Two Millennia of Italian Jewish heritage

Two millennia of Italian-Jewish heritage invite you to visit

Italy’s small but vibrant Jewish community dates back 2,000 years, to its establishment during the early days of the Empire. Those who want to explore its fascinating story can follow several itineraries, some less traveled than others.

Many begin their visit to Jewish heritage sites in Rome’s “Vecchio Ghetto,” an ancient, close-knit neighborhood that is one of the city’s liveliest but historically saddest. Narrow, tall (for Rome) apartment buildings and tiny cobblestone streets characterize this neighborhood near the Tiber River where, by papal order in the mid-16th century, Rome’s Jews were segregated. Even after its walls were torn down in 1848 and Jews moved out of the city, the Old Ghetto remained the heart of Rome’s Jewish community. A plaque along the neighborhood’s main street, Via Portico d’Ottavia, commemorates the day in 1943 when Nazi occupiers rounded up and deported citizens, most of whom perished. A highlight of the area is the museum adjacent to the impressive synagogue, right across from Tiber Island.

Venice’s former ghetto, its large central gathering place ringed by the tall, narrow buildings where Venetian Jews lived segregated lives, and today found in the charming Cannaregio district, far from tourist routes, is a haunting landmark. Guided tours of two or three of the surviving synagogues help visitors appreciate the dynamic culture and deep faith of the lagoon city’s Jewish community even today.

Other cities and towns off the well-trod tourist path speak just as directly to the roots and present-day culture of Italy’s Jews.

Ferrara, a beautiful small city in the Reggio Emilia region of north-central Italy, was a flourishing center of art, politics, and gastronomy in the Italian renaissance and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. The historical legacy of the powerful Este family is most notable in the city’s imposing castle, the foundations of which date to the 1300s. There is a fine medieval quarter, many splendid palazzi, and a 6-mile long ring road circling the city’s fortress-like walls that is a joy to cycle on, since Ferrara, unlike most Italian cities, is flat. Local Ferraran writer Giorgio Bassani’s novel “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and the movie adapted from it tell the story of one of Ferrara’s more prominent well-to-do Jewish families that, after the anti-Jewish laws of 1938, saw their life of privilege shrink before their eyes until their final deportation. The role of Jews in Ferrara’s and Italy’s history is explored in the city’s National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Holocaust, known by its Italian acronym MEIS. One of Italy’s newer museums, it offers thought-provoking exhibits, such as one exploring the first 1,000 years of Judaism in Italy, from ancient Roman times to the Middle Ages, and the relationship of Jews with both pagans and Christians. Among the museum’s most popular attractions is the Garden of the Questions, where visitors can stroll among fragrant plants like laurel and thyme that were used to perfume the prayer that ends the Sabbath; for those unfamiliar with Jewish culture, the garden features panels illustrating kosher dietary rules. This year, through September 15, the museum is hosting an exhibit titled “The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew,” featuring art, manuscripts, and other objects, including the oldest dated Italian Torah, lent by the Jewish Museum of Paris. The exhibition aims to highlight the accomplishments and vicissitudes of Jews during the Renaissance in cities including Florence, Mantua, Venice, and Rome, in addition to Ferrara.

Pitigliano, carved out of Tufo stone and set dramatically on a hill in Tuscany’s Maremma countryside, quite literally stops visitors in their tracks as it looms before them. Having roots stretching back to Etruscan times, it has been dubbed “Little Jerusalem’’ in tribute to the Jewish community located there since the late 1500s. Like Assisi, another stony hill town, it gives off a peaceful, soothing, almost mystical air in spite of the visitors traipsing its streets and alleys. It’s ghetto neighborhood features a synagogue, an oven for unleavened bread, a kosher butcher, and ritual baths. At night, the twinkling of the town’s lights are breathtaking. Pitigliano is a rewarding day trip from a larger or as well as a delightful spot for an overnight within its hospitable walls.