July 15, 2009

My Step Family: The Italian Jews

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 5:31 am by chavalah

It’s a strange term to throw out there, but it seems the most accurate. My relationship to Italian Jews is…indirect. True, I’m Italian American through my father. Both of my grandparents were immigrants. Of course, they were Catholic.

And yet, my connection to my “nationalist” culture is far stronger on my father’s side than on my mother’s…my mother’s family has no idea where they came from. I grew up understanding that my grandmother’s family was from Russia and my grandfather’s was from Germany. Most of the evidence, so far as I can tell, is derived from the fact that my grandfather called my mother “zaftik polkes,” which means “fat thighs” in Yiddish. 😛

My father, though, has a deep and abiding love for Italy. And what’s not to love? The ancient ruins, the homes carved into the hills of the Mediterranean Sea, a flowing, melodic language, the three-course meals laden with pasta. 😛

And what’s not to respect about the Italian Jews? They’ve been around since Greco-Roman times, surviving under the daily, papal antisemitism. The Roman Empire holds a distinct place in Jewish history for destroying our second Temple in Jerusalem (a day, which we mourn through Tisha B’av, the saddest occasion on the Hebrew calendar.)

When the Romans sacked the Temple, they took out all of the great Jewish artifacts, including the Menorah, a cornerstone of our faith. Titus had a stone archway of the plunder of the Jewish people enacted in Rome. When the modern state of Israel was declared in 1948, Rome’s Jews walked through that archway backwards to symbolize the taking back of our land and heritage. I did so too when I was in Rome in 2001.

I should mention that life for the modern Italian Jews appears relatively benign, at least where I observe it from the sidelines. The Vatican has formal ties with Israel, and is in the process of reviewing some of Catholicism’s more antisemitic beliefs. Moreover, though Italy was largely aligned with Germany during World War II, they stalled the Nazi deportation of their Jews. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I learned that seven out of ten Italian Jews survived the Shoah—sadly, one of the best cases in Europe.

I suppose there’s something about Italian Jews that can speak to the entire Diaspora experience. They lived, died, struggled and survived under empires and religions, which ruled much of the rest of the world. They also don’t subscribe to a particular Jewish ethnicity, at least not universally—Ashkenazi/Eastern European, Sephardi/Spanish-North African, or Mizrahi/Middle Eastern. Maybe Italians are the every-Jew. 😛

My father is planning a trip back to Italy this winter, and wants me to come along. He promises that we’ll visit the Roman and Venetian Jewish ghettos to start; I must research some more to see if we can fit in anything else around family time. In person, I tend to be far more shy than I appear online, but I can’t deny that I’m excited by the prospect of learning more about the Italian Jews. It kind of really feels like going home.

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