It’s possible to pass from one side of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto to the other without even noticing it’s there. Much of it was demolished in the late 19th century, but, for once, the destruction wasn’t caused by anti-Semitism. The street plan of the neighborhood was redrawn in an effort to make it more livable, and few people mourned the loss of the ghetto’s narrow, airless lanes.
Because the geography of the ghetto has changed so much — and because the history of Rome’s Jewish community dates back more than 2,000 years — it helps to visit the neighborhood with a guide. Native Roman Micaela Pavoncello led us on an engrossing and personal tour through Jewish Roma Walking Tours. One other couple accompanied us, but it is also possible to book a private excursion.
We started in the Jewish Museum of Rome, which, among many other treasures, contains furnishings from the one synagogue that was permitted in the ghetto. Called the Cinque Scole, the synagogue has worship spaces for five sects of Judaism. Elsewhere in the museum, Pavoncello showed us an ancient relief depicting the menorah that the Romans removed from the Temple in Jerusalem, the base of which differs from that shown in the symbol of Israel.
After taking us inside the 19th-century Great Synagogue adjacent to the museum, where Pavoncello movingly described the contrasting visits of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we walked outside into the ghetto. Life there, we learned, was not pleasant. After centuries of living in Rome, more or less in harmony with its gentile residents, Jews began to suffer persecution. They were forced to live within the regularly flooded ghetto and to wear distinctive clothing. And they could have only certain occupations; attending weekly Catholic Mass was mandatory.
Indeed, the former ghetto has become a rather fashionable neighborhood in recent years.
The Jewish community experienced a brief period of relief between the demolishing of the ghetto walls and World War II. However, Pavoncello’s description of the war years was gripping. Many Romans behaved honorably, helping their Jewish neighbors, but many others proved less than heroic.
We walked along a remaining narrow ghetto lane to the famous “Turtle Fountain,” near the edge of the former walls, which was the only source of clean water for the neighborhood for centuries.
Although Rome’s Jewish community of approximately 16,000 people remains centered in the ghetto area, many have moved elsewhere. Indeed, the former ghetto has become a rather fashionable neighborhood in recent years. Pavoncello pointed out a modest-size apartment adjacent to the Portico d’Ottavia, an ancient Roman gate that served as one of the entry points of the ghetto. “That 750-square-foot apartment is now on sale for €2.5 million,” she exclaimed.
She pointed out some of the art galleries in the neighborhood and treated us to a snack of fruitcake-like pizza giudia from a Jewish bakery. After spending a few hours with the engaging and good-humored Pavoncello, who personalized the deep history of Jews in Rome, I understood how she once earned a profile in Newsweek. Alas, her mother was unimpressed. “That’s OK, but it’s not a Jewish magazine,” she remarked.