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The Jews in Rome, 2 vols.

Kenneth Stow. (Studia Post-Biblica, volume 48:1 and 2.) Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1995, 1997. lxxx + 411 pp. and 539 pp. Indices. n.p. ISBN 90-04-10463-1 and 90-04-10806-8.

Documentation of daily life in Jewish communities from the middle ages until emancipation is uniquely abundant for Italy. The series, "A Documentary History of the Jews in Italy," in which these are the eleventh and twelfth volumes, already includes Piedmont, Umbria and the Duchy of Milan, from as early as 1245 until the late eighteenth century. Rome, the oldest continuous Jewish settlement in Europe, also has left abundant records, but systematic archives survive only since the fifteenth century.

The two volumes here provide an English register of 2005 notarial records from the Archivio Storico Capitolino, Roma, Sezione III, informally called the Notai Ebrei, for 1536 to 1557, with a gap from 1544 to 1548. The entries, originally written in Hebrew by rabbis serving as notaries, are what Roman Jews felt it necessary to record between the sack of Rome, in 1527, and the imposition of the ghetto, in 1555: apprenticeships, dowries, tax assessments, appointment of mediators to disputes, rental arrangements, and notations of injury to pre-pubescent girls that might later impair their marriageability. Editorial notes to many entries explain legal and historical obscurities.

Not all noteworthy events among Jews were recorded here. Trousseaux of Jews, for example, were registered with Christian notaries for tax purposes. Stow distinguishes these records from "a Roman Jewish version of the Florentine Catasto . . . The Jewish notaries made no composite lists of families . . . their wealth, their occupations, or their places of residence. Their acts do not furnish the basis on which to reconstruct the Roman Jewish population" (xvi). The archive provides information, however, "about the average fluctuation of dowries, the average number of children in a family, and thus, average family size, and also about changes in the average rate of marriage for given years and the rates and modalities of out-marriage" (xvii), Other substantial collections of Roman Jewish records, by Christian notaries or specialized Jewish organizations, have been adduced to characterize the Jewish community in ways that differ from Stow's.

His extensive introduction characterizes Roman Jewry: "Perhaps the most remarkable fact about sixteenth century Roman Jewry is that Jewish women freely owned and disposed of property." This indicates, he says, "the essence of Roman Jewish society, its emphasis on individual initiative . . . to cope with unending personal, interpersonal, communal and even external pressures." Families were normally two-generational, rather than multi-generational extended family units. Women's independence distinguished the Roman Jewish community from the increasingly patriarchal non-Jewish society and typified the remarkable continuity in family structure, ethnic porosity and economic activity that the Roman Jews maintained, both before and after the ghetto was imposed.

Stows emphasis on individuality directly challenges characterizations of the Roman Jewish community as fundamentally fragmented by "ethnic" divisions that resulted from the arrival, at the end of the fifteenth century, of refugees from Spain, Portugal, Provence, and Naples. Although synagogues were known as "Spanish," "Catalan," "French," or "Italian," Stow contends that these distinctions were neither as immutable nor as important as the names suggest. Ethnic background did not correspond to class division, and members of the different synagogues did not resolutely marry their children to others from the same synagogue, so that three generations after their arrival, the Spanish and Portuguese immigrant families were thoroughly integrated. Stow suggests that the Roman Jews did not resist integrating the immigrants because the newcomers were too diverse to threaten the Roman Jewish identity. "What characterizes . . . Roman Jewry as a whole is an essential homogeneity. Roman Jews displayed the attributes and characteristics that today one would associate with an urban middle class" (xvii).

ARTHUR M. LESLEY Baltimore Hebrew University
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Author:Lesley, Arthur M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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