The Jewish People and their Food

The Jewish community of Rome, the first and most numerous of the peninsula, lived grouped between the Trastevere quarter, the slums and Porta Capena. They had thirteen synagogues (places of community gathering), each one with its own internal composition, autonomy, leaders and teachers, and catacomb cemeteries at the Porta Portese, on the Appian Way, on the Labicana and Nomentana roads.
Initially confused with the first Christians, the Jews made their spiritual influence felt in the city early on. There were even some converts to Judaism among the Romans, who were impressed with the Jewish customs, their rigid monotheism and their Sabbath rest. The Jews were also, however, objects of derision and were considered barbarians by some of the population for their practice of circumcision.
Around the first century CE, the Jewish community of Rome was not the only Jewish community in Italy. Small groups of Jews lived in Venosa and Syracuse (where there are still the remains of the Jewish catacombs), Pozzuoli and Pompei in the region of Campania, Taranto and Otranto in Puglia, Ferrara, Brescia and Milan in Northern Italy.
Roman tolerance for the Jews diminished gradually with the growth of Christianity and in particular after the Catholic religion was recognised as the state religion by Theodosius’ edict of Thessalonica (380). From that moment on, the rule of tolerance was replaced with that of strictness towards any non-Christian cult. Judaism, however, had one particular characteristic in respect to the other religions. Christianity was born from Judaism, and historical and religious origins were to be respected. The Jews, however, had not recognised Jesus Christ as the Messiah, in fact they crucified him and for this act they were to be discriminated against and branded.
The slow and unstoppable political, military and economic decline of the Empire in the following centuries ended by giving the Papacy ever greater power over the Italian situation, so that it determined the lives of the groups of Jews as well. From the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), and for more than thirteen centuries, the history of the Roman community and the other communities within the Church territories had many ups and downs, based on the behaviour of each individual Pope towards that particular group.
With the rebirth of the Empire, with the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne extending to Italy, the situation changed. Charlemagne nominated a special magistrate to protect the civil and commercial rights of the Jews. Under the Carolingians, the Jews were able to form some communities between Pavia and Verona, thanks to the relative tranquillity they enjoyed in that and the following centuries (eighth to tenth). Under the Othonians they were even able to develop schools for Jewish studies, mostly in Rome, Bari, Otranto and the numerous Sicilian communities, so much so that the Italian Jewish scholars were soon known throughout Europe.
After the year one thousand the conditions for the Jews became more uncertain, being both subject to and tied to the despotic will of the feudal lords. When, at the same time, the artistic and trade guilds were established, they were excluded. To be part of a guild it was necessary to be a Christian. Jews were only permitted to practise trade in used goods and in the loan of money with interest. The latter, usury, was forbidden by the Church to its own faithful until the thirteenth century. It was permitted only to those who, like the Jews, were not part of the Christian community. This fact is of great importance. In an era in which people passed from a barter economy to a commercial economy, the control of investments and the circulation of money assured an important financial and commercial role to the people controlling them.
Loans were needed both by the nobles and by the first Seignories (Signorie), who needed continuous financing for wars, and by the lower classes, whose living conditions were very poor and who, therefore, needed small loans to survive. And so these same gentlemen permitted the Jews to run “condotte”, pawnbroker’s shops through which they lent money at a fixed rate of interest. Only based on this activity were the Jews able to acquire the right of residency.
In a short time, the number of condotte increased throughout the Italian peninsula, and groups of Jews settled in large and small cities and rural centres.
Along with the professional discrimination there were other forms of discrimination. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) established that the Jews had to live in separate quarters and had to wear a sign by which they could be recognised. This consisted of, for the men, a hat in a particular style and colour (yellow or red) or a cloth circle on their cloaks. The women had to wear yellow veils on their heads like the prostitutes. These regulations remained, although they were never enforced, for more than a century, even in the Church states.
The Black Death that spread through Europe in 1348 was a new reason for persecution. The Jews were, in fact, accused of spreading the plague by poisoning the wells, they themselves remaining untouched by the illness. If the first accusation was false, the second came from a probably well founded observation. The Jews already lived gathered and isolated in one area of the city, they followed different and rigorous norms for hygiene for religious reasons, and so the pestilence did not find theirs to be fertile territory. The slander, which was born and spread above all in Germany, provoked massacres and flight. Many Jews fled and found refuge in Northern Italy, especially in the communities of Venice, Padua, Ferrara and Mantua.
The beginning of Humanism and its spirit of openness and reconciliation favoured the development of culture and humanities in the Jewish group as well. In the following century the situation further improved. In Ferrara, the Jews grew in number, drawn by the liberal policy of the Este family. In Florence, the Medicis protected those who lent them money. In Piedmont, in Turin, Casale, Moncalvo and Cuneo, the communities grew with French Jews. In the south and the islands, the anti-Semitic behaviour of Spain was in practice.
New and disturbing anti-Semitic turmoil grew all over the peninsula, starting in the fifteenth century, brought on by the preaching of some of the Friars Minor. It was in this atmosphere that the episode of the child Simonino took place in Trento. According to the prosecution, the child, later venerated as a saint, was killed by the Jews in a ritual slaughter. The trial, followed by a sentence of death, took place in 1475. All of the Jews living in the Trentino region, especially those in Riva, were expelled after this episode. The Jews, on their part, launched an excommunication, a “herem”, against this region. As a result, there has been no Jewish community formed in the region since that time.
After 1492, a radical change in the history of the Italian Jews took place. All the Jews of Spain and then Portugal were expelled by Ferdinand the Catholic and many of them sought refuge in the Italian communities (Leghorn, Ancona, Venice). Over the course of fifty years, they were also obliged to leave Southern Italy and the islands. It was an exodus of biblical proportions which caused the progressive and definitive disappearance of the Jews from the South of Italy, with serious damage to the southern economy. One fact can quantify the phenomenon: Thirty-seven thousand Jews left Sicily. Some of them stopped in Rome while the rest of them went on to the Marches region.
From the second half of the sixteenth century onwards, the Church, busy with the Counter-reformation, assumed a rigid and uncompromising stance also in regard to the Jews. The anti-Semitic policy culminated with the Papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum of Pope Paul IV (1555). All the Jews had to be confined to ghettos, were to make use of only one synagogue, sell all real estate, deal only in used merchandise and wear a distinguishing mark. Many of these rules, as has already been stated, were already in existence, but only now did they find practical and legislative applications.
The Roman Jews, immediately realising the harshness of the Papal bull, offered forty thousand scudos to have it repealed. Their effort was not successful and many Jews, to avoid having to submit to the bull, at that time fled the Church states for states where, for a short time at least, these limitations did not exist. The first ghetto had already been established in Venice in 1516. Following this rule, the ghetto of Rome was created (1555) and in the following years, ghettos were established in each of the cities on the peninsula where there were Jews. And so began the long and humiliating period of segregation which was destined to last until the Napoleonic era.
The Jewish ghettos were unhealthy, narrow, with limited space, and yet no Jew ever remained without a roof over his head, even if the roof could be somewhat precarious. The space was divided and used in unlikely ways, one floor on top of another (in Venice the “skyscrapers” reached nine stories), corridors and stairwells transformed into rooms. They were poor quarters, in which life carried on in an atmosphere of insecurity. The houses of the Jews were the first to be sacked in the case of popular revolt or war. And yet the study of the “Torah” (doctrine, law) and “Talmud” (the body of discussion, interpretation and development of Jewish law) flourished there. There were schools for the children, and the ghettos were a point of reference for Jewish merchants passing from one city to another and even from one nation to another, and therefore were centres for the exchange of news and information. Paradoxically, in that which should have been the most isolated quarter of the city, international relations were more frequent, thanks to this endless wandering.
When, in 1569, the Jews were expelled from all of the Church states except for Rome and Ancona, many communities disappeared. Some families that had sought refuge in the Roman ghetto from other cities in the Lazio region kept the memory of their place of origin alive in their family names: Tagliacozzo, Di Veroli, Marino, Di Segni, Di Nepi.
Anti-Semitic policy became a constant practice. Carlo Borromeo obtained the expulsion of the Jews from the Duchy of Milan (1597) and even Venice threatened to refuse renewal of residency permits to the ancient community. The only exception was Leghorn (Livorno), where Grand Duke Ferdinand de’ Medici promulgated the liberal law which respected the Jews, a law called the Livornina, attracting to his city many merchants who had been persecuted elsewhere. The Jews of Leghorn, among other things, were the only Jews not forced to live in a ghetto.
The state of segregation and instability remained unchanged in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Relegated to the margins of society, despised, the Jews had difficulty even in lending money, given the strong competition of the Monti di Piet (other private pawnbrokers), which were established in the fifteenth century. It is not surprising if, upon his arrival in Italy in 1796, Napoleon was greeted by the Jews as a saviour. The doors to the ghettos were torn off their hinges and burned in the squares, under the tree of freedom. For the first time in their history, the Jews felt like citizens with equal rights. Only the orthodox Jews remained distrustful and openly disapproved of the enthusiasm shown by their brothers to the representative of revolutionary, lay and anti-religious France. They were not completely wrong. The anti-Semitic prejudices, built up over centuries, suggested to Napoleon that he divide the expenses of war between the nobility, the clergy and the Jews.
In 1800 Jewish children crossed the threshold of a public school for the first time, the ill could enter the hospitals and Jews held posts in public administration. In 1806, Napoleon convened a Sanhedrin to reorganise the legal life of all the Jewish communities in his empire. One hundred eleven notables from every part of the empire participated, amongst which were thirteen representatives from Piedmont and sixteen from the Italic Kingdom, while no delegate came from Tuscany or the Church state, which were outside direct French jurisdiction. The Sanhedrin was not, however, able to eliminate controversy and dissatisfaction, caused by the serious restrictions placed on the Jewish people in their commercial endeavours.
The defeat of Napoleon and the Restoration signalled a final blow to emancipation. The Jews were again driven into the ghettos and deprived, in part, of the rights of equality. Some restrictions which were more offensive to personal dignity, like the distinguishing mark, however, were not applied again.
1848 was the year of the emancipation of the Jews of Piedmont. Carlo Alberto, with some side decrees to his Statutes, recognised them as citizens equal to all others in the eyes of the law and in the performance of duties.
Secret societies, struggles of the Risorgimento and wars of independence involved all the Jews personally. And it could have been no other way. After centuries of discrimination, the Jews fought alongside other Italians against reactionary sovereigns and for the unity of the peninsula. It was a great conquest. They no longer had to camouflage themselves in social life, or hide their places of worship, which became imposing buildings, majestic, an integral part of the urban scenery. Florence, Rome, Turin, Milan, Alexandria, Vercelli (and the list is endless) built great temples, much more similar to Christian churches than secluded synagogues, the schools of the 1600’s and 1700’s.
This emancipation changed the face of Judaism in many other ways. It led to the assimilation and the abandonment of the ancient traditions of their forefathers, preserved for centuries. The Jews, in order to consider themselves completely Italian, tried to integrate themselves completely in the atmosphere around them, often negating, consciously or unconsciously, their origins.
When the process of urbanisation and industrialisation of the country increased at the beginning of the 1900’s, the Jews were concentrated in the cities, permanently leaving the small rural centres where they had remained for centuries, dealing in commerce and loans. They dedicated themselves to free professions, they entered into public administration and the military, from which they had always been excluded. Many developed their small businesses, transforming them into large industries.
When the fascist party came to power in 1922, the Jews were already perfectly integrated in the nation and did not have the least suspicion of any possible anti-Semitic policy of the future regime. Some Jews took part in the foundation of the party, others in the march on Rome, many industrialists and businessmen lent financial support to fascism, thinking that they were defending their own economic interests and their nationalistic ideals. Jews held many high public offices.
Mussolini continued an ambiguous relationship with the Jewish people for a long time because the Jews were always under suspicion for relationships with the Jews of other countries and “international Judaism” and the alleged “Jewish-Masonic” mobs. When the Italian Concordat between Italy and the Vatican State was signed in 1929 and Catholicism became the state religion, the life of the Jewish communities was regulated by the Falco law (1930). This law sanctioned the principal of the Entente between the Italian State and the religions which differed from Catholicism, by virtue of article 8 of the Constitution.
The real anti-Semitic persecution and discrimination began in Italy in 1938, when relations between Mussolini and Hitler became warmer. Anti-Semitism adopted the spurious doctrines of racial persecution, heretofore unknown in Italian tradition. In 1938, Mussolini had his “Manifest of Italian Racism” published, in which fascism allied itself with Nazi ideology and declared the existence of a pure Italian race, to which the Jews did not belong.
The declarations of principle were followed, in September of the same year, by decrees supported by the force of law which expelled all foreign Jews from the country, removed Italian Jews from the schools, military service and public jobs. In short they were considered second class citizens. Some Jews converted, thinking that it was a way to save themselves. Approximately five thousand left Italy headed for Palestine, the United Stated and South America. Others, like the editor Formiggini from Modena, chose suicide.
When Italy joined the war in 1940, allied with Hitler’s Germany, the Fascist action squads also felt authorised to raid and sack the Jewish community. The synagogues of Trieste, Turin, Padua and Ferrara were the first to be destroyed. The Jews that remained in Italy were confined and enclosed in camps. In 1943, the round up and deportation to the Nazi concentration camps began. Chaos resulted. Those who were able to, tried to escape over the Alps, others were hidden in convents, others in the houses of courageous people. Still others joined the partisans in the fight against Fascism.
Various events helped the community in the renewal and, above all, the birth of the State of Israel (1948). When they received the confirmation that the assembly of the United Nations Organisation had decided for the creation of the Jewish “homeland” in Palestine on 2 December 1947, the Jews assembled en masse around the Arch of Titus to celebrate the event.
After 1948, approximately five thousand five hundred Jews, of which three thousand five hundred were born in Italy, left the peninsula to live in Israel, they “made aliyah”, that is they went to live in the land of their forefathers. The majority of the survivors, however, remained in Italy and began the reconstruction of the community.
In these last fifty years the life of the Jews has recovered and found its own new forms of organisation. Just two communities, those of Rome and Milan, gather most of the forty thousand Jews living in Italy. Many communities disappeared completely or were destined to disappear. Memories and survivors of the past remain, witnesses to the cultural heritage of the groups of Italian Jews who, as much as they were in the minority and small in number compared to groups established in other countries, have maintained their identity, resisting every attempted destruction, culminating with the Holocaust.