When I was 15 years old I was able to visit Rome with my mom during a school break. There were so many things on our itinerary. The Colosseum, Pantheon, Roman Forum, the Vatican, and the Jewish Ghetto. Visiting the Jewish Ghetto was probably the last thing on my list to visit while in Rome, but for my mom it was first. I tagged along and remember being tired and not much else. As a 15-year-old, seeing and understanding the history of Jews in Rome was not a priority.
However, five years changes a lot. With my semester abroad in Rome and my Envoy project centered on being Jewish in Rome, visiting the Ghetto was top on my list. This past weekend I had the chance to retrace my steps and make new paths, all with a more mature perspective.
I started my adventure across the Tiber from the Ghetto at Biscottificio Innocenti. I had visited this bakery during my first visit and remembered that it was a generational kosher bakery with some of the best cookies. So of course I had to go again! The storefront is hidden and nonchalant, the windows lined with trays of freshly made biscotti. Inside, a nonna places cookies, treats, and tarts into bags and boxes. Posters in Hebrew line the wall and a Star of David hangs from nonna’s necklace. I asked for a mixed box, hoping to bring some treats home to share with others. Sitting right on top was a half-covered-in-chocolate, Star of David cookie.
Next, I was off to the Ghetto. While walking from Trastevere, the Roman Synagogue can be visible from many, many viewpoints; an intentional decision during its design. I decided to start my path there, with a visit to their museum. Historical and religious information line each wall and glass cases filled with beautiful artifacts occupy every room. Embroidered Torah dressings from the 1500s, intricate keys for the Aron and 19th century Tzedakah boxes are just some of many. Life in the Ghetto was hard. Enclosed walls surrounded inhabitants and prohibitions/curfews restricted their days and nights immensely. However difficult and unjust, the Roman Jews were able to create a community and their religion thrived. Second hand cloth and antique fabrics were hand embroidered into the most beautiful coverings. A singular synagogue was a place for religion, schooling, and community gatherings. The Ghetto existed from 1555 to 1870.
To understand in more depth the rules of the Ghetto, here are several of the decrees made by Pope Paul IV Carafa:
Any Jew living in Rome or in the countryside had to live in only one quarter with one entrance, and one existed in order to be separate from Christians. All Jews had to be recognizable everywhere by wearing the color yellow. Jews could not fraternize with Christians. In addition to these edicts, forced baptisms occurred until the 19th century. When a Jewish child was forcefully baptized, they were forbidden any further contact with their families. A return to Judaism was punished with death.
My visit to the museum not only taught me much, but also caused a stir of emotions. I felt proud to be part of such a resilient people. I felt sorrowful for my ancestors and the wrongdoings they had experienced. I felt hopeful, because even through hardship and diasporas, Judaism had overcame and our history was rich.
I ended my adventure with a stroll through the tight corridors that once enclosed the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. The Ghetto has been popularized and modernized in the past few years and the streets were filled with people, trendy shops, and many kosher restaurants and bakeries. Even though the walls have been torn down and replaced by shining store fronts, the presence and history of the Jews that once lived there and those that still do are forever engraved in those several cobblestone streets. A wall covered with historic Jewish symbols from the past feature Menorahs and Stars of David, while Hebrew letters fill hidden cracks. Men walk past me with Kippahs (a head covering worn as a sign of respect), and an enormous Israel flag hangs outside a restaurant. Jewish life has prevailed and Jewish culture has become appreciated in a place where it was once hidden away and mistreated.
I truly cannot explain how meaningful this experience was for me. The change from my interest and understanding of the Ghetto at the age of 15 versus 20 is drastic. I know more now, and I feel more connected to this huge bustling city after feeling comfort in seeing Jewish culture that I know so well from home.