The Day We Stepped Into A Page Of Italian History

What started as a search for a Christmas Day lunch ended up as a walk through Rome's history in the Jewish Ghetto.

italian history
Diners enjoying a meal at Jewish-Roman restaurant Nonna Betta. Photo courtesy of Nonna Betta.

Where to have our Christmas Day lunch when my extended Irish-Italian family got together in Rome wasn’t such a simple choice as many restaurants are closed or fully booked that day. We also wanted to avoid the touristy ‘English-style Turkey Dinner’ menus on offer, so my son’s partner Serena, a historian and connoisseur of the city, suggested dining at a restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto. I trusted her decision. I had previously visited the area but hadn’t given it any thought as a Christmas lunch location.

After a stroll around the markets in Campo de’ Fiori, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Nonna Betta, an almost windowless basement restaurant in Via del Portico d’Ottavio. Soon platters of assorted fried vegetables adorned our table as did the typical Roman-Jewish style artichokes, pasta all’amatriciana ‘without pork’, and lamb was a popular favorite among some of our group, all accompanied by wines and soft drinks. The platters kept coming and were followed by more platters of sweets and desserts with an infinite variety of dried, candied fruits. Looking around at pictures, drawings, documents, and photos that adorned the walls of its many eating areas, my curiosity was whetted as I was seeing a huge chapter of European history right before my eyes. After lunch, we explored that history in the surrounding streets and alleyways.

Italian history
Nonna Betta’s carciofo alla giudia – giudia artichoke. Photo courtesy of Nonna Betta.

Jewish Ghettos were built in European cities starting in the Renaissance following the Alhambra Decree of 1492 in Spain, which ordered the conversion to Catholicism of all Jews there. Many Jews chose to leave Spain for Italy where they were soon seen as unwelcome foreigners because of their non-Christian beliefs and Middle-Eastern origin. The first ghetto, or enclosed space, was in Venice in 1515 and the second, the Rome Ghetto in 1555. Pope Paul IV who issued a Papal Bull, or Decree, Cum nimis absurdum which stated that is was absurd that the roughly 2,000 Roman Jews could circulate freely in the city mainly in the crowded Trastevere area a stone’s throw from the Vatican itself. The decree set down limits on property ownership. A designated area beside Castel Sant’Angelo close to the River Tiber was “freed” of all Catholics and a walled quarter built with three gates that were locked at night. Construction costs had to be met by the Jewish community. Christian owners of houses in the area could keep their property but they could neither evict the Jews nor raise rents. Many Jews were educated professionals, but practicing medicine on Christian patients was forbidden. Compulsory Catholic sermons were introduced on the Jewish shabbat. Despite everything, Jewish culture survived.

The vastness of the underground space at Nonna Betta gives an idea of how every inch was exploited. During 300 years of virtual isolation, the Jews of the Ghetto developed their own dialect and cuisine. Kosher, or Jewish dietary laws, make interesting reading. One rule is particularly striking: kosher cuisine does not mix milk and meat products in the same dish.

After lunch we strolled along the buzzing streets, part of the leisurely passeggiata, past the many restaurants in the square which came into being after the ghetto was freed and the unlivable houses were pulled down, past the Synagogue where Pope John Paul II was guest in 1986, down to the banks of the Tiber which, before reinforcements were put in place, was regularly prone to bursting its banks, adding to the misery of those living there.

Ghetto life was one of crushing poverty. Men could work only at unskilled jobs, such as ragmen, cooks, secondhand dealers, fish mongers,  pawnbrokers and money lenders — a profession prohibited to Catholics. This latter activity excited the hatred of many Catholics and gave the Jews the infamy as being mean and stingy. We have street names such as Via dei Cenci (Rag Street) that reflect this history.

When Jews went outside the walls, they had to wear a yellow cloth or veil. A head tax and sworn loyalty to the Pope were required. As the community grew, severe overcrowding ensued — since space was so limited, families built vertical additions to their houses in the already narrow space.

A shot of Portico D'Ottavia in Rome's Jewish Quarter - a crumbling archway is centre frame, surrounded by more modern buildings. Some people are walking in the street.
Portico d’Ottavia in Rome’s Jewish Quarter. Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash.

Except for brief periods, the Papacy controlled the Ghetto for over 300 years. In 1848, Pope Pius IX permitted Jews to live outside the ghetto. The Jewish head tax was abolished in 1850, while 1870 saw the elimination of the Papal States. The walls were torn down in 1888 and the buildings almost completely demolished. A new Piazza and the area for the new Synagogue of Rome (1904) were designed. So the Ghetto area today can only give us a vague idea of what living conditions were like there for centuries. The Roman Ghetto was the last in Western Europe until they were reintroduced by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. At this time, over 2,000 Jews were deported from Rome alone.

Today the Jewish community in Rome is vibrant, respected, and well-integrated into the life of the city. Rome is rightfully considered the Eternal City, and its monuments, churches, walls, ruins, streets, and squares testimony to great achievements. But, just beneath the surface, they are also testimony to great injustice, terrible suffering, and shameful secrets. Unfortunately, and ironically, as my son’s father-in-law Tony rightfully pointed out, we cannot forget that in another part of the world, the Palestinian Refugee Camps exist today where thousands of people live surrounded by Jewish Israeli forces and survive in conditions not dissimilar to those associated with the Rome Jewish Ghetto. The Gaza Camp founded in 1968 is situated only 5km from the Roman ruins of the Jordanian city of Jerash. As they say, it all leads back to Rome.

A special day in an intriguing location that I would strongly recommend visitors to Rome to include in their places to visit. History is a discreet teacher and, if we decide to look just a little bit closer, we do so at our own risk. Just expect a tinge of melancholy to creep in as the ghosts of the past seem to whisper from the walls and the cobblestones.

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