ROME — Friday afternoon in the Jewish ghetto here and the commotion that envelops this intimate four-block radius is a welcome embrace. Shouts of “Shabbat Shalom” meld with the tantalizing aroma of baked goods and boisterous schoolchildren stream from the Jewish day school into their parents awaiting arms.
The turtle fountain
Winding through Rome’s architectural marvels on way to the ghetto earlier that morning, I was feeling somewhat disconnected. By the time my tour guide, Micaela Pavoncello, began her famed Jewish Roma Walking Tour, however, my sense of detachment was replaced by a wide-eyed fascination with familiar sounds and smells as I traversed a bridge defined less by mileage than lineage.
The hub of Jewish identity in Rome, housing some of the city’s most expensive real estate, boasting shops, galleries, pubs and trendy kosher restaurants, the neighbourhood is a far cry from the ghetto Charles Dickens came to visit back in 1844, which he described as a “little town of miserable houses.”
Rome’s Jewish community is the oldest in all of Europe. The first wave of Jewish immigrants – a contingent of Maccabees, Pavoncello’s paternal ancestors among them – came to Rome in 160 BCE from Jerusalem, seeking protection from the Syrian King Antiochus. Neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, Roman Jews are a unique breed, “the most authentic Jerusalem Jews”, our guide explained. Today, they number 16,000 (35,000 in all of Italy), with many subscribing to Orthodoxy, though, as Pavoncello points out, intermarriage is at 30 per cent and customs carry greater weight than religious practice.
“We come to shul in our scooters, but God forbid we should carry,” she said tongue-in-cheek. And while Saturdays of her childhood began in synagogue, they always continued in the family-run store. It’s simply a product of 22 centuries of Jewish life in a non-Jewish world, she said.
Despite undergoing various transformations over the years, remnants of ghetto life abound throughout these narrow streets. Check out the cramped seven-storey building on Via Della Reginella, for example, for an authentic depiction of how 9,000 people managed to live within such a confined space.
Overcrowding and limited space led to the creative addition of narrow floors to the already damp and dark apartment complexes. Take a few more steps to your right to see the building flush against an average, more spacious, four-storey modern edifice of the same height and you get the full picture.
In Piazza Mattei, on the cusp of the ghetto, you’ll find the spectacular Fontane delle Tartarughe, the turtle fountain, designed by Giacomo della Porta. Featuring four boys playing with turtles, Gian Lorenzo Bernini apparently added the turtles 83 years later (symbolizing those who historically carry belongings on their back) to honour Jewish resilience.
Walk down Via Portico D’Ottavia and find the charity box embedded in a wall adjacent to Bar Toto. One of the few ghetto-era legacies, it’s still used for donations and bears the inscription, in Italian and Hebrew, “Give to the orphans.” At the end of the road, you’ll come upon Portico of Octavia, the remains of the ancient Roman fish market. Next to it is the church of St. Angelo, where ghetto occupants were made to attend sermons with the hope of proselytizing the non-believers. Turn left as you exit the ruins and you’ll come face to face with a plaque commemorating the piazza where hundreds of Jews were ghettoized again, this time rounded up and shipped to concentration camps.
At the end of the block behold the Great Synagogue and the Jewish Museum it houses. After the ghetto was demolished, the Jewish community decided to build a renovated synagogue on the same piece of land, except instead of holding five separate congregations (as it did for centuries) there would be just one. The building – completed in 1904 – bears an eclectic architectural design, making it a veritable standout and in a city feted for its impressive structures, that’s saying a lot. The aluminum dome is squared – the only one of its kind in Rome – attesting to both the influence of and distinction from the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2004, the Museo Ebraico di Roma, Jewish Museum of Rome, received a facelift, which saw it move to a permanent home inside the synagogue.
The exhibition holds Jewish manuscripts, documents on the Nazi occupation and various religious objects, including 18th-century prayer books and lamps, a Megillat Esther from the 12th century, a 16th-century Ark cover, ketubas and a torah covering made from a dress donated by Queen Christina of Sweden (valuable, second-hand clothing was commonly used for these purposes).
Of course, a trip to the ghetto wouldn’t be complete without a sampling of its culinary offerings. That they attract foodies near and far shouldn’t be surprising since, as Pavoncello pointed out, most Italian fare has Jewish roots. But the food in these parts can certainly stand on its own.
Take the kosher bakery on Via Portico D’Ottavia, Pasticceria “Boccione” Limentani. Run by the same family for two centuries, its longevity can best be explained with a full mouth. Its minimal signage would normally make it hard to find, were it not for the steady lineups out its door. You don’t come here for the service, though. You stand in line – and literally elbow your way to the front – for the freshly baked sugared ciambelli, cocoa biscotti and other special delights.
Farther up the street, I’m greeted by Franco Effreti, the owner of Nonna Betta. Named after the owners’ grandmother, Bette, the kosher dairy restaurant specializes in traditional Roman and Middle Eastern food and has received especially rave reviews (a write-up from the New York Times is affixed to their door).
The ghetto is still a popular hangout for Rome’s Jewish community, though only 400 of them call the ghetto home today. The area’s trendy cachet, elevating housing prices to Manhattan levels, is partly to blame. As a result, of its Jewish inhabitants, the wealthiest – and newest property owners – are sharing the neighbourood with the poorest, who never left. That the latter now own some of the most valued property in town is an irony not lost on anyone.
Pavoncello recounted the story of an older woman who stubbornly refused the many offers to buy her apartment, much to the chagrin of developers. Her residence, affixed distinctively to the ancient arch of Portico, is not only a priceless piece of real estate, it’s a fitting tribute to the ghetto’s underlying theme of survival. If Dickens could see her now.
Birnbaum was a guest of Hotel Atlante Star during her stay in Rome.