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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of The Jewish Ghetto of Rome

What is the Jewish Ghetto of Rome?

The Jewish Ghetto of Rome is a Jewish ghetto that was established in the 16th century that features Rome’s principal synagogue and The Jewish Museum of Rome.

Synagogue at The Jewish Ghetto of Rome

Jewish Ghetto of Rome History

The papal bull issued by Pope Paul IV on July 14th, 1555 revoked the rights of the Jewish community and confined the Jews of Rome to a walled-off area of just seven acres (which could be covered on foot in two minutes), where they were forced to live for nearly 300 years.

Jews have lived in Rome since the 2nd century BC, settling first in areas favoured by foreigners, such as the Aventine Hill and Trastevere. By the 16th century, however, many Roman Jews, especially merchants, had moved to the area which would later be enclosed as the ghetto, but which was then thriving as a commercial river-port. In fact, the bridge leading from this area to the Tiber Island was often referred to as the Pons Judaeorum (or the ‘Bridge of the Jews’).

The papal edict made it illegal for Jews to live anywhere else in the city, barred them from certain professions, and forced them to wear identifying insignia. Although enforcement was patchy, severe overcrowding was inevitable. In the 19th century, some 7,000 people crammed into this tiny area when the gates closed at sunset. No buildings could exceed five stories, meaning space was severely limited.

The Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC had dispersed Jews throughout the known world. Rome’s Jewish community first developed a few hundred years after the diaspora, making their descendants members of one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world today. The roots of Rome’s Jewish community are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic; its members pride themselves on tracing an ancestry to a time preceding destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70, a distinction that entitles them to eat lamb at Passover.

Near the river you will find Rome’s principal synagogue, an early 20th-century square-domed building constructed in a mock Assyro-Babylonian style, as well as San Gregorio della Divina Pietà, a small church where Jews were forced to attend Christian services. They could resist this indoctrination only by paying a bribe or, as many did, using earplugs. Over the door, there are Hebrew and Latin inscriptions.

Jewish people have been in Rome so long that Jewish and Roman cuisines (pork dishes excluded, of course) are now almost indistinguishable. Some favourites of Jewish origin are carciofi alla giudìa (fried, whole artichokes), filetti di baccalà fritti (fried salt cod fillets), and marinated courgette.

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