By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
Today, of Italy's 35,000 Jews, nearly half call Rome home. Jews here have a uniquely Roman style of worship, and even preserve remnants of their own Judaic-Roman dialect. That's because, unlike most of the world's Jewish people, Roman Jews are neither Sephardic (descended from Spain) nor Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern Europe). Italy's Jews came directly from the Holy Land before the Diaspora, first arriving in Rome in the second century b.c. as esteemed envoys, and then, after Rome invaded Judaea in the first century a.d., as POWs sold into slavery.
Julius Caesar favored the Jews because they were well-networked throughout the empire, and they didn't push their religion on others. As Christianity enveloped Rome and the pope became literally the king of Rome's Jews, the Jews experienced discrimination, with laws intended to limit the spread of Judaism (e.g., no proselytizing, new synagogues, or intermarriage). The severity of these laws varied from pope to pope. Through most of the Middle Ages, Rome's Jews prospered and were often held in high esteem as physicians, businessmen, and confidants of popes. The community in Trastevere was even allowed to spill across to the opposite bank of the Tiber.
Starting in the eighth century, anti-Semitism began increasing throughout Europe. Then, in 1492, all of Spain's Jews were either baptized or expelled, with similar decrees following in other European countries. Rome's Jewish population doubled, swelling with refugees. By the 1500s, the Catholic Counter-Reformation — begun to combat rising Protestantism — turned its attention to anything deemed a "heresy" or simply not Catholic, including Judaism. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forcibly moved all of Rome's Jews into a ghetto (across the river from Trastevere), enclosing some 4,000 Jews inside, on a mere seven acres of land. There they lived — in cramped conditions, behind a wall, with a curfew — for three centuries. They could go out by day, but had to return before the gates were locked at night. Jews were forced to wear yellow scarves and caps, and were prohibited from owning property or holding good jobs. During Carnevale (Mardi Gras), they were forced to parade down Via del Corso while Christians lined the streets and shouted insults. Through this long stretch of oppression, the synagogue was the only place Jews could feel respected and dignified. It's no wonder such loving attention was given to the Jewish tools of worship.
While Rome's Jews enjoyed a little freedom when Napoleon occupied the city (1805–1814) and after the walls were torn down in 1848, it was only after Italian unification in 1870 that the ghetto's inhabitants were granted full rights and citizenship.
Then came the rise of fascism. Even though Mussolini wasn't rabidly anti-Semitic, he instituted a slew of anti-Jewish laws as he allied himself more strongly with Hitler. When Mussolini was deposed and the Nazis occupied Rome late in the war, the ghetto community was in even greater danger. Of the 13,000 ghetto-dwellers, 2,000 were sent off to concentration camps.
A measure of healing and reconciliation came with Pope John Paul II, who took a special interest in fostering relations with the Jewish community. It was the late pope who finally acknowledged that the Church should have intervened more forcefully to defend the Jews during the Holocaust. He was also the first pope in history to enter a synagogue. In his last letter, John Paul II thanked Rome's emeritus rabbi for allowing him to initiate this Catholic–Jewish rapprochement he felt was so long overdue.