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The Oldest Romans of Them All: 
The Jews of Rome

As general manager of Rome’s Excelsior Hotel, Paolo Lorenzoni spends much of his time in the vicinity of the chic and legendary Via Veneto. But he grew up in the ancient Roman neighborhood Trastevere which lies across the Tiber River from the main synagogue and the old ghetto. “I learned a lot of words from the Jewish dialect because I was always playing football with the Jewish boys,” the debonair Paolo told us.

“My first job at the Excelsior was banquet manager, and I would often meet with people planning weddings and bar mitzvahs as the Excelsior is the major place in Rome for such events,” he went on. “Whenever the parents, the bride and the groom would speak to each other in the Jewish dialect, I would understand everything they were saying.”

Nevertheless some years later when Paolo, by then the Excelsior’s general manager, received a phone call from the Israeli ambassador, he was at a loss to understand. “Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister at that time,” he told us, “and the ambassador wondered whether I could arrange for Netanyahu to pass through Titus’ Arch.  It was after hours; all the buildings and monuments in the Roman Forum were closed. Could I get someone from the Roman municipality to open the Forum area and accommodate the Prime Minister, he asked me. Of course, I quickly arranged for the visit although it seemed such a strange request.”

But any of Paolo’s boyhood friends, indeed any Roman Jew could have told him why Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to pass beneath the nearly 2,000 year-old monument. Erected by Emperor Domitian to honor Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the arch has a bas relief on its underside which depicts the leaders of the Jewish revolt being led into Rome as slaves, the Temple’s seven-branched menorah burdening their shoulders. The Jews of Rome vowed at that time never to pass beneath this image of defeat and enslavement. And it was a promise that was kept, being passed from generation to generation, until 1948 when the modern state of Israel was born. Then, those who returned to their ancient homeland deliberately walked under Titus’ Arch  -- only in the direction that led away from Rome. Benjamin Netanyahu is not a Roman Jew. Yet he felt compelled to share in this symbolic passing from slavery to freedom.

The The Oldest Romans of Them All Jews of Rome - click to enlarge The The Oldest Romans of Them All Jews of Rome - click to enlarge

It is this sense of time, where centuries can be so easily collapsed, that characterizes and distinguishes the story of the Jews of  Rome.   They regard themselves as being in a special category, one that predates Ashkenazi and Sephardic classifications. Its origins lie deep in antiquity for Rome is one of the oldest centers of Jewish life in the western world. Indeed, many say the Romans with the longest lineage are the  Jews.

Manlio Dell’Ariccia, a descendent of Jews who came to Rome from Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple, is a director of the Joint Distribution Committee. We’d never met him before, but as soon he steps into the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel, we know it’s him -- a man in a long raincoat with a neatly trimmed beard, a folder in his hand, a look of purposefulness on his face, an expression of radiant kindness in his eyes. He suggests we go into the Dombey next door, the same café where Marcello Mastroianni and the La Dolce Vita crowd once hung out.

“Our roots in Italy are deep-seated,” Manlio tells us over cups of espresso and glasses of blood-red orange juice. “We claim the distinction, the purity of having ancestors who came to Rome in ancient times. But there has also been immigration throughout the centuries that followed, particularly after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The newest group is from Libya (a former Italian colony) who began arriving after the Six Day War. But you can’t tell one group from the other; we don’t differentiate.

“We have many synagogues,” he added. “Some function every day, some just on Shabbat, some just for the holidays. But they are not separate congregations. All belong to the Roman Jewish community with one grand rabbi overseeing. Our services are uniquely Roman with the exception of a single synagogue that adopts the Sephardic style.”

He went on, “Roman Jews have never been considered foreigners. They feel Italian, not a separate group as other European Jews did. Nevertheless for more than three hundred years, they were obliged to live in the ghetto and forbidden to work in many professions. Their oppression lasted longer than elsewhere in Italy and other nations like Germany and France because Rome was governed by the Vatican.

“After the ghetto was demolished in 1870, the Roman Jews were at last free; around the turn of the last century, there was even a Jewish mayor. But the freedom lasted for less than seventy years because once the fascists came into power, the rights of the Jews were restricted once again.

The The Oldest Romans of Them All Jews of Rome - click to enlarge
Manlio Dell’Ariccia descends from Jews who came to Rome from Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple

Life Is Beautiful had recently been shown on Italy’s national television network,” he continued. “It had the highest audience rating of any film ever televised. I felt it was successful from an artistic point of view, using a different language to communicate the message of what the Italian fascists did.”

Predictably, our conversation was spanning the millennia. We had begun speaking of ancient times and in minutes had moved to the 20th century and World War II, a subject never far from the surface in any discussion of European Jewish history.

“As you must know there were no deportations until after the Italian fascists were overthrown and the Germans occupied Italy,” Manlio told us. “When the Germans arrived in Rome in the fall of 1943, they summoned the leaders of the Jewish community -- my grandfather, a rabbi, was among them -- and told them there would be no deportation if they received 70 kilos of gold within three days.

“The day the gold was delivered, my mother went to see that everything was going smoothly,” Manlio continued. “A Polish woman approached her. ‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘Today they take your gold; tomorrow they will take you.’ And sure enough, the next day – October 16, the second day of Sukkoth, the Germans went to the ghetto area where most of the Jewish population still lived, rounded them up, and deported them, mainly to Auschwitz. My mother, however, had taken the woman’s advice. She found a place to hide in a small warehouse for herself and my father who was her fiancé then, her parents, her sister with her husband and child, and a cousin – eight in all.”   

He went on, “Before the racial laws were passed, my mother had a maid in her employ. After she was forced to leave, this maid got married and moved to Riano, a small town not far from Rome. But whenever she came to Rome, she would visit with my mother. Now, somehow, she found out where my mother and her family were hiding. She came to them and said, ‘We will move you all to my village and tell the people you escaped from the bombs in Rome.’

“The maid and her husband were the bakers of this village; the Germans would come to their house every day to buy bread. Everyone in the village knew they were there and kept their secret until a few days before the American troops entered Rome when the priest of the village knocked on the door and told them ‘Run, run. The Germans are coming to pick you up.’ One man had betrayed them. They hid in a cave for two weeks. Then the Americans arrived. All survived.

“My mother’s former maid became a Righteous Gentile. We still are in touch with her children; I consider them as my brother and sister. Like many Jewish families,” Manlio added with some feeling, “mine was rescued by Italian people.”

So was the family of Sergio Di Veroli. A computer specialist, Sergio and his wife Elena Mortara, a professor of American literature at Rome University, live in a neighborhood of modern apartment houses not far from the Vatican. They are an exuberant couple possessed of great warmth and typical Italian heart, qualities that emerged during the afternoon we spent with them in their airy, light-filled apartment whose lime-green walls were covered with paintings by Israeli artists.

 The The Oldest Romans of Them All Jews of Rome  - click to enlarge
Sergio Di Veroli, computer specialist, at his computer
 The The Oldest Romans of Them All Jews of Rome  - click to enlarge
Elena Mortara teaches American literature at Rome University

Elena was born in Milan, but Sergio, like Manlio,  traces his Roman ancestry to ancient times. His father was a builder and well known in the neighborhoods around the old ghetto where many Jews continued to live decades after it was demolished. Nevertheless with the passing of the racial laws in 1938, his father was forced to stop work in the middle of a construction project and afterwards was unable to find a job.

“Italian Jewry seems to have suffered less comparatively speaking, but we don’t agree with the trend of not emphasizing the evils of Italian fascists,” Elena told us over the excellent pasta luncheon she prepared. “They created policies that made life between 1938 and 1943 unlivable.”

“We could not go to school with the other children,” Sergio said, ""so the community formed its own schools."

“Jewish teachers could not teach in public schools,” Elena added. “Jewish professors could not teach in universities. Every day there was a new law: Jews could not own a radio; they could not have a connection with the world. They could not have a Christian maid. If they were civil service employees, they had to leave their jobs. They could not own shops.”

“Often, however, gentile neighbors ran their shops for them,” Sergio interrupted, adding that neighbors were overwhelmingly supportive. One of them saved his family by warning of the impending deportation. A small child at the time, he remembers waking up and being hurriedly dressed by his mother. “This morning it’s not important to get washed,” she told the startled boy.

“It was impossible for my family, for any of the Jews of Rome, to conceive of what they really planned,” Sergio said. “We thought the Nazis were only going to round up the men who could work. And then we thought perhaps they want to bring the families along with the men – so they could be together. Luckily our neighbor understood the danger and saw that my family – eight in all – got to a building whose construction had not yet been completed.”

He continued, “When we arrived, my grandmother suddenly realized she had left her son’s overcoat and shoes behind. He was away in the army. It was difficult to get such things during the war, and she knew when he came back he would need his overcoat and shoes. ‘What can the Nazis do to me? I’m an old woman,’ she said (she was only 58), and went back to their building just as the SS was arriving. But the man who guarded the building was with us. He warned her, and she managed to get away.

“This is important to understand,” Sergio added, “the lack of perception of danger in this moment. My family had no idea of what was awaiting them.”

The family moved from the half-finished building to a little pension near the Piazza L’Argentina not far from the old ghetto. “One evening around 11 o’clock, the owner of the pension came and told us the SS were coming, and we had to escape” Sergio said. “We climbed over the roof of the building to another one and stayed there until it was safe to come back. It was December or January. I was in my pajamas, and I still can remember how cold it was.”

He went on, “Later on we moved in with the sisters of a friend of my parents who was in the Resistance. They had an apartment near the Via Apia in the south of Rome, and we stayed there until the war’s end. We knew for a week the Germans were escaping any way they could. The day they got out, three jeeps filled with Americans drove up the road. It was a fantastic image.

“But while we were in hiding, we had a lot of problems, no electricity being just one of them. The fact that most Italians were against the Nazis made it easy for us to hide. But there were also Italian fascists, and they could be even more terrifying. While the Germans didn’t know us, the Italians did. People were paid for denouncing Jews.”

After lunch, Sergio and Elena offered to take us to the area around the old ghetto. We drove down to the Tiber and continued along the riverfront to Trastevere, the same section where Paolo Lorenzoni had learned the Jewish dialect playing football with the boys of the neighborhood. Today it is Rome’s most happening neighborhood where fashionable bars and discos stay open to the wee hours. We crossed the bridge that spans the river, the island Tibernia in between its two banks, with Rome’s great synagogue looming before us. Of classical and Assyrian style with a distinctive domed roof, it was the site of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1986, a move that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican.

Click to Enlarge The dark and narrow streets of the old ghetto lie just beyond. From the middle of the sixteenth century until the end of Vatican rule in 1870, Roman Jews were required to live in this confined area.  “See how tall the buildings are,” Elena pointed out. “The highest buildings in Rome used to be those in the ghetto. There was so little room, people had no choice but to build up. Now, little by little these old houses are being bought up, some say by rich Americans. It is very central, a good location.”

Within walking distance of the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Venezia, the former ghetto is indeed a bustling area filled with pedestrians, busy shops and restaurants more than a few of which observed kashruth. We passed the ghetto’s single remaining gate marked by an ancient arch which had been built in honor of Augustus’ sister. 

“At one time there were four gates to the ghetto,” Elena told us, “one on each corner. There was a church on every corner as well which Jews were compelled to attend and where they were forced to listen to sermons.  The passage from Isaiah that describes the Jews as stubborn people is still on the façade of one of the churches, in both Latin and Hebrew.”

Elena bristled as she spoke of these historic attempts at forced conversions as they resonate with a cause close to her heart: the battle to prevent the beatification of Pius IX, pope at the time of the abduction of Edgardo Mortara, the brother of her paternal great-great-grandmother. In 1858, Vatican guards seized the six year old boy from his home in Bologna and secreted him to Rome. There he was raised as a Catholic, never to see his parents again unless accompanied by some church official and ultimately becoming a priest and lecturer on the miracle of conversion.

Mortara’s seizure stemmed from an incident that occurred when he was a two year old suffering from a childhood illness. A servant girl, fearing for his soul should he die, sprinkled him with water. Four years later, she carelessly told a friend of the crude baptism she had performed. Somehow the report reached the Inquisition in Bologna who applied an old church law that stipulated Jewish children who were baptized by laypeople must be raised Catholic. The abduction and conversion were zealously defended by the then Pope Pius IX who adopted the child as his son. Though not the first nor last of such incidents, the case of Edgardo Mortara became an international scandal that hastened the end of the Vatican’s temporal rule. 

“The current situation is political,” Elena told us. “As John Paul II beatified Pope John who was such a liberal voice in the church, he had to appease the conservative elements in the church by beatifying Pius IX.”

It was nearly dusk now. The low winter sun cast its long shadows, and the old ghetto took on a chilling pall. The specter of a Vatican invested with temporal powers seemed disturbingly close. But just then Sergio reminded Elena they must hasten to the synagogue as he had Yahrtzeit for his mother that evening. They invited us to come along, and so we accompanied our new friends to the great synagogue we had passed earlier in the afternoon. When it was built in 1904, Manlio had told us, the Roman Jews, still exulting in a freedom that was a little more than thirty years old, wanted to compete with St. Peter’s on the other side of the Tiber and therefore built this enormous synagogue.

Although it was a Monday evening of no sacred significance, hundreds of people had assembled in the vast, high and dark sanctuary. The impact was overwhelming. A cantor was intoning the prayers in a manner we found most exotic reminding us of Manlio’s comment that  Roman Jews are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi but unique unto themselves.

Not being able to remain for the entire service, we bid an affectionate and warm farewell to Sergio and Elena, people we had just met that day yet who seemed already old, dear friends. We stepped out into the night air. Before us the Tiber was shimmering in the moonlight. Hours before standing at this very spot, Elena had called our attention to an ancient ruin on a piece of land that jutted out from the island, how it glowed in the late afternoon sun. “Look,” she said, “so typically Roman. A Roman sunset. This is what everyone loves about Rome.”

There is the painful centuries-long history of an oppressive Vatican regime ruthlessly exercising temporal powers; even closer in memory is the painful history of a cruel fascist government. But there are also the Italian people, the Italian culture, the special quality of the Eternal City – things that everyone loves about Rome.

“Some people say Italian Jews are a bit chauvinistic,” Manlio had told us. “Perhaps.  But I feel very proud to be an Italian Jew. I feel very proud to have the heritage of so many years. As long as I want to live in the Diaspora, it is okay that I live in Rome.” 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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