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Jewish Journal

When in Rome

The ancient city's Jewish history dates back to the era of the Maccabees.

by Ruth E. Gruber

December 6, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Elio Toaff, chief rabbi of the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe, retired last month.

Elio Toaff, chief rabbi of the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe, retired last month.

The election of Dr. Riccardo Di Segni as the new chief rabbi of Rome opens the latest chapter in the tumultuous life of a Jewish community that traces its history back to the days of the Maccabees.

Di Segni was elected earlier this month to replace Elio Toaff, who is retiring at age 86 after 50 years in Italy's most prominent Jewish religious post.

The new chief rabbi stressed his sense of duty in becoming the religious leader of what is considered the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe.

"I will be the guardian of the memory of this community, which has never moved from here for more than 2,000 years," he said. "We have resisted everything, including infamy. We are faithful and proud of these places."

While Jews may have settled in Rome in the third century BCE, it was the Maccabees' successful revolt against Syrian King Antiochus in the second century BCE which put the community on the map.

The festival of Chanukah was established on 25 Kislev 165 BCE, when Judah Maccabee, his brothers and his volunteer army held a ceremony to rededicate the Temple after their victory.

Only four years later, in 161 BCE, Judah sent a diplomatic mission to Rome in an attempt to forge an alliance against the Syrians and preserve the Jews' precarious independence.

"It was natural to solicit the sympathy and support of the great new power in the West," the scholar Cecil Roth wrote in his "History of the Jews in Italy."

Written accounts tell how Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemos ben Johanan, the Maccabees' Jewish ambassadors, appeared in front of the Roman Senate and received pledges of friendship and protection.

"These details are by no means insignificant," Roth wrote. "These are the first Jews to be in Italy, or to visit Europe, who are known to us by name," and are "the spiritual ancestors of Western Jewry as a whole."

Further diplomatic missions were dispatched in coming years by Judah's brothers Jonathan and Simon, who succeeded him.

In 139 BCE, Simon sent envoys to Rome "with a great shield of gold of a thousand pound weight to confirm the [alliance] with them," Roth wrote.

From that time on, the Jewish presence in Rome has been constant. Today, Rome's 15,000 Jews make up the largest Jewish community in Italy, which has about 35,000 Jews in all.

In ancient times, the number of Jews in Rome had swelled to nearly 50,000, or 10 percent of the population. The numbers increased after the Romans -- led by the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus -- conquered Jerusalem and brought back Jewish slaves and prisoners. The Second Temple was eventually destroyed in 70 CE.

The Roman Forum's Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sack of Jerusalem, has become one of the most powerful symbols of the Diaspora. Its carvings depict the emperor's triumphant procession carrying loot from the Temple, including a large, seven-branched menorah.

The arch became such a powerful symbol that Roman Jews refused to walk under it.

It was only in 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, that Jews passed through it in a solemn procession -- in the direction opposite to that taken by the triumphant ancient processions.

The menorah on the arch served as the model for the menorah symbol used on the emblem of the State of Israel.

Other archeological remains, including a synagogue and Jewish catacombs, also bear testimony to the antiquity of Rome's Jewish community.

The synagogue, located at the site of Rome's ancient port, Ostia Antica, was discovered in 1961. It is believed to date from the latter part of the first century CE, and was remodeled at the end of the third century.

In ancient times, Ostia Antica was a bustling port at the mouth of the Tiber, but, because of the changing coastline, its site today is inland. The remains on the ancient port form an archeological zone reminiscent of a mini Pompeii.

The ruined synagogue has a clearly visible ark decorated with carvings of a menorah, lulav and shofar; a room with an oven which may have been used to bake matzah; and oil lamps decorated with menorahs.

One of the most interesting finds was a tablet with a Greek inscription, in which a local Jew named Mindi Faustos praises himself for having donated the ark.

The menorah, lulav and shofar were the three symbols most representative of Jews in ancient times, and they appear frequently on ancient Jewish tombs.

Five Jewish catacombs have survived from Roman times, mainly from the third and fourth centuries CE.

In addition to Jewish symbols, the catacombs are decorated with vivid paintings showing animals, plants, geometric forms and even human figures.

The Vatican Museum has the largest collection of Hebrew inscriptions and epitaphs from the Jewish catacombs. Nearly 200 are on display, some showing exceptionally detailed relief carvings.

Many are decorated with representations of ritual objects, including the menorah plundered by the Romans from the Temple in Jerusalem.

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