The Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Stephanie Persin
A Jewish community has been present in Italy since the Maccabeans traveled to the area in 161 B.C.E. Until the 13th century C.E., Jews lived relatively peacefully in Rome. After the second crusade, however, treatment of Jews began to deteriorate. It was at this time that Jews began to travel from Rome to less populated areas such as the region of Emilia-Romagna.
Emilia-Romagna is north of both Rome and Florence, two cities that housed the largest Jewish populations at the time. Only a moderate number of Jews immigrated to Emilia-Romagna during the 13th century.
The Jewish population in the area greatly increased during the Spanish expulsion of the 1400s. Christians of Emilia-Romagna accepted the Jews because of their experience in banking. At that time, the church discouraged Christians from lending money, leaving the banking profession solely in the hands of the Jews. Jewish printing houses also existed in cities such as Bologna. In fact, a Bologna printing house produced the first copy of the Pentateuch in 1482.
In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV ordered all Jews in Italy to be placed in ghettos. Jews were prevented from leaving the ghettos at night and a curfew was placed upon them. It was also forbidden for Jews to own land or the buildings in which they lived. Jews at this time had no other choice but to lend money because all other professions were considered off-limits to them. The Jews of Emilia-Romagna were constantly fearful of riots and purges of their population.
Some cities in the region were more fortunate than others. The Jews of Ferrara, for example, did not have to wear symbols of identification. Also, they were not forced into specified Jewish quarters until the 17th century.
One of the most well-known Jewish quarters in the region during that time was the Modena ghetto. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Modena ghetto was the center of kabbalist and mystical Jewish study. Just a few miles north of Modena is Carpi, the location of the largest concentration camp in Italy during the Holocaust.
The Italian ghettos were proclaimed illegal by Napoleon in 1796 when he conquered the area. At the time, there were at least 4,000 Jews living in the region inside of fourteen ghettos and fourteen Giudecca, or Jewish quarters.
Jews remained in Emilia-Romagna until the regions of Italy unified in the late 1800s. Prohibitions on Jewish business had ended and Jews in the area left for the more populated and profitable regions of Milan, Rome, and Turin. Most Jews chose to leave the area, and this emigration is the explanation for the small Jewish population in Emilia-Romagna today.
In the 1980s, the Bologna Jewish community and other small regional Jewish communities began to restore the abandoned synagogues and ghetto buildings around Emilia-Romagna. This small restoration movement transformed into a formal government-supported program. The program has been working to preserve older Jewish buildings, and also to encourage Jews to travel to Emilia-Romagna.
One Jewish art show, in particular, contributed to the high concentration of Jewish tourists visiting Emilia-Romagna in the early 1990s. The collection included historical Jewish objects such as talith and rimonim. The art was exhibited both in Emilia-Romagna and throughout North America.
The project to restore the Jewish community in the region has continued, and most of the ghettos and synagogues have been renovated. An official tour of Jewish sites in Emilia-Romagna has been created for visitors.
Although many more Jewish tourists find themselves in Emilia-Romagna, out of four million residents, only 400 Jews live in the region today.
While historical Jewish sites have been successfully restored, means of religious expression have not. Synagogues are used mainly as tourist destinations rather than places of worship. Still, the Jews in Emilia-Romagna have transformed from an almost forgotten population into a well-known center of historical Jewish culture.
Sources: In Italy
The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe
The Jerusalem Report, "Where Jewish Life Once Thrived". June 27, 2005
Photographs courtesy of Jerry Peek