Italy Roundtable: How to Keep Our Balance

Sometimes an idea that you have in your head is so absurd it makes it move around in your head. It will sometimes rumble around in your brain, partly by producing other sensible ideas. And it won’t stop moving until you take it to its ridiculous conclusion. This is what happened with the TRADITION topic at this month’s Italy Roundtable.

You see, I am half-Jewish and, although I was not raised in any religious sense, I did not grow up knowing enough to fully comprehend most of “Fiddler on the Roof” at a young age. If you’re like me, you already know where this is leading.

That’s right, folks. Tevye will not let me go until I have spoken about Jewish history in Italy. Tevye doesn’t want to be denied.

Judaism is Italy

It is tempting to see modern Italy as a Catholic-dominated nation and assume that Judaism has been a minor part of Italian history. That was what I used to do. It’s still a great amusement to me that the Italian word “Passover” literally translates to “Jewish Easter”.

But even a slightly-more-than-basic knowledge of some of Italy’s most-visited cities would tell you that Judaism in Italy predates what we know as Italy. By a lot.


Even though Venice’s Jewish community is small, it blends well with the rest. However, Venice’s now-common concept of a “Jewish Ghetto”, originated from this place. Ghetto is a Venetian word that refers to the location of the foundries. This was the first Jewish Ghetto, which was established in Venice in 1516. Today, the Jewish Ghetto of Rome is a very popular tourist area. It was established in 1555.

You can go back even further in time… If you have taken a tour of the Roman Forum you will no doubt have seen some of the carvings on Arch of Titus. This includes the menorah that was carried in the spoils of the Second Temple of Jerusalem’s destruction during the Siege of Jerusalem, 70 CE. This was part what is known as the First Jewish-Roman War. It’s a name that has been used in hindsight because there have been more of these wars. (Two more to be exact.

Before the first war, Jews were allies with the Roman Empire. Later, thousands of Jews were sold to Rome to work on the Colosseum.

Yes, Jews have lived in the area we now call Italy since the beginning of time. They’re still there, perhaps unsurprisingly after being subject to harsh treatment in the last millennia as well as the dominance by the Catholic Church.


It is too much history for me to write a blog post, especially since I am not a scholar of Jewish History in Italy. So I will share one of my favorites stories with you and then turn you over to an expert.

Pitigliano is a charming hilltop town in Tuscany. You’d expect it to be a Tuscan hilltop town with its cobblestone streets, its cobblestone buildings and its Etruscan history. When you discover that the town is called “Little Jerusalem”, things take a surprising turn.

Pitigliano || creative commons photo by Michela Simoncini

Pitigliano, which was located on the border of the Papal States and Tuscany (which were not too friendly to Jews), served as a refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution. It’s amazing that they were welcomed into the town and stayed. They flourished. Pitigliano was raided by Nazis, and many Jews were taken into custody. However, hundreds of years later, during the Second World War many others were saved.

Other stories tell of Christian Italians helping Jews escape Nazis by refusing deportation or handing them over to the Germans. It is still an issue in Italy ( this story caught mine as I was writing this article), but stories such as these make my heart sing.


In 2011, Sara and Michelle, my Eyes on Italy hosts, interviewed Rabbi Barbara Aiello. She was the first female rabbi in Italy and also the first non-Orthodox one. In 2005, Rabbi Barbara led the first Passover Seder in Italy since the Jews fled Spain in the Inquisition of the late 15th century.

It was a fascinating interview (the Jews called it Italy! So I am including the MP3 below so that you can hear it for yourself. The interview starts at 8:49.

Here are some more details if you wish to continue reading about Jewish history and Italy.

* According to one source, the Jewish population in Italy is approximately 45,000 today. This makes it about 0.07% of all the Italians.

Italy Roundtable: Other Voices

I think my Roundtable colleagues didn’t hear any old song while they were writing about this month’s topic. But, we won’t know until we read the links below. Please leave comments, share the posts with your friends and check back next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable subject!

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