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November 18th speaker

Professor to Highlight History of Italian Jews in Upcoming Slide/Lecture

The 2,200-year history of the Jews in Italy, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, will be the focus of a slide/lecture by Dr. Gary Schiff, Adjunct Professor of History at Washington College, on Monday, November 18.  “In Search of Italia:  Tracing Jewish Roots in Italy,” the sixth in Schiff’s annual lectures on major Jewish communities in Europe, will be presented in Hynson Lounge of Hodson Hall that afternoon at 4:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

The presence of Jews in Italy since Roman times is vividly illustrated by photographs of the ruins of a large ancient synagogue discovered by archaeologists at Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, dating to about 45 B.C.E.   The subsequent destruction of Judea by the Romans in 70 C.E. is marked by the Arch of Titus that still stands in Rome today.  It depicts the ancient menorah taken from the Temple in Jerusalem that now serves as the seal of the State of Israel.

Dr. Schiff traces the development of the Jewish community through the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire, with its increasing restrictions on their activities, followed by the more liberal Renaissance.  Jews actively participated in the lively world of the arts, music, literature and science in places like Mantua, Ferrara, Modena and Florence in that period.     

The Counter-Reformation ended that toleration.  Jews were confined to ghettos all across Italy.  Dr. Schiff visits the original ghetto, that of Venice, set up on an island in 1516, which is remarkably intact.  Each of its five gilded 16th century synagogues represents a different Jewish sub-community:  German and French (both Ashkenazi), Spanish (Sephardi), the native Italian, and Levantine, with their distinctive customs.  The Rome Ghetto, founded in 1555, stood until 1870, when the unification of Italy heralded the final Emancipation of its Jews.

In the post-Emancipation era Italy’s Jews built grand synagogues as monuments to their new-found freedom and prosperity.  Those in Rome, Florence, Milan, Turin and Trieste are especially noteworthy. This period saw Italy’s highly acculturated Jews rise to unprecedented heights in commerce, government service, the military, academia, the professions, and so on.

The rise of Mussolini and Fascism after World War I was not initially anti-Semitic like its counterpart in Germany.  However, by 1938 Italy adopted racial laws that severely restricted the rights of Jews and deprived them of their property and livelihoods, though not their lives.  With the fall of Mussolini in 1943 and the occupation of northern and central by the Germans, the Holocaust began for Italian Jews.  Dr. Schiff travels to rarely visited sites in the country, from the concentration camp at Fossoli, to the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, and to a former rice factory in Trieste, where the full horror of the Holocaust for Italian Jews was played out.  He concludes with a discussion of the challenges facing Italy’s remaining 30,000 Jews today.

“Given its sheer longevity,” Schiff observes, “a study of Italian Jewry is like a complete course in Jewish history in and of itself.  Its incredible cultural and intellectual creativity, its remarkable adaptability and survival in the face of enormous challenges, its unique religious traditions, all make Italian Jewry one of the most fascinating Jewish communities that I have had the privilege of exploring to date.”