted with the colors of the rainbow — symbolic of God’s promise to Noah that there would be no more floods. The stars symbolized that the Jewish people would be as many as the stars in the sky.

Back in previous centuries, when the ghetto was a walled-in town, Christian Romans built churches at each gate. And each of these churches came complete with an attempt — in Hebrew script — to convert the Jews.

While most of the squalid ghetto was demolished with Italian unification in 1870, the buildings facing the main drag survive. Shops sell fine, locally produced Judaica, and kosher restaurants proudly serve traditional dishes, like those with artichokes.

While the Jewish community now lives all over town, many Roman Jews still enjoy gathering here, in the neighborhood where they have such deep roots.

Michaela: So, I’ll take you to the Jewish bakery. The same family has been running the same business for 200 years! They only offer five or six recipes, so don’t ask for weird things. They only have cheesecake with chocolate, cinnamon biscotti with almonds, macaroons, and the pizza. That’s called a “Jewish pizza.”
Rick: What is in the Jewish pizza?
Michaela: It’s like a, almost like a fruitcake with pine nuts, almonds, candies…
Rick: Tell me about the challah bread.
Michaela: The challah bread…it’s what we serve when a baby boy is born, or when a couple gets married, or when we have a bar mitzvah. Ah, you like it.
Rick: So, this is to celebrate a new baby.
Michaela: Yeah, it’s to celebrate new babies or…
Rick: That’s very appropriate today. Very nice.