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Roman Holiday

Intermarriage is a growing issue not just here in the United States but in every Jewish community outside of Israel, and I was reminded of that fact while on vacation last week in Rome, Italy. The Jewish community in Rome has a fascinating history dating continuously from the second century B.C.E. Its unique history was vividly brought to life by tour guide Micaela Pavoncello, who specializes in walking tours of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and is herself a proud Roman Jew. I wasn’t the first JOI staff member to take Micaela’s tour; our executive director Kerry Olitzky recommended her to me and my family after his visit to Rome a couple of years ago. Now we at JOI are recommending her to anyone who happens to visit Rome and wants to connect with a fascinating and still vibrant Jewish community.

Touring the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is especially powerful in light of the mandatory visit all tourists must make to the Vatican State, walking-distance across the Tiber River that includes incredible riches such as the gold- and marble-covered St. Peter’s Basilica (largest church in the world) and Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel ceiling. To then have Micaela explain the long, sad story of the relationship between Rome’s Popes and Rome’s Jews—and to walk the tiny three-square-blocks in which thousands of Jews at a time were forced to live—is a moving experience, and one that also illustrates just how far Jews have come in recent generations.

Today, the Jewish Ghetto has become so trendy that high rents are forcing out most long-standing residents, as reported in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. More importantly, the decline in anti-Semitism and the acceptance of Jews has led to an increasing rate of intermarriage among Rome’s Jews, who number less than one percent of the total Roman population.

Unfortunately, as in much of Europe (see this recent article about British Jews), the organized community there seems ill-equipped to handle the phenomenon and unwilling to learn from the U.S. experience. Micaela explained that intermarried couples are generally shunned, and even the conversion process presents high barriers: a three-year study period before conversion. What’s worse, Micaela implied that even those who convert may not feel fully accepted by the tight-knit Jewish community.

Rome is yet another example of a Jewish community that has succeeded in breaking the shackles of anti-Semitism to win freedom and acceptance, but now must deal with the byproduct of that freedom: higher intermarriage with the very people who now accept them as equals. The doors out of the Jewish Ghetto have been flung wide open, and now the Roman Jewish community has got to figure out how to open some doorways back into their community for unaffiliated and intermarried Jewish families, or their numbers will inevitably decline. Micaela’s tours, which include the small but beautiful museum in the basement of the Great Synagogue of Rome (in Italian, it’s the Tempio Maggiore di Roma), can certainly serve as an entry point for reconnecting with a history and a people.


Tour guide Micaela Pavoncello discusses the ancient Roman ruins that have been excavated in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome.


The beautiful Great Synagogue of Rome.


Micaela explains that the Ghetto used to be all narrow streets like this one, and only recently has been gentrified.



3 Comments

  1. Thanks–my husband and I have visited the community and the lovely synagogue pictured there.

    On a previous visit to Italy, however, we were turned away from synagogue in Milan: we were asked whether we were Jewish, and being the honest person that he is, he replied that his conversion would take place in 3 weeks but he was not yet a Jew. “Sorry,” sid the 2 men doing security detail. “since we don’t know you two–we could let her in, but not you.” (One might wonder: how does having my word that I’m a Jew, versus his that he’s not yet but is becoming one, make me inherently more trustworthy: there’s something of the “All Cretans are liars” paradox here…)

    “Didn’t we just read in last week’s Torah reading, ‘There shall be one law for you, both for the stranger and for the native citizen’?” They were unmoved, but I was beginning to cry. So we left, and rejoined the rest of my family sightseeing in Milan’s cathedral on a Shabbat morning, instead of in synagogue.

    Luckily, that was the only time in our visits to synagogues abroad (Israel, Greece, England) and in the U.S. as a mixed couple that we were not made welcome as a couple because one of us was not Jewish. But that one casual rejection cut deeply: I’m glad we didn’t have to endure it in a place where we’re looking for community, and I feel for those who do. And I thank all those in my Jewish community in Arlington, VA (at what is Congregation Etz Chayim) for looking at my non-Jewish father, Jewish mother, and us 3 kids and seeing a family who’s part of their community–not an outsider, a transgressor, and 3 future “victims” of assimilation whose Judaism will never stick.

    I’m not going anywhere. :)
    But I’m also not going to reject or abandon the non-Jewish members of my family and my husband’s family, or parts of our past experiences that have to do with non-Jewish religion, in order to be where I am or go where I’m headed.

    Comment by Becca — November 29, 2006 @ 10:44 pm

  2. Here is an excellent podcast I just heard … It’s about the popularity of Italian Jewish Ghetto music.

    More to explore at http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=458

    Comment by Ron in Croton — November 29, 2006 @ 11:38 pm

  3. Becca, while it will not make your husband or you feel any better–nor should it since it is this kind of posture that we are working against–during our last visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on the eve of Tisha B’av when we wanted to hear the haunting tones of Lamentations chanted in the Italian rite, I almost didnt get in. While I recognize that the synagogue was assaulted by Palestinian terrorists in the ’80s and that the entire block is monitored by a 24/7 Roman Police squad, it didnt matter to the Israeli security guards that I spoke Hebrew to them, answered all of their questions, and gave them my cellphone at their request. I guess I fit their profile of suspects.
    It is also why we now recommend that any institution that is required to have security of any sort place receptionists and greeters alongside to mitigate any negativity that is conveyed by the guards “just doing their job!”

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — November 30, 2006 @ 12:56 pm

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