July 15, 2012
Where is the Jewish Rome?
The heat of Rome in July is just a prelude to what will happen in August, when the city starts to close itself for the holidays. The Jewish quarter is not much different with regards to that. At least during the day.
The Jewish area of the city is outside the main touristic routes. If you go to the crowded and popular Trastevere you should take Ponte Sisto to cross the river rather than walk towards the synagogue. If you are visiting the Coloseum you might be too tired to walk a bit more to see Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia. Further away, close to the church of San Gregorio della Divina Pietà temple is the adjacent Jewish part of the city.
Referring to it as a whole “part” is slightly exaggerated though. It’s comprised of only a street, a couple of restaurants and shops and a towering synagogue, which is one of the most guarded buildings in Rome. After the attack that has taken place in 1982 the building is under close Police watch. It was an Autumn day in October when a Palestinian, Abdel Osama al-Zomar, 28 years old, came in front of the synagogue and launched a grenade and submachine gun killing a 2-year-old boy and inflicting wounds to over 30 people who were leaving the place at that time.
The building was created by two Italian architects Osvaldo Armanni and Vincenzo Costa between 1899 and 1904. In a city full of Catholic churches and the omnipresent Vatican, the synagogue needed to sharply accentuate its presence. A large cupola located on a square base is visibly different from the surrounding architecture. Moreover, the large fence around makes the building even more unusual for the city as there is simply no place for any kind of railings. During the period in which the synagogue was erected, the area was not getting good press. Vernon Lee, a British writer born in France and living for some time in Italy would describe that area as a perfect place to arrange a murder without being spotted by anyone… She would write about dark cul-de-sacs and isolated squares not visited by a soul.
Today, if not for a couple of obvious signs of Judaism, such as a Jewish Infopoint or kosher restaurants, the area could be any other neighbourhood. Romans do not advertise the area and it seems to be left for the community to promote it. However, if taking pictures is prohibited (especially if you have large lenses) and people seem to be afraid of anybody who is closely examining the area, it does not seem welcoming. I was accosted twice. “Why do you take so many pictures?” “No people in the pictures” “No close-ups”... After all it is a public place, but the memories of 1982 are still very present. Getting into the synagogue is burdened by scrupulous control and the police are all over the place. Perhaps it creates a feeling of safety, not for me though.
The central square of the district, Piazza delle Cinque Scole, is usually full of people. The Jews feel that there is a part of Rome, where they can feel very much at home and that the diaspora has a focal point for meetings or initiatives. On Saturdays the place is practically dead. “Havdallah at 21:32” this is all one can read at the doors of various restaurants serving kosher food. Romans are slowly walking around, older mammas are looking for any relief under the stone plates that commemorate the Jews that have been killed by the Nazis both in concentration camps and in Rome during the Ardeatine massacre, when 75 Jews and 260 Italians have been exterminated. Only after 9 on Saturday does Cinque Scole and the neighbouring area become vivid. The music becomes louder and food is served both inside and outside the restaurants. The tense atmosphere of the afternoon disappears and even though the police are always present, the number of people visiting disappears. You do not hear much Hebrew. Almost everybody speaks Italian or English as tourists make up a large proportion of the visitors. Fast Kosher Yesh Sheni becomes full with people biting focaccias and the Ghetto Bar is full of friendly chatting. The traumas are once again forgotten and people live their splendid Jewish-Italian lives.