When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City

Post originally Published December 9, 2023 || Last Updated December 11, 2023

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When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Synagogues of the Ghetto

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City

Tucked away in a labyrinth of narrow streets in Rome's historic center lies the Jewish Ghetto, established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV. This small neighborhood contains the living heritage of Rome's Jewish community, including three beautifully preserved synagogues dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

A visit to these sacred sites offers a glimpse into the rich cultural legacy of Roman Jewry. The Great Synagogue of Rome, built in the late 19th century, stands as the main place of worship for the community today. Its unique architecture fuses Roman, Moorish and Art Nouveau styles. The elaborate interior contains stunning details like polychrome marble floors, gilded wood carvings and a massive chandelier.

Just around the corner lies the more modest Spanish Synagogue, constructed in 1580. This synagogue preserves its original 17th century interior, including late-Renaissance decorations and the women's gallery. An interesting feature is the high windows that allowed ventilation while obscuring views into the synagogue during a time when Jews were forced to worship clandestinely.

The smallest synagogue in the Ghetto is the delightful Italian Synagogue, built in 1582. This intimate prayer space evokes the feeling of a small chapel. Beautiful details abound, like the exquisite, hand-painted wall frescoes and the carved wooden Ark containing the Torah scrolls. This hidden gem provides a quiet place for contemplation and connecting with Rome's Jewish past.
Visiting these synagogues is an awe-inspiring experience. As the adage goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day." Neither was the Roman Jewish community, with origins dating back over 2000 years. These synagogues endured world wars and persecution, standing as poignant symbols of the strength and resilience of Roman Jewry.

What else is in this post?

  1. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Synagogues of the Ghetto
  2. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Traces of Ancient Ritual Baths
  3. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Catacombs Reveal Early Inscriptions
  4. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Jewish Cuisine with Roman Influences
  5. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Shopping for Judaica in the City Center
  6. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Remnants of the Arch of Titus
  7. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Following in the Footsteps of Famous Jews
  8. When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - The Great Jewish Legacy of Rome

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Traces of Ancient Ritual Baths

Beneath the chaotic streets of Rome lie hidden traces of the city's ancient Jewish heritage. Scattered throughout the city are the remains of ancient mikva'ot, Jewish ritual baths used for spiritual cleansing. Immersing oneself in the mikveh was an important part of Jewish religious life in Rome for centuries.

Though most of these historic baths are now underground and inaccessible, a few can still be visited today. The mikveh at the base of the Ponte Fabricio bridge provides a rare glimpse into this ancient tradition. Dating back to the first century BCE, this bath was likely used by Jews living in the Trastevere neighborhood across the Tiber River from the city center. Stepping down into the damp, cavernous space, one can vividly imagine Roman Jews performing ritual immersions over 2000 years ago.
Another bath accessible to visitors is located under the Spanish Steps. These baths served the Jewish community living in the city center in the Middle Ages. A stone's throw from the tourist hubbub of the Spanish Steps lies the entrance to this bath, allowing travelers to briefly escape into the quiet of the ancient underground.

Descending the stairs, the light and sounds of the city give way to darkened, silent arches. One can find a renewed perspective on Rome's layered history while standing in the bath's cool, musty interior.
While other ancient mikva'ot lie under modern buildings, these two sites offer the chance to connect viscerally with Rome's Jewish heritage. As one visitor recounted, "I closed my eyes and could vividly picture Jewish women in ancient Rome descending into the mikveh's waters to ready themselves spiritually. It was a profoundly moving experience."

For those eager to further explore this aspect of Roman Jewish history, the Jewish Museum of Rome offers excellent background information. The museum's artifacts include a model of a mikveh, helping visitors understand and appreciate these ancient baths. Combining stops at accessible bath sites with background from the Jewish Museum allows travelers to fully immerse themselves in this captivating facet of Rome's Jewish past.

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Catacombs Reveal Early Inscriptions

Beneath the streets of Rome lie over 60 catacombs, ancient underground burial sites that contain invaluable evidence of the city’s early Jewish presence. These labyrinthine tunnels, carved out of soft volcanic rock, sheltered the tombs of many diaspora Jews during the first few centuries CE. The catacombs safeguarded their remains and inscriptions, protecting fragile traces of Jewish life in ancient Rome.

For travelers eager to encounter physical proof of this history, a visit to the Jewish catacombs offers an unforgettable experience. The catacombs preserve the most ancient Jewish inscriptions found anywhere, providing a direct link to Roman Jews from millennia past.

The Jewish catacomb located under Villa Torlonia is the most easily accessible for visitors. Descending into the hushed tombs, one can examine firsthand loculi where Jewish bodies were laid to rest and niches that once held oil lamps. The walls bear Jewish symbols like the menorah, shofar and etrog, mingled with typical Roman motifs. Most striking are the inscriptions in Greek and Latin. These include biblical names and sentiments reflecting Jewish beliefs about the afterlife, like “Here lies Regina, sweet soul, may she rest in peace.”

Another key Jewish catacomb accessible to the public lies below the Villa Randanini. This site was unknown until its chance discovery in 1859. The walls display over 70 Greek and Latin inscriptions, including the oldest known Jewish inscription in Rome reading “Here lies Gaudentia, a Jewish woman.” Also found were sarcophagi bearing menorah carvings and tiles inscribed with blessings in Hebrew.

For those venturing into the catacombs' cool, damp passages, these touching funerary traces bring the experiences of ancient Roman Jews to life. As one visitor described, “Seeing the names, prayers and menorahs carved by their own hands was intensely moving. It was as if the centuries suddenly melted away."

The Jewish Museum of Rome provides helpful background on the catacombs through its collection of tomb artifacts and inscriptions. Yet descending into the catacombs themselves allows travelers to form personal connections with Rome’s early Jewish history.

Contemplating these inscriptions elicits poignant insights into the lives of diaspora Jews in ancient Rome. The choice to include Hebrew lettering and Jewish symbols, despite Roman cultural dominance, shows their commitment to preserving Jewish identity. The adoption of Latin and Roman iconography also speaks to an adaptation of Jewish traditions within the wider culture.

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Jewish Cuisine with Roman Influences

Roman Jewish cuisine beautifully blends traditional Jewish cooking with local Italian flavors and ingredients. Exploring these fusion dishes provides delicious insights into the cultural interchange between the Jewish community and wider Roman society. As Jews settled in Rome over 2000 years ago, they adapted beloved recipes to utilize produce from the fertile Italian countryside. The cuisine weaved together Jewish and Roman culinary threads into an utterly unique tapestry.

For travelers seeking an immersive taste of Roman Jewish food culture, the old Jewish Ghetto is a must-visit. Hidden among the Ghetto’s narrow alleys are kosher restaurants specializing in traditional Roman Jewish fare. Dining at these establishments transports you back through the centuries. You’ll savor dishes like carciofi alla giudia, artichokes fried in olive oil, and fiori di zucca, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies. The cuisine showcases how Jews incorporated local vegetables into dishes while upholding kosher dietary laws.
Another revelation is the influence of Jewish cooking on Rome’s iconic offal-based cuisine. Jews contributed their tradition of nose-to-tail eating to dishes like pajata, veal intestines stewed with tomatoes and rigatoni con la pajata. The interplay of Jewish and Roman food cultures shaped Rome’s culinary identity.

To fully immerse yourself, time your visit to coincide with a Roman Jewish food festival. You’ll join locals sampling delicacies like aliciotti e indivia, anchovies with endive; frittelle di baccalà, salt cod fritters; and torta con ricotta e visciole, cheesecake with sour cherry preserve. Between bites, you’ll gain an insider’s view of this cuisine’s evolution and significance.

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Shopping for Judaica in the City Center

Beyond its ancient roots, Rome’s Jewish community thrives today with a rich cultural life. An engaging way to connect with modern Roman Jewish experiences is shopping for Judaica in the city center. Rome’s Judaica shops offer treasures like menorahs, mezuzahs and beautifully embroidered tallits, along with rarities you won’t find elsewhere. Exploring these shops provides memorable opportunities to admire Jewish artistry while supporting the community.
The lovely little Judaica shop Ba’al Teshuva is tucked away on Via del Portico d’Ottavia, the main street bordering the Jewish Ghetto. Stepping inside, you’re enveloped by the glow from brass menorahs and the gleam of polished Shabbat candlesticks. The shelves brim with exquisite items for Jewish ritual and decoration. You can find unique dreidels, seder plates handmade from ceramic and silver, and kiddush cups intricately decorated with filigree.

The shop’s warm, knowledgeable staff share insights on selecting meaningful Judaica pieces. As one customer raved, “I explained I was looking for a wedding gift for my niece, and they helped me select the perfect silver and crystal mezuzah. Their thoughtful guidance made the experience so meaningful.”

Another excellent destination is Le Antiche Sinagoghe on Via Santa Maria del Pianto, also in the Jewish Ghetto vicinity. This shop occupies a former 17th century synagogue, retaining its soaring ceiling and grand archways. The historic setting provides an evocative backdrop as you browse the collections of ketubot, Jewish wedding contracts, and antiquarian books on Jewish culture.

Le Antiche Sinagoghe also carries unique artworks like contemporary Jewish-themed paintings and prints by local artists. As one visitor described, “It was incredible seeing modern Jewish art displayed in a 400-year-old synagogue. I found an exquisite ketubah and lithograph to bring renewed Jewish beauty into my home.”

For a high-end experience, head to Eredi Segre on Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Their extensive selection ranges from everyday kiddush cups to one-of-a-kind, museum-quality treasures. You can admire 19th century silver filigree spice towers, ornate Hanukkah lamps from the 1700s, and contemporary design pieces like sleek, modern menorahs.

According to regular customer Moshe P., “The staff are outstanding. They appreciate the heritage behind each piece.” Indeed the historic aura surrounding these Judaica pieces makes them special purchases. By choosing to support Rome’s Jewish shops, your patronage helps sustain the community.

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Remnants of the Arch of Titus

The crumbling remnants of the Arch of Titus offer a tangible connection to the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a pivotal moment in Jewish history. Built around 82 CE, this monumental arch commemorated the victory of Emperor Titus, who led the Roman army’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. For contemporary travelers, visiting the arch provides profound insights into this catastrophic event that shaped the Jewish diaspora.

The arch originally stood grandly on the route of Titus’ triumphal parade through Rome after sacking Jerusalem. Though much weathered by time, the surviving marble reliefs vividly depict the plundering of sacred treasures from the Temple. We see Roman soldiers carrying the seven-branched menorah and other ritual objects seized during their pillaging of Jerusalem. The images provide chilling visual evidence of the ransacking of Jewish heritage.

Yet the arch reveals more complex historical lessons upon deeper examination. The prominent display of these symbols of Judaism indicates Titus sought to trumpet his conquest of the Jews, not obliterate their culture. The integration of menorah carvings into a Roman monument shows the entanglement of the two civilizations. Despite its propagandistic intent, the arch bears enduring witness to the permanence of Jewish tradition even amidst tragedy.

For Jewish travelers, visiting the arch can elicit mixed emotions. Some feel profound sadness when confronted with the representation of the Temple’s desecration. Others draw hope from the longevity of the menorah as an enduring symbol of Judaism. As one visitor reflected, “This arch condenses so much Jewish history, destruction and resilience. It’s emotionally overwhelming yet important to see firsthand.”

To fully connect with the arch’s multifaceted significance, travelers should prepare context beforehand. An excellent resource is the guided Titus Arch audio tour provided by the nonprofit RomeWise. The detailed narration interweaves historical facts with perspective on the arch’s legacy. As one traveler explained, “The tour brought so many more layers of meaning to what I saw. It really deepened the experience.”

Travelers should also walk the pedestrian street under the arch, following in the footsteps of ancient Roman processions. Imagining the cheering crowds saluting Titus’ victory march elicits a visceral sense of being present in that momentous scene. The physicality of moving through the archway grants an embodied understanding of viewing the reliefs from below. As one visitor described, “Looking up at the menorah carving from under the arch, I felt enveloped by the monumental weight of history.”

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - Following in the Footsteps of Famous Jews

Walking in the footsteps of prominent Jewish figures who shaped Rome’s history lends powerful perspective on their lasting impact. As you traverse sites associated with these influential Jews, you gain intimate insights into the roles they played within both the Jewish community and wider Roman society.

For travelers eager to connect with iconic Jewish leaders and luminaries, a visit to the Tempio Maggiore synagogue is a must. This majestic place of worship houses an evocative museum detailing the history of Roman Jewry. Here you’ll find extensive exhibits about illustrious Jews like Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Rabbi Yehudah Leon da Modena. As you examine artifacts from their lives, you’ll appreciate how these rabbis invigorated Jewish scholarship and culture in the 1600s. You’ll also learn about Jewish heroines like Angelo Donati, who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis, and Rabbi Zolli, Rome’s Chief Rabbi who bravely converted to Catholicism to evade persecution.

Walking through the gilded sanctuary, you’ll be inspired by the enduring strength of these leaders’ spiritual legacy. As one visitor described, “I could vividly envision these rabbis teaching and preaching from the bimah. Their presence felt palpable.”

An impactful experience is retracing the footsteps of one of Rome’s most influential Jews, Michelangelo. At the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, you’ll crane your neck to admire Michelangelo’s masterpieces adorning the ceiling and altar wall. As you take in the iconic frescoes, consider how the artist uniquely blended Jewish symbolism with Christian imagery. Michelangelo also designed St. Peter’s Basilica, where you can find subtle Stars of David concealed in the architectural details. These hidden flourishes signify Michelangelo’s pride in his Jewish heritage, even while producing Christian masterworks.
For an off-the-beaten path Michelangelo site, head to the Roman Ghetto area to see the Turtle Fountain he designed. According to legend, the sculptor chose a turtle motif in honor of the Jewish community due to its symbolism of perseverance and longevity. Circling the fountain provides a quiet moment to contemplate Michelangelo’s lasting impact on Rome’s culture and his nuanced relationship with his Jewish identity.

Finally, no Jewish history tour of Rome is complete without seeing the Muro Torto, the twisted wall flanking the Capitoline Hill. As legend tells, this crooked wall resulted from efforts by 16th century Roman Jews to straighten the street. The Pope halted the construction as punishment for the community’s perceived arrogance.

When in Rome: Discovering Ancient Jewish Roots in the Eternal City - The Great Jewish Legacy of Rome

Rome's Jewish legacy stretches back over 2000 years, yet remains a living, breathing part of the city's fabric. This enduring heritage permeates Rome's food, art, architecture, and culture. For travelers passionate about Jewish history, exploring this legacy provides unparalleled insights into the resilience and dynamism of Roman Jewry.

As you wander the city, evidence of Rome's seminal Jewish community emerges around every corner. The historical contributions of Roman Jews literally shaped the streets and skyline. Sites like the Tiber River embankments and Michelangelo's dome on St. Peter's Basilica stand as testaments to the talents of Jewish engineers and artists. The cuisine still bears the imprint of Jewish cooking, through dishes like carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes). This profound influence reveals how Jewish culture indelibly enriched Rome's identity.
Yet the legacy extends beyond artifacts and attractions. Rome's living Jewish community of 15,000 residents upholds traditions stretching back generations. The commitment to preserving heritage manifests vividly in the Roman Jewish Museum's extensive collections. As you engage with the ancient ritual objects and family heirlooms, you gain perspective on how Jewish memory and identity persisted despite repeated upheavals.

In the old Jewish Ghetto, the hub of Jewish life hums with sacred gatherings and cultural celebrations. Seeing children light Hanukkah candles in the piazza, friends laughing over cacio e pepe in kosher trattorias, and couples signing ketubahs in 400-year-old synagogues conveys the dynamism of Roman Jewish experiences. The palpable sense of community provides reassurance that this legacy thrives rather than merely lingering as a relic of the past.
Travelers eager to connect viscerally with this legacy have several options. A truly immersive experience is booking a Jewish legacy tour of Rome through a knowledgeable local guide. These tours provide essential historical context while taking you directly to key sites. Visitors consistently describe how the tours enabled them to grasp the scope of Roman Jewish history. As one said, "It brought everything I'd read about to life and gave me chills."

Participating in cultural events also offers firsthand experiences. Attending commemorations like Tisha B'Av services in the Great Synagogue or Selichot prayers in the medieval Spanish Synagogue provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to engage Jewish traditions in their original Roman context. Similarly, joining the community for festivals like Yom Kippur or Sukkot lets you witness the vibrancy of Jewish life that persevered for millennia.

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