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Tracing Jewish Roots in Italy

  • The Ark in a synagogue in Padua.
    The Ark in a synagogue in Padua.
  • The Ark in a Venice Synagogue.
    The Ark in a Venice Synagogue.
  • The Great Synagogue of Florence.
    The Great Synagogue of Florence.
  • Jewish scholar Gary Schiff
    Jewish scholar Gary Schiff
    Photo by Shane Brill

Location: Hynson Lounge

November 18, 2013
Scholar and Cantor Gary Schiff will share the rich history of Italy’s Jews in a slide-lecture Nov. 18.

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Jewish scholar and cantor Gary Schiff will present a slide lecture on the 2,200-year history of Italy’s Jewish population, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, on Monday, Nov. 18, at 4:30 p.m. at Washington College. The event will take place in Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall.

Schiff’s talk,  “In Search of Italia: Tracing Jewish Roots in Italy,” will combine his research with his personal travel experiences and photographs he took at Jewish historical sites in some 15 cities and towns across Italy.

Schiff, an adjunct professor of history at the College, will trace the development of the Jewish community beginning in ancient Rome circa 200 B.C.E., highlighting the stark highs and lows of Jewish life through the centuries. He will talk about the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire; the confinement of Jews to ghettos (starting in 1516 with the original ghetto on an island in Venice); the prosperous period following the unification of Italy in 1870, when highly acculturated Jews rose to unprecedented heights in Italian commerce, government service, the military and the professions; and the dark days of the Fascists and Nazis. The lecture will conclude with a discussion of the challenges facing Italy’s remaining 30,000 Jews today.

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

In conjunction with Schiff’s slide lecture, the College’s Miller Library is creating an “In Search of Italia” display that will run November 4 through 20. The display will include select photos from the presentation, Jewish literature from the library’s collection, and some three-dimensional objects. 

Schiff’s lecture on Italy is his sixth in an annual series on major Jewish communities in Europe. Past locations include Spain, Germany, Poland, France, and England. In addition to teaching Jewish and Middle Eastern history at Washington College, Schiff is the author of In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today’s Poland, which was based in part on his lecture on that country. Published in late 2012 by Peter Lang Publishing as part of the Washington College series of Studies in Religion, Politics and Culture, the book is now in the libraries of colleges, universities, research institutions and government agencies worldwide. 

Schiff holds a B.A. from Yeshiva University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Colombia University. Before moving to Chestertown, he served as president of Philadelphia’s Gratz College, an independent college focused on Jewish studies. He is currently a cantor and religious leader of the Chestertown Havurah, the area’s Jewish community. 

Last modified on Oct. 31st, 2013 at 3:57pm by .