Saturday, 27 July 2013

Kosher Delights

Rome's Jewish community is the oldest in Europe and one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world. Jewish traders first arrived in Rome in the 2nd century BC  and settled in Trastevere.
When Rome invaded Judea in AD70 the spoils of war not only included items from the Temple, but also Jewish prisoners of war, many of whom were forced in to building the Colosseum. The Arch of Titus in the Forum depicts the triumphant procession celebrating the invasion with the captured Menorah a prominent feature. 

Julius Caesar favoured the Jewish people as did Emperor Augustus, who scheduled the grain distribution so that it wouldn't interfere with the Sabbath.
Emperor Caracalla granted them the privilege of becoming Roman citizens. However, the recognition of Christianity as a religion resulted in Emperor Constantine limiting the civil & political rights of  the Jewish population.
In the middle ages their treatment varied from pope to pope. At this time the population began to migrate across the Tiber and settle around the square that is known today as Piazza Mattei.
The Jewish people contributed to the Renaissance as merchants, traders & bankers.  The Borgia pope ( Alexander VI)  allowed exiled  Spanish Jews to settle in the community & the Medici popes (Leo X & Clement VII) treated the Jewish people well. However, in 1555 Pope Paul IV decreed that the Jewish community should move into the ghetto, a restricted riverside area prone to flooding, or leave. For the next 300 years severe restrictions were placed on those that remained in the ghetto including the wearing of yellow caps & shawls when they ventured out of the district - a chilling omen of what was to come. The ghetto walls remained in place until the unification of Italy in 1870 when the rights & citizenship of the community were restored.

The obvious place to start a walk through the Jewish Ghetto is at the Synagogue.

This was the first building erected in the area in 1870 & was completed in 1904. It has a square dome to distinguish it from the Christian domes of the Rome skyline. The Synagogue contains the Museo Ebraico which documents the history of Jewish life in the ghetto. Since a terrorist attack in 1982 the area is heavily guarded by Carabinieri. In 1986  Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to this synagogue, the first pope ever to visit a Jewish place of worship. He apologised for the pain that had been caused to the Jewish people.

Across the road from the synagogue is the church of Santa Maria della Pieta.  Catholics built churches at each of the gates of the walled in ghetto in order to try and spread their faith to the Jewish people. The quote under the depiction of Christ on the cross that you see on the church is from Isaiah - 'All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and faithless nation that has lost its way' - in this instance the quote is misused to give an anti-Jewish twist.

On Sundays the Jewish population were forced to listen to sermons here which were designed to convert them to Christianity.

As you walk towards the ruins of Portico d'Ottavia you will cross a small square that is marked by a plaque on the wall.


On September 27th 1943, the head of the German SS in Rome demanded 50 kilos of gold from the  Jewish community otherwise 200 Jews would be deported to Germany or the Russian front. The demand was met but on 16th October 1943 Nazi forces entered the ghetto & rounded up 1,000 Jews, the majority of which were women & children, and transported them to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived

The small square is named Largo 16 Ottobre 1943

Ahead are the remains of Portico d'Ottavia. This portico was rebuilt by Augustus and dedicated to his sister, Octavia, in 23BC. The portico enclosed twin temples dedicated to Juno & Jupiter, libraries and public rooms and was a meeting place for the nearby Theatre of Marcellus.

The church that was built among the ruins is Sant Angelo in Pescheria - the name refers to the fish market that thrived here in the Middle Ages. A marble plaque is set in to the façade of the church. Fish that were longer than this plaque were given to the city's governors.
Make your way along Via del Portico d'Ottavia, passing  restaurants that specialise in Roman-Jewish cuisine such as Da Giggetto and Ba Ghetto, until you reach Via San Ambrogio on your right. This is a street that survived from the days of the ghetto & it is easy to imagine it teeming with people who lived here.

Continue along Via San Ambrogio until you reach the delightful Piazza Mattei & the Turtle Fountain. The turtles were a later addition to the fountain by Bernini. It is said that Bernini chose turtles as homage to the Jewish people - they are ancient creatures who carry all their belongings on their backs.

Take Via della Reginella from the piazza. On the corner is a shop, Peperita, which  specialises in chillies & olive oil both of which are grown on a Tuscan farm. The chillies range from a mild Aji  right up to a fiery Trinidad Scorpion!

Via della Reginella is another survivor from the days of the ghetto. Here you can see where the six floor buildings end and the elegant three floor buildings begin, marking the end of the ghetto area.

As you reach Via del Portico Ottavia you will find Mondo di Laura - the kosher cookie shop. Treat yourself or take some home as gifts. My favourite is Pepita - dark chocolate chip cookies with Himalayan pink salt.

A little further up is the Jewish bakery, Boccione. This is easily identified by the cinnamon scented air floating out of the tiny unmarked doorway. The speciality here is  pizza ebraica or sweet Jewish pizza made with candied fruits and nuts.
The same family have owned this bakery for generations. Members of the family were amongst those deported to Auschwitz who never returned.


At this point Via del Portico Ottavia becomes Via di Santa Maria del Pianto. It was in this area that the Duke of Gandia, son of Pope Alexander VI & brother of Cesare Borgia, was murdered and his body thrown in to the Tiber. The fact that the pope abruptly ceased all investigations in to the murder led all of Rome to believe that the murderer was no less than Cesare himself - dark deeds indeed.

Across the road is Piazza Cinque Scole. When the ghetto was created one of the restrictions imposed was that only one synagogue was allowed. The Jewish community cleverly interpreted this as meaning one building, in which they built a separate school  on each of five floors so that all were able to practise their different rites - hence 'Cinque Scole' or 'Five Schools'.
Nothing remains of the synagogue but a piece of the ghetto wall can be found in one of the courtyards. The white columns on the corner belong to the small Tempietto del Carmelo, yet another church in the ghetto where the Jewish people were made to listen to Christian sermons.

Returning to Via di Santa Maria del Pianto you will see Beppe e il suoi Formaggio . Inside is a veritable feast of all kinds of cheese, especially from the Piedmont area. The butter that you see is made from Beppe's own herd of cows.

Beyond the counter is a delightful dining area  - an ideal place for a spot of lunch. The perfect end to your stroll through the Jewish Ghetto.

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