Sunday, 1 November 2009

Visit to the Synagogue of ROME

Today we went to the Portico d'Ottavia near the Tiber River and the old Roman Forum. This is where the Ghetto of Rome was from 1550 to 1870. The Jews in Rome have been here for 2200 years, they are the oldest Jewish community in Europe. Jews and Palestine are of course part of the fabric of old Rome. Palestine was a Roman Province and part of the career path of any Roman aspiring to high office. After the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem by Emperor Titus in 70AD, all the treasures of the Temple including the Arch of the Covenant were brought back to Rome and put inside the Temple of Peace in the Roman Forum where they remained for centuries, they are all lost today unfortunately.

The great Synagogue was built in 1901 and is part of the project of Garibaldi to make of Rome the new capital of the unified Italian Kingdom. The ghetto was demolished and the Jews freed and made full Italian citizens. What you see today was built after 1870, a modern neighborhood with water and electricity service and clean wide streets.

The Jews in Rome have an interesting history, they operate not as a congregation but as a community as a whole, you have Sephardic and Ashkenazy,Roman and Italian traditions. This is unusual for people visiting from outside Italy, they do not always understand how you can have all this in one building. The jews in Rome follow the Orthodox rite. Rome has a population of 14,000 jews today, there were about 15,000 before 1943. Some 2000 where deported by the Nazis between September 1943 and Spring of 1944, the rest took refuge at the Vatican State and in Churches and hospitals and in the homes of fellow Italians.

The Synagogue itself has an organ which is played during services, that is unusual and the decor inside the building is Babylonian and Egyptian and has some Art Deco touches with colors of Red and Gold, Imperial colors of old Rome. That is to say if we cannot have the Temple in Jerusalem we can have this one in the Eternal City.

The ceiling is painted in blue with little gold stars and the windows are stained glass with colored flowers. It is imposing and joyous all at once.

The museum has many beautiful textiles given throughout history to the community. Many silver objects for the Torah and other religious objects for the service. They have 850 covers for the Torahs, so they can change them daily. Services are held in the morning, afternoon and evening. Visitors in our group from the USA where amazed at this wealth of religious artifacts.

Our guide works at the Synagogue and was knowledgeable and a diplomat all at once. Some of the questions puzzled him, they came from American jews who asked in the way a rich relative asks about your well being, feeling a bit sorry for you and curious about how you are getting along.

One lady wanted to know about mix marriages between jews of different rites,let's say Sephardic and Roman, our guide told her simply we do like everyone else and go to the Hilton. Same lady wanted to know if there was a Jewish hospital, Yes there is one just across the street on the Island.

Another lady wanted to know who turned on the lights inside the Synagogue for Sabbath services. Are all the lights electrified or do you use candles. Our guide just told her, we turn them on, just before the service. The lady was a bit surprised and asked if they asked a non-Jew to do this for them. Our guide said no we don't.
But you are Orthodox Jews are you not, she says. Yes we are said the guide but you can call us Orthodox Italian Style.

Our guide did explain that Judaism for a long period was transmitted by oral tradition, the Popes forbade teaching the Talmud.
It was only with the liberation of Rome by the troops of Garibaldi in 1870 that the Jews finally could once again study. This explains the special tradition of Jewish Roman heritage where the practical joins the reality of everyday life. You also will notice that in and around the old ghettos are Churches set up by the Vatican as reminders to the Jews of the errors or their ways. Inscriptions on the front of the building in Hebrew and in Latin calls to them as unbelievers to accept the teachings of Jesus and the authority of the Pope. Viewed today, this historical legacy helps you understand the politics of religion. Our guide pointed out that it was Pope Jean-Paul II who on a visit to the Synagogue, said that the Jewish Faith was the big brother to Christianity. An interesting perspective after centuries of persecution by the Popes.

We had lunch at the Taverna del Ghetto,
We have been there several times and the food is great, with many Roman Jewish Specialties. We took a walk along the Tiber to help us digest on the old Tiberina Island. The photos here are of our walk on the island, where an hospital has stood for 2000 years. In one photo you see me touching part of the marble remnants of the boat shaped hospital dedicated to the God of Medecine.


  1. This is really intersting. Loved the pictures too. There is so much to see on every corner in Rome.


  2. Thanks for a fascinating write up! I've read my basic European history and read, of course, Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, but I didn't know the specifics of Roman Jewish history. As ever, i wish that I could wander along with you and W. as you visit these interesting places (and have your lovely local meals!). But this is almost as good.

  3. I.Love.These.Tours!..and the pictures.
    Thanks Lauren!