Rome is not only modern Italy’s largest and most populated city but it is also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities of the entire Diaspora. Following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, many Jews, deported from Judea by Emperor Titus, arrived to Rome as slaves. There, they joined a small Jewish community established some two centuries earlier. The first Jews to arrive were reputedly diplomatic envoys sent by Judah Maccabi in the second century BCE, giving rise to an organized Jewish community in continual existence from the Roman Republican period to modern times.
Jewish life in Rome was not without its challenges. Jews faced partial expulsion by both emperors and popes, were compelled to pay tithes, and, in the middle ages, were forced to wear badges identifying their Jewish status. Despite alternating waves of acceptance, oppression, and persecution, Rome’s Jews successfully preserved their communal identity and their own customs. Their presence secured, Rome’s Jews had become very much a part of Italian society.
By the early twentieth century, not only did a Jew, Luigi Luzzatti, briefly emerge as the prime minister of Italy (1910-1911), but another Jewish politician, Ernesto Nathan, served as mayor of Rome (1907-1913).
The Jewish community of Rome was as diverse as it was ancient. Jewish followers of the Italian rite (Italki) were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from northern Italy, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Jews from medieval France, and, more recently, Jews from Iran and Libya. Indeed, throughout the course of Roman- Jewish history, the Jewish community was varied, with each community – whether Italian, Spanish, or even German – maintaining some cultural independence through the establishment of a separate synagogue for their members.
However, the religious rites and minhagim (customs) of the original Roman-Jewish community remain a strong feature of Roman-Jewish life that has persisted over the more than two-thousand-year presence of the Jews in Rome.
Today, Rome has a Jewish population of about 15,000 people served by about a dozen Ashkenazi and Sephardic Orthodox synagogues. However, none is more ornate, nor as large, as Tempio Maggiore di Roma – Rome‚s Great Synagogue˜whose liturgy reflects the Orthodox Italki rite, as practiced by Italian Jews since early Roman times.
Given the ancient heritage of Rome’s Jewish community, it is little wonder why Pope John Paul II, in 1986, chose to pay his respects to the Jewish people at Rome’s Great Synagogue, where the chief rabbi of Rome continues to officiate.
Accessible to tourists who must first pass through a security gate (vigilantly maintained ever since 1982’s violent attack on the synagogue left dozens wounded and a child dead), this synagogue should not be missed on anyone’s tour of the Eternal City. While Rome’s Great Synagogue is not the oldest in Italy or elsewhere (in Europe, the ancient Ostia synagogue, excavated at Rome‚s ancient port, and Barcelona’s Sinagoga Mayor retain this distinction), it remains a monumental architectural achievement.
Constructed following Italian unification that made Rome the capital of Italy in 1871, the present synagogue replaced the former Ghetto Synagogue (destroyed, for the most part, by a fire in 1893) that had housed, under one roof, five different scole (the Italian-Jewish term for synagogues). These five scole reflected the different Jewish rites cohabiting in Rome‚s Ghetto, which, following Italian unification, King Victor Emmanuel II dismantled while giving the Jews full citizenship. Within a single building, three of the synagogues had practiced the Italian rite (Scola del Tempio, Scola Nuova, and Scola Siciliana), and two, the Spanish rite (Scola Catalana and Scola Castigliana). Following a three-year period of construction, the new building was completed in 1904. After more than a century of service to the Jewish citizens of Rome, it retains an esteemed reputation among Rome‚s many famous architectural projects.
Designed by Italian architects Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni, Tempio Maggiore – the new “Great Synagogue” – reflects an eclectic combination of the Italian style and Assyrian-Babylonian motifs so as not to mimic Christian churches. The former “five scole” were replaced by this large Great Temple, retaining the Italian rite, and, beneath, a smaller synagogue retaining the Spanish rite.
The Tempio Maggiore is both massive and decorative. The impressive marble-lined interior, viewed with a full upward gaze, is awe-inspiring. In a city famous for its round domes, the building is topped by a unique square dome, the only such dome in all of Rome. This visual distinction makes Rome’s main synagogue easily identifiable from many viewpoints throughout Italy’s capital./p>
THE JEWISH Museum of Rome should also not be missed. Opened in 1960 to house the vast collections of Rome‚s Jewish community, the museum is located at a side entrance to the Tempio Maggiore, at Lungotevere de’Cenci 15. The many exhibits include art objects, documents, and other artifacts that illustrate Roman Jewry’s more than two thousand years of history. The museum offers escorted tours of the remarkable collections and the synagogues (but interior photography is prohibited).
Each room has a theme. Room 1 has precious Renaissance velvet coverings decorated with Baroque-era golden thread, embroidery and lace. Room 2 contains tombstones from the Roman catacombs and the synagogue of Ostia, as well as medieval manuscripts. While Room 3 displays objects reflecting the mainstays of the Jewish year and holiday observances, Room 4 contains liturgical items donated by the Jews of the ghetto to their various synagogues. Room 5 displays objects that narrate the history from the period of Jewish emancipation to the present era. Room 6 documents Libyan Judaism, specifically how the Jewish community of Libya has contributed to the Roman-Jewish community.
In 1967, Libyan Jews fled from Tripoli and Benghazi to Rome as refugees where they added a new layer of culture to Rome’s Jewish traditions. Room 7 displays more objects focusing on what life was like in the Ghetto of Rome.
The Great Synagogue – overlooking the Tiber River, situated between Via Catalana and Lungotevere de’Cenci – is adjacent to Rome’s historic Jewish Ghetto. Walking along Via del Portico d’Ottavia, one of the Ghetto’s main streets, the contemporary tourist is transported back to an earlier time.
Surrounded by old neighborhood buildings, one gets a feel for what daily life might have been like within the former Ghetto. Today, this street, among others in the Ghetto (as the neighborhood is still known), is filled with locals and tourists alike. It is a fascinating area in which to stroll, filled with several kosher restaurants, bakeries, and Jewish shops.
No visit to Rome is complete without a glimpse of the Arch of Titus, situated on the highest point of the Via Sacra, leading to the Roman Forum. Depicting the end of the Jewish Wars (66-70 CE) and the Roman destruction and pillage of the Temple in Jerusalem, the arch’s carved reliefs illustrate the sacred Menorah being carried off to Rome (where its ultimate location has been lost to history).
Few Jews choose to walk under the arch due to the oppressive symbolism, but it is a worthwhile reminder of the precarious existence of the Jews since antiquity. Indeed, Rome’s ancient Jewish past, like its present, serves as testimony to Jewish tenacity and survival.