Amid Rising Anti-Semitism in Western Europe, Italian Jews Are Staging a Surprising Revival
A strong communal response to a terrorist attack in the 1980s seeded a new generation of dynamic leaders
On March 20, Shalom Bahbout, chief rabbi of Naples and Southern Italy, sent a letter to the governors of the six regions that comprised the old Spanish Viceroyalty—Sicily, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, and Puglia—calling on them to institute an annual holiday for “research and memory” about the expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews from those regions on Oct. 31, 1541.
“The departure of those people, by all rights native Italians, created grave damage to the cultural, economic, and social patrimony of the southern regions,” Bahbout wrote. His letter stressed that remembering the episode—which is rarely studied or seriously discussed in schools and universities, if at all—was important not only for Jews, but for promoting tolerance of all those considered different or outside the mainstream of society.
Yet, while southern Italians may have forgotten the details of how their ancestors treated local Jews, whose presence on the peninsula stretches back more than two millennia, they are in the midst of a widespread—and surprising—revival of contemporary Jewish life. From Rome to Palermo, Jewish religious activity is visibly on the rise, and Jewish-themed festivals have become regular events throughout the country, with religious leaders celebrating in some of the country’s most famous public squares—and even the legendary San Paolo soccer stadium in Naples. Last December, for Hanukkah, Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta hosted Benjamin Netanyahu for a menorah-lighting in Rome, and candles were lit in Naples’ elegant Piazza dei Martiri and at Palermo’s Palazzo Steri, the old site of the Spanish Inquisition tribunal and prison. Meanwhile, Italian Jews—particularly in Rome—have organized new self-defense groups to combat outbursts of anti-Semitism, and leaders, Bahbout only one among them, have demanded that public officials confront the darker moments of Italy’s relationship with its Jews.
This is driven, at least in part, by the fact that a considerable number of southern Italians have reason to suspect or believe that their ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism 550 years ago. Some are interested in exploring their families’ Jewish roots, and that in turn has generated a wave of interest in conversion—but there are also some remarkable cases of recent conversions involving those without Jewish ancestors at all. The result has been an injection of new energy into congregations ranging from Orthodox groups operating under the umbrella the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in Rome to a lively Reform shul in Calabria that is now under the spirited leadership of Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italo-American who recently returned to her father’s birthplace of Serrastretta after spending years working in Milan.
It is hard to get accurate dimensions for this largely unnoticed phenomenon, perhaps because it runs directly counter to the larger theme of intensifying anti-Semitism in so much of Western Europe. Italian Jews have also traditionally preferred to maintain a low profile and are consequently reluctant to discuss their affairs, especially with outsiders. Chabad certainly has played a role—the group is especially active in Florence and Venice, where it operates popular kosher restaurants—but the central components are Italian. The rabbis themselves are unsure of the numbers involved. As Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, recently told me, they themselves are a bit baffled. “Yes, it is certainly real, all of us agree,” Di Segni told me. “But I can’t give you an explanation.”
Italian Jews have seen plenty of oppression—“ghetto” is, of course, an Italian word, originally used to describe the area in Venice where Jews were restricted to living—from the time of the Inquisition forward to the Fascist period, when Benito Mussolini passed racial laws more restrictive than Berlin’s. But while there have certainly been, and still are, Italian anti-Semites, Italians by and large never participated in the popular European anti-Semitic movements, whether racist or nationalist, of the 19th and 20th centuries that contributed to episodes like the Dreyfus Affair in France or for Nazism in Austria and Germany. By 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, the country had been led by two Jewish prime ministers, Alessandro Fortis and Luigi Luzzatti; two decades later, Italian authorities declined to join in the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews.
For decades after the Second World War, Roman Judaism was quiet, even moribund. In 1973, when I married my wife, Barbara, in the big early-20th-century synagogue on the banks of the Tiber, there was only one kosher restaurant in the ghetto area. Services were sparsely attended, the median age of worshipers was advanced, Jewish holidays were observed quietly, and by and large community leaders either preferred to maintain a low profile or threw in with the secular, leftist intelligentsia. The central piazza was notable mainly for its ancient bakery, which still produces spectacular sweets. It wasn’t a very chic place to live and was mostly populated by poor Jews, the shopkeepers in the neighborhood, or by a small group of movie people.
No more. The ghetto is now a beehive of tourism—foreign and Italian, Jewish and gentile—and there are many kosher restaurants, some very good indeed and frequented by lots of well-to-do non-Jews. A second bakery has opened featuring Eastern and Central European specialties. The Jewish schools, which had been across the river, have now moved into the ghetto and are flourishing, and the synagogue is well-attended both on holidays and for regular weekly services.
Moreover, Judaism is booming in other Roman neighborhoods. At last count there were 18 shuls in town, most Sephardic or Roman—a tradition all its own, with a unique t’filah—and with various approaches to would-be congregants, from very strict, demanding formal proof of the mother’s Judaism or of an official conversion, to very open, including non-Jews who are considering conversion.
It helps that Pope Francis is openly philo-Semitic, and the third such pope in a row. This counts for a lot in Italy, even in a period of greatly increased secularization. Three decades ago, John Paul II’s embrace of “Jewish fathers” and his historic trip to the Rome synagogue were major changes in Vatican doctrine and practice. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI was Pope John Paul’s theologian and drafted many of his declarations; he also wrote that the Jews were innocent of Jesus’ death and followed in John Paul’s footsteps to the Roman synagogue and to Israel. Pope Francis famously welcomes his Argentine Jewish friends to the Vatican and serves them kosher takeout from the ghetto; next month, he is scheduled to make his first official visit to Israel in the company of Abraham Skorka, a close friend who is rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires.
But it turns out that the Rome community, which I had always considered one of the most timorous I had encountered anywhere, began organizing itself in the early 1980s in response to a wave of anti-Semitic provocations, including a Palestinian terrorist attack on the synagogue in 1982—and in developing new institutions managed to nurture a new generation of brave and imaginative leaders who have galvanized—politically, socially, and religiously—a new generation of young Roman Jews.
In the aftermath of the 1982 attack, in which a toddler was killed, the schools were moved into the ghetto, and in December 1985 a new shul, the Tempio dei Giovani, was established on the second floor of the Jewish Hospital on the Tiberina Island in the Tiber, where a tiny synagogue functioned in secret throughout the Fascist period, even during Nazi occupation.
The Tempio dei Giovani was led by the hyperactive Rabbi Bahbout, who instituted a more “international” t’filah rather than the traditional Roman prayers chanted in the big synagogue nearby. Instead of viewing the new synagogue as a challenge to Rome’s Jewish establishment, the city’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff quietly offered his support. Publicly a meek, accommodating, and impeccably diplomatic man, he privately encouraged the young Jews of the capital to practice a form of Judaism with broader appeal—and to fight back against the religious and secular anti-Semites and learn self-defense, to protect the ghetto. New organizations were created, including one called the “Youth of ’48” and led by Angelo Sermonets, aka “il Baffone”—“the big mustache.”
From then on, there were firm and sometimes even violent responses to anyone who acted against the Roman Jews. The two best-known actions are the occupation of the military courtroom where the Nazi murderer Erich Priebke was tried in the mid-1980s after his extradition from Argentina, and the assault on neo-Fascist headquarters in November 1992, in Via Domodossola. The first is well-documented; the second, not so much.
In late July 1996, as the military judges were considering their verdict, it had become obvious that they were planning to accept Priebke’s “Nuremburg defense” and let him go on the grounds that he had no choice in the matter once he had received orders from the führer. The Roman Jews found this intolerable and, with Toaff’s full support, occupied the courtroom and took up positions outside the building. They were then surrounded by Italian security forces who asked the Jews to leave. They called Toaff, who was outside Rome on holiday, and asked him what to do. “Stay right there,” he said, “and don’t let him get away.” They remained in place, and the tribunal announced a double decision: The case against Priebke was dismissed, but he was rearrested because the German government was asking to try him for murder. The Appeals Court threw out the verdict, replaced two of the judges, and ordered a retrial. In 1997 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Almost everyone in Rome saw it as a great success for the Jews. Without their physical presence, Priebke might well have walked.
Five years later, in November 1992, a neo-Fascist group had been publicly threatening the Jewish community, and roughly 100 Jewish activists attacked the Fascist offices in Via Domodossala, trashing the premises, sending two Fascists to the emergency room, and carrying off Nazi icons. In short order, new legislation was passed banning actions, gestures, and slogans in support of “Nazifascism” and all incitement to violence for racial, ethnic, or religious motives.
It was another scalp for Rabbi Toaff and the ghetto activists. By then, the entire image of the Roman Jews has been transformed from victims to tough guys. In a 2010 interview, Sermoneta declared that he and Jewish Community President Riccardo Pacifici, a veteran of the Tempio dei Giovani and the self-defense groups, were restraining Rome’s Jewish youth from attacking some outspoken neo-Fascists. “We’re tired of seeing swastikas and graffiti,” Pacifici warned. “Anyone who thinks the Jews are frightened is making a big mistake.”
On the “spur” of the Italian boot lies the little agricultural town of San Nicandro, where, during and immediately after the Fascist period, an amazing event took place: the spontaneous conversion of a community of Catholics to Judaism. In a recent book, The Jews of San Nicandro, historian John Davis calls it “the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times.”
The story goes like this: A local, Donato Manduzio, ended up in a northern hospital after falling ill on the Austrian front during the First World War. In the hospital, he became an avid reader. After the war, he returned to Puglia, and one day an Evangelical preacher came through town and left a copy of the Bible; Manduzio devoured it and loved the Old Testament. He read it to his friends, and they decided it was the truth. “But where are these people?” they asked Manduzio. “Oh, they’re long gone,” he answered. “This is all ancient history. No Jews left in the world.” He thought they were wiped out in the flood. So, Manduzio set out to recreate Judaism from the Bible, banning pork from San Nicandro’s tables, shifting the Sabbath from Sunday to Saturday, and eliminating Christian art, sculptures, and amulets from their homes.
Then, one day in the early 1930s, a traveling salesman told them there were plenty of Jews in Italy, with rabbis who could help educate Manduzio and his followers. Manduzio sent postcards to the rabbis in Turin, Florence, and Rome, initially without success—imagine, for a moment, what those rabbis thought, getting requests about adopting Jewish practice from these people in San Nicandro, at a time when Hitler was on the rise and the always hostile Catholic Church was in cahoots with Mussolini. But Manduzio persisted, and eventually people came from Rome with proper prayer books and promises of help accompanied by proper warnings that it was not a propitious time to become a Jew in Europe. Yet most of Manduzio’s community successfully converted at the end of the war, and most of them made aliyah. Today their descendants are mostly in and around Sfat, and a few years ago one of them, a cinematography student named Eti, made a lovely documentary about her trip to San Nicandro, where she found the children of those who had stayed behind and who are now repeating the spiritual itinerary of Manduzio’s generation. Some have already converted, others are studying for it, and all seem to be debating whether to stay or move to Israel.
In March, I attended a Shabbaton at a hotel in nearby Radi Garganico, followed by a celebration in San Nicandro. I drove down from Rome with Rav Bahbout and a Torah from the Tempio dei Giovani, which he delivered to the tiny shul in the main street. About a hundred people attended, and I’ve rarely seen so many tears of joy, from Jews and non-Jews alike. The mayor gave a very supportive talk. The event was organized by Shavei Israel, an Israeli group that brings far-flung communities to Israel and who now have a project under way in southern Italy. There was even a stray Ukrainian-Italian Jew named Igor, whose father moved to Calabria 20 years ago.
But perhaps the most remarkable conversion story I’ve heard is the one concerning the concert pianist and musicologist Francesco Lotoro, who comes from Barletta in Puglia, not far from San Nicandro. He had a successful performing career, but Lotoro’s enduring contribution has been to collect, perform, arrange, and sometimes record thousands of musical compositions from the Holocaust camps. He’s published many volumes of scores and has recorded more than 20 albums of the music, gathered from camps all over central and eastern Europe.
A decade ago, Lotoro decided to become a Jew. He and his wife studied with Bahbout in Rome and converted in 2004. Lotoro told me he had been interested in, and attracted to, Judaism from the time he was 14 or 15 years old. His grandfather told him about family practices—such as washing hands before meals, not making the sign of the cross at church services, and baking white bread for the Sabbath—that suggested a Marrano background. Years later, after his conversion process was under way, he learned there was archival evidence that his grandfather’s grandfather was officially considered to have come from a Jewish family.
In recent years, Lotoro has become a Jewish activist. Two years after his conversion, he convinced the authorities in the neighboring town of Trani to permit him to take charge of one of the town’s oldest churches and turn it back into the synagogue it had been before the Inquisition. The restoration was complicated, and while the mayor of Trani was very helpful, he had to reject Lotoro’s request to whitewash a fresco of Christ and the Blessed Virgin from one of the interior walls—it was an officially protected work of art. So, the temple of Scolanova in the heart of Puglia is unique: I don’t know of another shul anywhere in the world with Jesus and Mary on the wall.
It’s a reminder that Italian Jews have long been an intimate part of the country’s history—and perhaps a sign that Italy, with its brave and imaginative Jewish leaders, can offer a model to the rest of Europe, and inspire the same sort of revival among Jews elsewhere on the continent.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Erich Priebke was tried in 1996, not 1986, and to clarify that the group Shavei Israel helped organize the Shabbaton in Radi Garganico.
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