Traces of Rich Jewish Past Emerge in Rome, Venice, Florence

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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 centuries.

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 created.

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 1944.

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 decree.

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 Spanish mosques.

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.

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