Italy

The presence of Jews on the Italian peninsula can be traced back as far as 200 bce during the late Roman Republican period. Italian Jewry is especially diverse, comprising a mix of Italian, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Persian and Libyan Jews. The 30,000 Jews living in Italy today form a thriving community, which is concentrated in the major cities of Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence and Leghorn (Livorno). Interest in Jewish culture is wide-spread among the wider Italian population, though knowledge about Judaism is often quite limited. Kosher food is available in the main cities that have a large community. The representative body of Italian Jewry is the Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (UCEI), the Union of the Italian Jewish Community – the Italian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

UCEI President Noemi Di Segni

Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (Union of the Italian Jewish Community)

Tel : 39 6 580 3667/580 3670
Fax : 39 6 589 9569
Email : segretaria@ucei.it or info@ucei.it.
Website : http://www.ucei.it/

President: Noemi Di Segni, also member of the WJC Executive.

 


Community News


History

Historically, Italian Jews were divided into four groups: the Jews of the 'Italian rite', who have resided in Italy since Roman times; Sephardic Jews, including the Levantine Jews that arrived in Italy from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, and from the Kingdom of Naples in 1533; Ashkenazi Jews, who live primarily in the northern part of the Italy; and the Piedmontese Jews from Asti, Fossano and Moncalvo who were expelled from France during the Middle Ages. The latter group’s liturgy is similar to that of the Ashkenazim, but contains some distinctive usages descended from the French Jews of the time of Rashi, particularly in their liturgy for the Holy Days.

Today, Italian Jewry also includes Jews of San Nicandro Garganico in Apulia; Persian Jews from Iran, most of whom live in Rome and Milan, and Jews from Libya, who mostly reside in the capital.
Throughout history, these communities often remained separate: a given city often had an “Italian synagogue” and a “Spanish synagogue,” as well as, on occasion, a “German synagogue.” In many cases these synagogues have since amalgamated, although a synagogue often offers services of more than one rite.

Italian Jews can be traced back as far back as the second century before the Common Era, and tombstones and dedicatory inscriptions marking their presence during this period still survive today. At that time, Jews mostly lived in the far south of Italy, with a branch community in Rome, and were generally Greek-speaking.

Ashkenazi Jews have lived in northern Italy since at least the late Middle Ages. In Venice, they formed the oldest Jewish community, predating both the Sephardic and the Italian congregations. Following the invention of printing, Venice became a major publishing center for Hebrew and Yiddish books for Jews across Europe.

The Spanish Synagogue of Venice was originally regarded as the "mother synagogue" of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community world-wide. It was among the earliest to be built, and the first prayer book was published there. Later communities, such as Amsterdam, followed its lead on questions of ritual. With the decline in the importance of Venice in the 18th century, the leading role passed to the Jewish community of Leghorn (Livorno), which acted as a link between the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Italian Jews began to be discriminated against in the 16th century. In 1516, the Jews of Venice were forced to live in an enclosed area known as the “ghetto” which was locked at night. In 1555, Pope Paul IV, who had overseen the burning of the Talmud two years before, issued a decree similarly requiring the Jews of the Papal States, including Rome, to live in isolation from their Christian neighbors in ghettos. Pope Paul IV also decreed that Jews had to wear signs to distinguish them, which meant yellow hats for men and veils or shawls for women. Such Jewish ghettos existed for over three centuries thereafter until Pope Pius IV decided to ban Jews from all his dominions and expel them from all the Papal states except Rome and the port city of Ancona.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Italian Jews maintained a trading and residential presence in both Italy and the territories of the Ottoman Empire, and even those Italian Jews who settled permanently in the Ottoman Empire kept their Tuscan or Italian nationality. In the late 19th century, with the establishment of the new unified Italian state, Italy’s Jews obtained full equality.

Between the two World Wars, Libya was an Italian colony and, as in other north African countries, the colonial power found the local Jews useful as an educated élite. Following Libyan independence, and especially after the Six Day War in 1967, most Libyan Jews left either for Israel or for Italy. Today, most members of the "Sephardic" synagogues in Rome are in fact Libyan.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, marking an important moment in the warming of relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community. On January 17, 2016, Pope Francis similarly visited the Great Synagogue after laying wreaths, at memorials, respectively, to Jews murdered in the Shoah, and to the memory of a two-year-old boy killed in a 1982 terrorist attack on the synagogue.

Italian Jews have long been fully integrated in Italian political and cultural life. Two Jews served as the country’s prime minister: Alessandro Fortis in 1905-1906, and Luigi Luzzatti in 1910-1911. Ernesto Nathan was mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913. More recently, Emanuele Fiano, a former director of the UCEI and past president of the Milan Jewish community, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Prominent Italian Jewish writers include Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, author of If This Is a Man. Jews were even active in Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement, and a Jew, Guido Jung, who was eventually baptized in 1938, served as Minister of Finance from 1932 to 1935.

 

The Years of the Holocaust

In 1938 the fascist Mussolini government passed a series of anti-Semitic laws restricting the rights of Italian Jews, who had previously been on an equal legal footing with their non-Jewish neighbors. While Italy joined the Second World War on the German side in 1940, it generally declined to deport its Jewish citizens although Jews from abroad residing in Italy were detained by the authorities. Following the German occupation in 1943, the Nazis began deporting Italian Jews from Italian territories under their control.  According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the Germans deported 8,564 Jews from Italy, Italian-occupied France, and the islands of Rhodes and Kos, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 1,009 returned. In addition, the Germans shot 196 Jews in Italy proper, nearly half of these at the Ardeatine Caves in March 1944. Another approximately 100 died in the police transit camps or in prisons or police custody through Italy. More than 40,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy.”

Demography

Italian Jewry today is concentrated in Rome (15,000) and Milan (10,000). Smaller communities exist in Turin (1,600), Florence (1,400), and Livorno/Leghorn (1,000), though there is a Jewish presence in a number of smaller municipalities. The Italian Jewish population was bolstered by the arrival some 3,000 Jews from Libya in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Community Life

In October 2009, the Jewish umbrella organization Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (UCEI) launched the first national Jewish newspaper, Pagine Ebraiche [Jewish Pages], targeted at a non-Jewish readership. The newspaper appears jointly with an online Jewish information portal - www.moked.it - which was launched as part of a media offensive aimed at bolstering the Jewish voice in Italy. The www.moked.it website is also the Italian Jewry portal of the daily newsletter "l’Unione informa" and of the Press Review of Italian Jewry.

In addition, the UCEI publishes Italia Ebraica and DafDaf, a monthly magazine for children. The Rome Jewish community publishes a monthly periodical, “Shalom,” and the Milan Jewish community’s publication is called " Bollettino delle Comunità.”

A bi-weekly Jewish television program co-produced by UCEI and state-run RAI television draws 200,000 to 400,000 viewers nine out of ten of whom are not Jewish. Numerous Jewish-themed cultural events, including festivals, food tastings, book launches and concerts are held throughout the year across the country. On the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, nearly 60,000 Italians— most of them non-Jews — generally flock to Jewish-themed lectures, exhibits and other events held in 50 towns and cities up and down the peninsula.

 

Religious and Cultural Life

The Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (UCEI), the Union of the Italian Jewish Community, is the community’s umbrella organization and the affiliated member of the World Jewish Congress. It has its headquarters in Rome.

The customs and religious rites of the Italian-rite Jews are to some extent a mix between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic traditions, showing similarities to both. Although a division is recognized between Minhag Benè Romì, practiced in Rome, and Minhag Italiani, practiced in northern cities such as Turin, the two rites are generally very similar.

One reason for this is that Italy was an early center of Jewish printing, which allowed Italian Jews to preserve their traditions when most other communities had to opt for a standard “Sephardic” or “Ashkenazi” identity. It is often claimed that the Italian prayer book contains the last remnants of the Judaean/Galilean Jewish tradition.

There are synagogues in all the major Italian cities, with kosher restaurants in Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice and Bologna. There are Jewish schools in Rome, Milan, Turin, and Trieste. Rome has a Jewish Museum, and the Ghetto of Venice is an important Italian Jewish cultural site. For further information, consult the UCEI at info@ucei.it, or http://moked.it/comunita/.   

 

youth

The Unione dei Giovani Ebrei Italiani (Italian Union of Jewish Youth) is an association of Italian Jewish youth organizations. They have a magazine founded in 1949 called ‘HaTikwa’. Youth movements such as B’nai Akiva and Hashomer Hatzair are also active in Italy, and both Rome and Milan have Jewish cultural clubs for both the community at large and youth groups.

Israel

Italy and Israel enjoy full diplomatic relations and generally good ties.

Embassy of the State of Israel
Via Michele Mercati 14
00197 Roma
Tel: +39 06 36198 586
Fax: +39 06 36198555
Email: info@rome.mfa.gov.il
Website: http://roma.mfa.gov.il

 

updated

December 2017

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