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The Jews of Italy.

There was no country called Italy until unification took place, in the 19th century. But in the first or second century, the writers of the Mishnah recognized Italy as a place. In Tractate Sanhedrin 8:2 of the Mishnah we are told that to be identified as a stubborn and rebellious son, one must drink half a log (275 cc.) of yayin ha-italki (Italian wine).

The Jews living in first century Israel knew about Italy and its wine. And in Rome itself, Emperor Augustus knew enough about Jews "to order the Roman courts not to call Jewish parties or witnesses on the Sabbath." (l) The benevolence of Augustus was one side of the picture; the other facet is illustrated by an order given by a counselor of Emperor Tiberius named Sejanus. The historian, Salo W. Baron, writes: "The Jews were expelled from Rome and perhaps from all of Italy, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor in Sardinia. Tiberius soon reconsidered, however, and 12 years later formally readmitted the Jews to the city, from which many of them had probably never departed." (2)

The island of Sardinia is one of several places in Italy where there are catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions. Three inscriptions were found in the catacombs of Sant'Antioco dating from the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The language is "ebraico-latino" (Hebrew plus Latin).

In the language of Sardinia today, there are at least two words that hint at a Jewish presence on the island: the word for "Friday" is cenabura, pronounced keNAbura, from Latin cena pura, meaning "pure feast," suggesting the Sabbath meal; and the word for September is caputanni, from Latin caput meaning "head" and anni meaning "of the year," a literal translation of Rosh Ha-Shanah, "head of the year." (3) Maybe this is all a coincidence. It is entirely possible that Sardinians, before the Roman conquest, began their year in September and had a special meal on Friday. Nevertheless, the coincidence of caputanni and cenabura suggest an influential Jewish presence. Be that as it may, Jews were expelled from Sardinia and all of southern Italy in the period 1492-1541, when the territories in question came under the rule of the Spanish royal family. There are no Jews left in Sardinia.

The town in Italy most associated with inscriptions in Jewish catacombs is Venosa, in the area known today as Basilicata but earlier generally called Lucania. According to the historian Baron, "An unbroken series of inscriptions in Venosa, in particular, shows the continuity of Jewish life from ancient to medieval times."(4) Between the 3rd to the 6th century CE, there were 51 such inscriptions. Twenty-six of them are in Greek, 13 in Latin, 2 in Hebrew, 2 in "ebraico-latino"; 10 are illegible. (5) More and more discoveries of Jewish inscriptions are being made at Venosa all the time. (6)

Why Greek? Greek was the language of the eastern part of the Roman empire but was widely known in Italy as well. The Jews in Italy could have come from Asia Minor and Egypt as well as from Judea; in either event we would expect that at least some Italian Jews spoke a variety of Greek rather than Latin. Later inscriptions from Venosa and elsewhere are likely to be in Hebrew. The revival of Hebrew in the late days of the Roman empire is no doubt a subject that merits further investigation.

Jews were expelled from southern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were expelled from Sicily and Sardinia in 1492, as part of the expulsion from Spain. They were expelled from the rest of southern Italy as the Royal house of Spain acquired more land in Italy.

There were Jews in Rome and southern Italy before the Common Era; there are Jews in Rome and northern Italy today. We don't know whether there were Jews in northern Italy in Roman times. We have records of them from the 14th century and later. They came from southern Italy, southern France, Germany, and later from Portugal and Spain.

We might think of Italian Jews as Sephardic. We usually assume that if Jews are not Ashkenazic, they are Sephardic. In Italy, people make more distinctions. Jews whose families have lived in Italy since Roman times go to synagogues that are called "Italian rite synagogues." Jews whose families came from Germany during the Renaissance are called Ashkenazic and go to Ashkenazic synagogues, but they speak Italian or Judeo-Italian and are indistinguishable from other Italian Jews. In Venice and elsewhere, there are two kinds of Sephardic synagogues, Ponentine and Levantine. The Ponentine Jews came from the West, where the sun sets. They came to Italy from Portugal, although, like all Portuguese Jews, their families were originally from Spain. The Levantine Jews came from the Ottoman empire, in the East, where the sun rises. They, too, were generally descended from Jews who came from Spain. Unlike the Ponentine Jews, the Levantine Jews had, by and large, never gone through a stage of being New Christians.

There is an Italian way of pronouncing Hebrew. As we know, Ashkenazim say Shabes, Israelis say Shabat. Italian Jews say Shabad or Shabadde. A talis is un taledde. The letter tav or sov without the dagesh is pronounced d. The letter ayin is pronounced ngayin. Jacob is Yangakov.

Until a century or so ago, Jews spoke Judeo-Italian. As in Jewish languages in general, there are words of Hebrew origin for "fear." Both ehme and more are found in Western Yiddish; moyre is general in Eastern Yiddish. The Italian equivalent is pahad. Judeo-Italian, like Yiddish, has a word for "thief": ganavve or ganav. A female thief is una ganavessa; the verb "to steal" is ganaviare. The Hebrew-Aramaic component of the language, as in all Jewish languages, contains words for awkward subjects. It is logical that words relating to Jewish celebrations, "bride" and "groom," for example, are likely to come from Hebrew. It is perhaps equally logical that separate words exist to prevent confusion with other religions: "Christian priest" (galakh in Judeo-Italian, galekh in Yiddish). It would make no sense to refer to a Christian priest using a word from the Hebrew kohen.

There is at least one Judeo-Italian word that comes from Yiddish: orsai from "yortsayt." There are several Yiddish words that come from Romance languages: bentshen, "to bless," cholnt, from an Old French word meaning "hot," and others. There is another word that has a Yiddish analog. In Yiddish, the word for "synagogue" is shul or shil. In Judeo-Italian, it is scola, which is not quite the same thing as scuola, meaning "school."

Italian Jewish surnames are generally not recognized by people who don't live in Italy. Most of us know Finzi, because of the movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Contini can be a Jewish name as well. The movie is based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani. Bassani and Bas-sano are both Jewish names. It is extremely odd that in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, a play about Jews, the name Bassanio is given to a non-Jewish character. There was an Italian prime minister named Sidney Sonnino, a Protestant who was Jewish on his father's side. Sonnino is a Jewish name, as is Luzzatti. Luigi Luzzatti was also a prime minister of Italy. A variant is the family name Luzzatto, which produced at least two intellectual titans in the 18th and 19th centuries: the cabbalist and poet Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto, commonly called Ramchal, and the rabbinical scholar Shmuel David Luzzatto, commonly called Shadal. There were also important Jewish members of the Communist party in Italy, notably Umberto Terracini and Emilio Sereni. In the United States, on the other hand, although there were many Jews who joined the Communist party, none of them ever had top positions.

The Jewish population of Italy has always been small. I don't know why this should be--just as I don't know why most Jewish communities in northern Italy didn't exist before the Renaissance. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that many Jews lived in cities. Urban populations don't reproduce themselves. Migrants keep coming to the city from the country, then become urbanized, and a generation later, their birth rate drops considerably. In terms of percentages, it is estimated that the Jewish population was at its peak in 1500, when it was one percent. Today it is a tenth of that.

I have mentioned the novelist Giorgio Bassani. There have been many Jewish writers in the 20th century--Natalia Ginzburg, who was half Jewish and married to an East European Jew, as we can tell by her name; Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and wrote about it; Carlo Levi, not related to Primo; Alberto Moravia, who was half Jewish; Italo Svevo, who was greatly admired by James Joyce and probably became famous because of Joyce's efforts; and others.

The painter Amedeo Modigliani was another Italian Jew. He was one of the most famous Italian painters and one of the most famous Jewish painters of the 20th century. The most famous 20th century Italian-Jewish composer is probably Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, unless we want to consider him an American composer. In the early 1600s, there was an Italian Jewish composer who is quite well known for his time, Salamone de'Rossi. He was born in about 1570; his last composition dates from 1628, but nobody really knows when he was born and when he died. He was perhaps the greatest Jewish composer before the 19th century. He composed music to Hebrew texts, in particular, for the Song of Songs.

During the Renaissance, Italian Jews were famous for being violinists and dancing teachers. During the Counter-Reformation, Jewish freedoms were proscribed, and the condition of the Jews deteriorated . In 1555, Pope Paul IV made it illegal for Jews to own real estate, to be called "signor," to be doctors to Christian patients, and so on. The first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. The last ghetto to exist in Europe until Hitler reintroduced the idea was the ghetto of Rome, which lasted until 1870. The ghetto was overcrowded, subject to flooding, and, consequently, to epidemics. The legal situation of Jews in Rome at the time was probably worse than in Czarist Russia.

The Mortara affair was an example of how Jews had no rights in 19th-century Italy. A six-year-old child, Edgardo Mortara, was kidnapped from his family home in Bologna, in June 1858. Five years earlier, he had been secretly baptized by his nanny, a teenaged girl who was worried because Edgardo was sick. When she talked about the story, the church said the child was a Catholic. After the kidnapping, Edgardo lived with Pope Pius IX as his adopted son. Edgardo became a monk and died in Belgium in 1940. The case caused a big stir and led to the founding of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in France in 1860. It was the first time Jews had organized to found a political organization.

Mussolini took power in 1922 and was at first not anti-semitic. He called antisemitism "a German vice" and Hitler "a fanatical idiot." All this changed in 1938, when Mussolini introduced racial laws into Italy. In 1942, when Italy ruled part of Yugoslavia, Mussolini cooperated with the Nazis in rounding up Jews in Croatia. But he didn't allow the Jews of Italy to be deported. When Mussolini fell in 1943, the Allies were already in southern Italy, but the Nazis controlled the areas with the big Jewish populations. They began rounding up Jews as the Allies advanced from the south. Many Jews were able to hide; their names and their appearance did not give them away. About 80 percent of the Jews in Italy were able to survive the war; All the same, when you go to any synagogue in Italy, you will see a wall with the names of all those who were deported to the death camps.

In Italy, taxes support religious schools. The taxes of Jews go to support Jewish schools. Jewish children can and do get a free religious education. Some people have argued that this is dangerous, because the government has lists of Jewish taxpayers. Such lists were used by the Nazis during World War II. Nevertheless, most Jews are not afraid this will happen again. Once, my wife Carol and I walked pasta Waldensian church. The Waldensians are a very small and very old Protestant denomination. I was surprised to learn that there still are Waldensians on earth. We struck up a conversation with some people outside the church. I was startled to learn that the Waldensians send their children to Jewish schools. There are not enough Waldensians for them to have their own school, and they feel a Jewish school is less of a threat to the faith of their children than a Catholic school.

Jews in Italy today are often quite assimilated and usually successful. Some are quite religious, but most are not. Intermarriage is probably more common than in America. But so is aliyah. Many Italian Jews have moved to Israel. There is a beautiful Scola Italiana in the Little Italy section of Jerusalem.

In recent years, anti-Zionism has gotten stronger and stronger in Italy. Perhaps the reader remembers that in October of 2000, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Ramallah, and one of the perpetrators held up his bloody hands to a cheering crowd. The photographs were taken by a small, independent Italian television station. A few days later, a letter to the editor was published in a Palestinian newspaper by a journalist named Riccardo Cristiano. Cristiano apologized to the Palestinians for taking a picture that violated the regulations that the Palestinian Authority had set for foreign journalists. He made it clear that his own network, RAI, was not responsible for letting these pictures out. The Israeli ambassador to Italy objected to the idea that RAI had agreed to censor its news in order to protect the Palestians. RAI censured Cristiano and closed its offices in Israel.

Italian Jews are prominent and relatively hard to recognize. They are doing well and feel safe. After the events of September 11, 2001 in New York, two different slogans began appearing on walls in Italy. One was Siamo tutti Americani, "We are all Americans." The other was Siamo tutti Palestinesi, "We are all Palestinians." More recently, the British weekly The Economist reported that the percentage of Italians who sympathize with the Palestinians as opposed to the Israelis is higher in Italy than in France or England, and much higher than in Germany. (7) The liberal Italian newspaper La Stampa ran a cartoon showing the baby Jesus looking up at an Israeli tank and saying, "Don't tell me they want to kill me again." (8) Who knows what the future will bring?


(1). Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, New York: Columbia University Press, 1937; 2nd ed., revised and enlarged, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1952, vol. I, p. 245.

(2). Ibid., vol. I, p. 246.

(3). G. Bonfante, "Tracce del calendario ebraico in Sardegna," Word, vol. 5 (1949), p. 171.

(4). Baron, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 20.

(5). Leo Levi, "Ricerca di epigrafia ebraica nell'Italia meridionale," La Rasegna mensile di Israel, vol. 28 (1962), pp. 152-153.

(6). Reported in "In Italian Dust, Signs of Past Jewish Life," The New York Times, May 15, 2003.

(7). "It works at home," The Economist, April 20, 2002, p. 27.

(8). Reported in an editorial, "The Return of an Ancient Hatred," in The New York Times, April 20, 2002.

GEORGE JOCHNOWITZ is emeritus professor of linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, New York City. He writes widely on topics of Jewish interest.
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Author:Jochnowitz, George
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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