The history of the Italian Jewish community is more than just interesting, it is fascinating.
Jews have lived in Italy without interruption from the days of the Maccabees until the present, a period of more than 21 centuries. Though there were partial expulsions, there was never a general expulsion.
The first formal ghetto designed to segregate the Jewish community from its neighbours was established in Venice in 1516 and the ghetto walls stood until 1797 when Napoleon conquered the city. The ghetto of Rome was erected in 1555 and remained an imposition upon the Jews of the city-state until 1870, though Napoleon did break down the walls for a brief seven year period between 1808 and 1815.
The liturgy of the Italian Jewish community reflected the varieties of Jewish communities who found a home in the princely states of Italy. There were native Italian Jews who traced their roots to the days of the Maccabees. There were Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Greco-Italian Jews. This mélange of Jews helped create fascinating liturgical traditions as well as interesting cuisine. The community also gave rise to one of the great biblical commentators Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550). His works are so different then the commentaries of the Ashkenazim. His writings is more mystical and yet simultaneously more rational.
All of this history was recalled during a recent two week sojourn to Italy. My preparatory reading served as the impetus to visit the remains of the Venice Ghetto. There are no remaining walls, but there is a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s Jews and four empty synagogues, who stand ready for inspection and as testimony to the long past presence of Jews in Venice.
It was in the courtyard of the museum that I witnessed the intersection of respect for dead Jews and avoidance of living Judaism. Waiting to enter the museum, and afterwards, I spoke with people from many countries who made the museum their first stop in Venice. The vast majority were “members of the tribe.” We chatted about the history, and about their excitement to experience the history of a Jewish community long since gone.
Yet, at the same time, the shluchim of Chabad had established a sukkah in the corner of the courtyard and welcomed all visitors to bench lulav and etrog and eat in the sukkah. However, none of the visitors I chatted with had any interest in visiting the sukkah of living Judaism. I am certainly aware that Chabad can be aggressive and off putting, but this community on this day was respectful and rather passive, unless one initiated contact. So, once more, I’m struck by how many of us travel to the concentration camps, the cities devoid of Jews, the sites of our persecution and destruction, but often avoid the vibrant realities of our existence.
The synagogue in Florence is a wondrous architectural achievement. The docents are knowledgeable and informative, though ours informed us he was not Jewish. Not enough members of the community want to be responsible for sharing their history. The synagogue is full of visitors on chagim and yom tovim, but they tell me not nearly as many visitors come to services as come to visit the empty building and museum.
What is it about our self-definition that makes us more comfortable with our history’s stories of destruction and persecution than with the history of our ongoing redemption? What is it about viewing the remnants of our inglorious past that is more compelling than visiting our glorious present?
Perhaps the answer lies in our transformation from one people united by a covenant and shared history to two separate and discreet groups. One group who maintains the original design, people bound by covenant and history. The other has allowed time and events to create a peoplehood bound by history but no longer committed to covenant. Perhaps that distinction, certainly the outgrowth of 200 years of political emancipation, drives some of our people to visit the sites and cities of our past but does not compel them to visit the synagogue or other institutions of our present vibrancy.
Only time will tell if this new division of identity will be the secret of our survival, or whether the saving remnant of our people will need to be more than mere tourists.