Reed Travel Features
NEW YORK -- Journalist Ben Frank once asserted that the Catholic
cameo concession in St. Peter's Square in Rome was actually owned
by Italian Jews.
The assertion was made in "A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe,"
after Frank discovered that the cameo vendors would greet potential
buyers in Yiddish as readily they would in Italian.
Whether or not the writer's assertion was true, his observation
exemplifies Italy's rich Jewish history, which can be explored in
cities best known for their Christian art and cathedrals.
Italy's Jewish life, past and present, is the subject of tours
offered by several operators who report that Italy holds as much
interest for Jewish travelers as do eastern and central Europe,
where most of the continent's Jews lived before World War II (see
related story, Page E13).
Most Italian Jews are Sephardim -- those whose ancestors were
expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th
There are medieval synagogues, Jewish quarters and cemeteries in
every region of the country.
But there also are Jews with roots in Italy that go back
thousands of years because Jews have lived on the peninsula longer
than in any other country in the Western world.
The first Jews arrived in Italy in 140 B.C. as ambassadors from
Jerusalem. More came as slaves two centuries later.
It was in Italy that the concept of the Jewish ghetto was first
Still, many historians have said that before World War II, Jews
lived more comfortably with their faith in Italy than in other
parts of Europe.
Of the 30,000 Jews who lived in Italy before the war, 7,750 were
murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Today, the Jewish population in Italy is about the same size it
was before the war.
Some of the most outstanding Jewish sites in the country are in
Rome, Venice and Florence. A listing follows:
* The immense Great Temple of Rome, on the banks of the Tiber,
was built in 1901.
The neighborhood surrounding the temple was made the official
Jewish ghetto by papal decree in 1555 and may have been a Jewish
neighborhood as far back as the days of the Roman Empire. Among the
dozens of synagogues that once were part of the ghetto, one
medieval house of worship still stands.
Although the ghetto today can seem quaint, with its narrow
cobblestone streets, it was a miserable place to live when
thousands were forced to find space within its small quarters.
Also in this area is a memorial to the victims of Nazi massacres
at the Adreatine Caves and the mausoleum that holds the bodies of
the 335 people, including 100 Jews, who were shot by the Nazis in
The Jewish Museum, located within the Great Temple, showcases
2,000 years of Jewish history.
* The first Jewish ghetto was created in Venice in 1516 by papal
It is located on the island where the city's foundry stood. The
Italian word gheto means foundry and was used because the ghetto
was separated by metal dividers made there.
The Venetian ghetto is picturesque, with Renaissance and
medieval architecture and colorful shops.
There are five synagogues, which were built between the 16th and
20th centuries and are of interest to tourists of all faiths.
* The Synagogue of Florence is one of Europe's most stunning
Jewish houses of worship. Beth Haknesset Firenze, as the temple is
called, was built in 1882 in a Moorish style that is reminiscent of
The interior is unusually ornate for a Jewish temple, with
frescoes, mosaics and a chandelier.
Although the synagogue was occupied and bombed during World War
II and flooded in 1966, it has survived intact.