Walking tour of the Jewish ghetto of Rome

The Jewish ghetto of Rome sits adjacent to the ancient Teatro Massimo. The ghetto is located over a giant facility owned by the family of Augustus Caeser, which extended over a kilometer. It was occupied after his death by his sister Octavia, where she resided until her fourth husband’s death. We still can visit what remains of the Porto di Octavia.

The ghetto was founded in 1555, and all Jews that were not already living in the area (they made up 80% of the residents already) were required to move there. The Jews were compelled to pay for the wall that enclosed them, in an area that was the least desirable in the city, subject to the flooding of the Tiber. Its gates were locked at night. The ghetto remained under the rule of the Pope until the Risorgimento of 1870 created the modern state of Italy. These 300 plus years is a story of trickery, humiliation, pressure to convert, prohibition of religious worship, and undue taxation and imposed poverty, culminating in the deportation of some 3000 of its residents in WWII, the zenith of the depravity of so called Christians.

Jews had no rights. They could not own property and their allowed occupations were strictly limited. They were allowed to be pawn brokers but otherwise their occupations were confined to the lowest paying. There was abject poverty as a result. When they left the ghetto they had to wear yellow clothes, the women a yellow vail, the same as prostitutes.

Jewish Ghetto in Rome
One of the area’s charming narrow streets.

There were compulsory Catholic sermons on the sabbath. For this they had to stand in front of San Gregorio della Divina Pietà which sitsn the edge of the ghetto. On its facade is a quote in large letters on the exterior from the Hebrew Bible, out of context, where Moses condemned his fellow Jews for worshipping the golden calf.

They built the Synagogue in 1870, oversized in the hopes of an expanded population after the losses from disease reduced the population by half. Subsequent to the attack by Palestinians in 1982, the Synagogue is guarded around the clock by the Carabinieri, and per our guide, retired Mossad agents dressed entirely in black.

We walked with Guru Tours. Mircea, of Romanian, half Jewish and half Orthodox Christian heritage, also does tours at the Coliseo. We began at the steps of the Capitoline Hill, where Mircea commenced his barrage of commentary, very interesting, and accurate as near as I could tell.

All together, continued Jewish presence in Rome goes back some to 2000 years, he noted, likely making Rome the world’s oldest Jewish community outside the Middle East. Post WWII it’s population was boosted by Sephardic Jews from Madrid, who were in need of a larger community, finding one much in need of the economic resources the Spanish brought.

The current Roman mayor and council meets in the magnificent structure called the Campidoglio, officially still in Latin, Senatus Populusque Romanus. Its facade is by Michelangelo, overlooks the ruins of ancient Rome, and is flanked by the fabulous Capitoline museums, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (supposedly containing the relics of the mother of Constantine) incorporates the temple of Juno Moneta, from whom we get the word ‘money,’ originally meaning ‘warning.’ From this building and from the Vatican came the edicts that controlled and manipulated the Jews of the ghetto.

Close by and down the hill towards the Teatro de Marcello, modified for housing in the middle ages and now rented out to upscale tourists, you come to the site where state executions occured in Roman times. Victims were thrown off the high wall to their death after being tried and walked across the capital grounds. From this we get the term “capital punishment.” More than one rabbi met his death here. They were not allowed to have services, and if found doing so, were put to death.

The Nazis raided the ghetto on 16 October 1943. Some 1020 people were sent to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived. There are commemorative plates in honor of those taken and of those who died in the 1982 attack, which included one child whose father was throwing grenades tossed by the attackers back at them.

On 13 April 1986 Pope John Paul unexpectedly visited the Synagogue, called the Great Synagogue. He came to pray and to apologize for the Church’s treatment of Jews. There have been various visits since. Mircea said the Rabbi he did not want an apology but an understanding of what it had meant to be treated as they had been.

There are several Jewish restaurants in the quarter. Nonna Betta is known for its deep fried artichokes, and another for its briskets. Ba’Ghetto has a large terrace where they servie falafel, lamb ragu, goulash and oven-roasted veal. I assume these and the others are kosher. Another set of restaurants are owned by the same people. One serves seafood, while another it’s dairy products.

2 thoughts on “Walking tour of the Jewish ghetto of Rome”

Comment here (login optional)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.