In full transparency, I had previously believed many stereotypes about Italy, particularly about Rome, due to a lack of research and education. One assumption I had was the lack of diversity within the country. I had never learned about the history of Italy other than its fascist past. However, in the last two weeks, I found myself in several situations where I learned about Rome’s ethnic past and relationship with migrants and minorities.
Thanks to the second cultural immersion experience held by the envoy program at Temple Rome, the Migrant Tour of Rome, I found myself positively enlightened about Rome’s ethnic and religious diversity. Our guide, Madhobi, is originally from Bangladesh but had moved to Rome with her family when she was a little girl. Her pride for her culture, her love for Rome, and her passion for sharing knowledge made this tour exhilarating, informative, and optimistic.
Madhobi led the tour through a neighborhood that is part of Esquilino. We started at a Chinese store that had been in business in Rome for many years. Inside the shelves were filled with different teas, porcelain teapots and homeopathic remedies. She explained that while at first only frequented by Chinese locals, Italians had come to love and appreciate Chinese culture. This storefront is now a well known and respected spot within Rome’s borders. For anyone interested in paying a visit, the store was called Erboristeria Chinese Hua Tuo!
We saw Indian restaurants, Mosques, Bangladeshi apparel, and African clothing stores. The presence of so many different cultures was not “obvious” but it was present. Going back to my opening statement of my assumptions of Rome, I’d say that I have a greater understanding and perception of the diversity in Rome. However, there is still this important fact to discuss: different cultures, while present and accepted, do not seem to be advertised. Compared to my experience in New York City, parts of the city such as ChinaTown, Little Italy, and Little India are all aspects of Manhattan that are widely celebrated and frequented. The difference in Rome is that minority cultures and ethnic groups are present, but that presence is somewhat unknown.
In connection to my search for Jewish history in Italy, specifically Rome, I found a similar theme. The roots and history are there, but they are more hidden. The Catholic Church’s influence is so strong in Rome that any other religion’s presence in the city will pass you by. Therefore, you must be aware and actively looking to see the beautiful, close-knit religious communities that exist and prosper. While walking with Madhobi, we passed a beautiful old Church. She pointed to a rather insignificant looking building. She told us that the building was actually a Mosque and was open 24 hours a day for all Muslims to visit and pray. I found this beautiful. In a city full of Churches and Basilicas, a Mosque existed to provide a safe space for prayer to any Mulsim in the city.
After this tour, I found myself extra curious about the history, experience, and presence of Jews within Italy and Rome. After speaking with some of my native Italian professors, I began to learn more about the history of Jews within the country. One of the most fascinating facts I learned about was the creation of the first ghetto. Surprisingly, it was in Venice in 1516. I had never associated Judaism with Italy, and now, something I had always learned about and visited (Jewish ghettos) actually originated in Italy! While this first ghetto was created to lock Jews out of Venice, the word ghetto has now come to represent a close knit Jewish community/neighborhood.
Curious about Jewish people’s relationship to Italy, I visited the Temple Rome library. Through some research, I learned that Holocaust causilities of the Roman Jewish population were actually significantly lower than other European countries due to Italy being an Axis Power during World War II. I read about the different emperors of ancient Rome who were favorable towards Jews, like Caesar, and those that forced taxes and military service upon them. I was amazed to learn of this interconnectedness of my people with the city where I’m living.
I hope that my research, reading, and curiosity about Jews in Rome continues. I know that there is so much more to learn and discover, so the next stop on my list is a tour of the Jewish ghetto in Rome and a visit to several of the well known synagogues within the city. I will let you all know how it goes!