Roman Jews

Inside, and outside, the Ghetto.

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Out of the Ghetto

The Ghetto restrictions were finally abolished in 1870 when papal dominion ended in Rome and Jews were granted full citizenship. Within three decades, the Ghetto's cramped walls were torn down and the area was rebuilt. This restructuring included the construction of Tempio Maggiore di Roma, Rome's Great Synagogue, completed in 1904. The transformation of the physical space was dramatic. "When people visit the Ghetto today, they wonder why it was so bad," said Micaela Pavoncello, who leads guided tours of the Ghetto through her company, Jewish Roma Walking Tours. "But the amount of sky and light you have between the buildings now is huge compared to the narrow streets of the Ghetto times."

Tragedy would, of course, strike in Rome once again during World War II when 2,000 of the city's approximately 7,000 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where the vast majority were killed. And in 1982, a small group of Palestinian militants attacked the Great Synagogue, killing a 2-year-old boy and injuring others. Despite these horrors, however, most of the 20th and early 21st centuries have proven drastically kinder to Rome's Jews.

Jewish Rome Today

Naturally, after the Ghetto walls were torn down, a large portion of the community (the ones who could afford to) fled the immediate area for other neighborhoods. Today, only 400-800 of Rome's 16,000 Jews live in the Ghetto (the area still goes by this name). Like other historically Jewish immigrant enclaves (e.g. New York City's Lower East Side and Mile End in Montreal), the Ghetto has recently become the center of mass gentrification. Today, its streets are lined with restaurants and art galleries, and apartments regularly sell for over a million Euro. Ironically, this economic shift has placed some of the most coveted real estate in the hands of the same families who were too poor to leave it behind.
Meanwhile, in the 21st century, there has also been a vast shift in the vibrancy of Rome's Jewish community. In the years following World War II, assimilation and intermarriage were prevalent amongst Rome's Jewish population--enough so that it seemed like Rome's Jewish legacy might fade away. "The change [towards more active Jewish life] can be attributed to two Ls--Lubavitch and Libyans," said Roy Doliner, who co-founded the popular tour company, Rome for Jews. Doliner said Chabad Lubavitch presence has helped to put a positive pressure on Roman Jews to revitalize their heritage. Meanwhile several thousand Libyan Jews immigrated to Rome in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, as nearly all of Libya's Jews fled their home country. In addition to boosting the Jewish population in Rome, Doliner said that the Libyans' reverence for Jewish tradition has "helped spark a major revival."

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Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.