Anna Schneider

Download 60 Kb.
Size60 Kb.

Rome’s “Jewish Ghetto”:

A Complex Social Space

Anna Schneider

Honors Program in Rome

Sociology Term Paper


Facing the Tiber River, next to the ruins of the Theater of Marcellus, is a large stone building. It stands out from the rest of the area: while nearby buildings have peeling brown paint and little adornment, this one is covered with ornate decorations and Hebrew inscriptions. Here is the Tempio Maggiore, the major synagogue of Rome and home of the Jewish Museum. This is the heart of the “Jewish ghetto” neighborhood, so called because there was an official Jewish Ghetto here from 1555 to 1870. The choice of appellation implies an interesting question: to what degree can this neighborhood still be termed a ghetto? Is it an ethnic enclave with a distinctive culture, or are its residents assimilated into the broader Roman society? This paper will attempt to answer this question based on observations of modern ghetto life.

Theoretical Background

An ethnic enclave can be defined simply as a small geographic region where the inhabitants belong primarily to a single ethnic group, surrounded by regions of another ethnicity or ethnicities. Such a region may be economically, politically, socially, and culturally integrated into the greater community, or it may be distinct in one of more of these respects. Acculturation refers to the “loss of traditional traits and acceptance of new cultural traits,” while assimilation means “economic, political, and social integration of the ethnic group into the mainstream society” (Porter and Washington 142). These processes occur in both ethnic enclaves and geographically diffuse ethnic communities.

Sociologists use several different models to study and measure assimilation (Porter and Washington 142–143). First, the one-dimensional model holds that communities move along an axis between immersion in the ethnic culture and in the mainstream culture, implying that the two cultures are mutually exclusive. Once acculturation is achieved, assimilation follows, and the ultimate result is a decrease in individuals’ ethnic identity. The second model is called the two-dimensional model; the hypothesis here is that ethnic and mainstream cultures are not mutually exclusive, but rather exist on two separate axes, and that a community can move along each axis independently. Finally, the multidimensional model treats each trait of each culture as a different axis. This last model has superseded the two-dimensional model and is the most realistic model, since it acknowledges the complexity of communities and cultures. On the other hand, the one-dimensional model can be useful for its simplicity.

These models can only be used to describe how much assimilation has occurred; they do not provide insight into the particular causes of assimilation. Hechter presents a useful theory toward this end that employs the concepts of status groups. A status group is a unit of social stratification that is not tied to the means of economic production, such as an ethnic group (in contrast to a class group, which is tied to the means of production) (Hechter 293). Class and status are distinct methods of social stratification, but class and status groups can have significant overlap when there is cultural division of labor (ibid 294). Some status groups, such as Jews in medieval Europe, show a tendency to specialize in a specific occupational niche, and often this specialization persists over time (ibid 300). Such occupational specialization reinforces high group solidarity by creating a group identity. The converse is also true, because a status group with a high degree of solidarity is more likely to retain technical information and a customer loyalty base within the group. Therefore, occupational specialization decreases a status group’s incentive to assimilate into the broader community, since that would cause a decrease in group solidarity and possibly a decrease in the economic viability of individuals within the group (ibid 301). Although I will show that the current ghetto neighborhood is no longer composed of a single ethnic group, these theories will nevertheless be useful in studying the social and economic structure of the neighborhood.


To understand the ghetto neighborhood today, one must understand its history, The Jewish community in Rome began in 161 BCE, making it the oldest Jewish community in Europe, and there has been an uninterrupted Jewish presence here ever since (Jewish Museum of Rome). In 70 CE there was a major influx of Jews to Rome caused by Titus’s attack on Jerusalem. This event is commemorated in the friezes on the Arch of Titus, which depict the victorious Roman army coming home carrying the spoils of the war, including the menorah from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Although anti-Semitism was not very serious in this period, Jews have held the Arch of Titus as a symbol of oppression for the past two millennia. The Roman emperors did force the Jews to pay special fees, supply decorations for festivals and Triumphs, and the like, but this was nothing in comparison to later subjugation.

The opinion of the Catholic popes on the Jewish community differed greatly from that of the emperors, and indeed varied significantly between popes. The Catholics were not as religiously lenient as the pagans had been, causing an increase in Jewish persecution throughout Europe. The Roman Jewish community was unique in coexisting in such close proximity with the seat of papal power, and as such it was often subject to unusual treatment. In fact, anti-Jewish papal bulls, including the decrees of the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, were often enforced less strictly in Rome than elsewhere in the Catholic world (The Jewish Community In Rome online). Nevertheless, in 1257 Jews began to be required to wear specific identifying clothing such as badges and the colors red or yellow.

Three hundred years later, Pope Paul IV decided to crack down on the Jews of Rome as part of his Counter-Reformation agenda—he could not expect to be able to effectively chastise the Protestants if he could not contain the “Jewish problem” within his own city. In 1555 all the Jews of the city were officially confined to a squalid four-block area on the bank of the Tiber and surrounded by a wall. Social control by the papacy was very high—over the years, the Jews were given a curfew, forced to wear identifying clothing, and forbidden from having Christian servants. The range of possible professions, which had formerly extended as high as doctor or lawyer, was gradually restricted to usury and dealing in secondhand clothes, and ultimately even usury was eliminated (Gregorovius 38). Living conditions in the Ghetto during this period were horrendous. Up to 7000 people lived and worked in this tiny 250 m  200 m area (Jewish Museum of Rome). Each year the Tiber would flood its banks and damage the buildings; plague was endemic; extreme poverty was the norm; the streets were noisy and filthy; there was little contact with the outside world. The Jews were able to operate five schools/congregations (scuole), which were all housed in one building, but every week there were mandatory conversion services at the church of S. Angelo in Pescheria inside the Ghetto (Stille 172). The specifics of these restrictions varied slightly from pope to pope over the centuries, but overall the condition of the Roman Jews did not change for centuries.

The general turmoil of the mid-nineteenth century brought a glimmer of hope to the Ghetto community. Pope Pius IX removed the Ghetto walls in 1846, but only to reverse his stance and reinstate the Ghetto restrictions soon thereafter, and a similarly brief respite was enjoyed under the Roman Republic of Mazzini (The Jewish Community In Rome online). Finally, upon the dissolution of the Papal States and the formation of the Republic of Italy, the Ghetto was eliminated on April 17 1870 and the 5000 residents were made full Italian citizens. But the Jews were not used to the freedom of living and working how they wished, and most lacked the capital to act on their long-held hopes and improve their situation. Rather, they were accustomed to “powerful social, cultural, economic and town-planning limits” (Jewish Museum of Rome). To counter this, in 1882 the Jewish Community of Rome was established to provide social services to the Jews: education, cemeteries and burial services, alms for Israel, synagogue operation, etc. Although monetary donations decreases over the 1890s as physical and cultural distance from the Ghetto area increased, the Community was able to construct and open the present-day Tempio Maggiore in 1904 and to found new schools in Esquilino and Trastevere in 1899.

This was a period of acculturation and assimilation for the Jews, caused in large part by physical relocation of the Jewish population and subsequent contact with Catholic Romans. The old Ghetto was razed to make way for reconstruction; most residents moved to the immediately adjacent streets, while the wealthier few often moved outwards to Catholic professional neighborhoods, notably Esquilino and Trastevere (Jewish Museum in Rome). Jewish men’s experience of fighting alongside ethnic Italians during World War I also was an assimilating force (Stille 177). Conversely, some Christians began to move into the Jewish area around the old Ghetto and were assimilated into neighborhood life (ibid 179).

Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922, but they did not immediately impose new restrictions on the Jewish community (ibid 179–195). Since the mentality of the community was focused on work, family, and religion, and not on politics, most Jews were not able to foresee the impending disaster. In 1938 Mussolini began his racial campaign against Jewish professionals, but this had little effect in the old Ghetto area since most Jewish professionals lived in other neighborhoods. Even after World War II began, younger people were complacent about the possibility of increased racial discrimination, while the older generations who had grown up in the shadow of the official Ghetto were merely stoic—the Jewish community felt protected by its proximity to the pope. But in 1940 Mussolini revoked the licenses of Jewish peddlers, plunging most ghetto families into poverty. When the Germans took over Rome in September 1943 they instituted a policy of separating national identity from ethnic/religious identity, making all Jews into enemies of the state regardless of their national identity. After collecting 50 kilograms of gold as a sort of protection fee, the Germans nevertheless rounded up 1007 Jews from the ghetto area on the night of October 16 1943 and deported them to Auschwitz (The Jewish Community In Rome online). Those who were not taken often went into hiding in churches, hospitals, nunneries, or the homes of Catholic friends. Out of approximately 10,000 Jews in Rome at the start of World War II, 2091 were deported, and only 16 of those survived (Jewish Museum of Rome).

The second half of the twentieth century has seen developments that both strengthen and weaken the enclave nature of the Roman Jewish community. In 1967 approximately 3000 Jews immigrated to Rome from Libya in the wake of the Six-Day War (Jewish Quarter online). These Jews, although very religious, were predominantly professional and accustomed to modern culture, and fostered openness of the ghetto neighborhood. Conversely, Jewish community was still treated as a separate entity from the rest of Rome by the Italian state, the papacy, and terrorists. The Italian Republic and the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities developed an Understanding in 1987 that exempted Jewish students in public schools from attending religious instruction, allowed Jews in the civil service to request to not work on Shabbat, recognized some social service organizations operated by the Union, and the like (UCEI: Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane online). Pope John Paul II also treated the new Head Rabbi Ricardo Di Segni of the Jewish Community as a leader of a foreign community, one that has merely “lived side by side” with the Catholic community (Address to Dr Ricardo Di Segni online). Moreover, terrorists in the Abu Nidal Organization attacked the Tempio Maggiore in October 1982 with grenades and machine guns, killing a small child (Abu Nidal Organisation online) and reaffirming the status of the Synagogue as the symbol of the Jewish community. There are approximately 16,000 Jews living in Rome today (Jewish Museum of Rome).


The specific area considered as the Jewish ghetto neighborhood (or simply “the ghetto”) in this study lies between Via de Botteghe Oscure on the north, Lungotevere dei Cenci on the south, Via Arenula on the west, and the Theater of Marcellus ruins and Via de Teatro on the east. It is approximately 500 m  750 m, laced with a combination of wide and narrow streets and punctuated infrequently by piazze. Many buildings appear very old—peeling paint or no paint at all, thick wooden doors, small round windows, circular towers, bars on the windows of the ground story—while others appear to have been newly restored. In fact, there are interior renovation projects in progress all over the ghetto.

People on the streets and in the shops generally seem to be middle- or lower middle-class, based on their relatively conservative and unstylish clothes, the lack of expensive cars parked in public, and the relatively low prices in the restaurants. For the most part they appear to be ethnically Italian, with minorities of Eastern Europeans and Arabs. During the day most people on the streets are over 50 years of age or under 20, while at night people in their 20s–40s stroll in pairs (either same-sex or male and female). Essentially the only language spoken is Italian; although employees of the Jewish Museum speak passable English and some kosher restaurants have posted signs in Hebrew, even the employees of a bookstore that sells English-language books do not speak English.

A fairly narrow range of economic activities is visible. There are notably more fabric/upholstery, conservative or used clothing, home furnishings, and Judaica vendors than in nearby neighborhoods, and more Internet connectivity points that are not cafes. In fact, there is a dearth of cafes and other eating establishments where people can congregate during the day. Tourism is clearly not an economic focus of the ghetto: there is only one major tourist attraction site (Tempio Maggiore and the Jewish Museum of Rome), one or two souvenir shops, and a total absence of street vendors. A few paninotecas, pizzerias, and groceries are open during the day, and sit-down restaurants with outdoor seating open for dinner. Most eating establishments are explicitly kosher.

The culture of the ghetto neighborhood today is distinct from that of other neighborhoods in Rome in many ways. Every person who has come with me to the ghetto has sensed a difference in the general feeling of the area, in the way people act and in the use of space (personal communications).

Locals are experts in distinguishing between other locals and outsiders. This truism holds in the ghetto as in other neighborhoods of Rome, but in the ghetto locals react to faux pas with hostility, while in more touristy neighborhoods the locals are either brusque or helpful. For instance, I entered a bakery on Piazza delle Cinque Scuole in the afternoon on September 14, 2004, and picked up a loaf of bread that I intended on buying. The two middle-aged women working there looked shocked, and a middle-aged man shopping there and chatting with them told me “non toccare,” don’t touch. I apologized embarrassedly in Italian, put the loaf on the counter, and paid for it in silence while the three of them muttered together in Italian—the only word I caught was “americana,” which they repeated several times. This scenario is very unlikely to occur in the Campo dei Fiori environs, at least not with such a degree of dismissive rudeness.

The waitstaff was also unreasonably rude at Yotvata, a kosher restaurant on Piazza Cenci that advertises “Jewish-Roman style cuisine,” where I went for dinner on the night of September 12, 2004 with Lauren Delgado and Callie Falacy. The four waiters, all male, were continually rushing around the medium-sized restaurant to take orders, serve food, clear dishes, and the like, neither favoring nor disfavoring us. Although the service was faster than any other Italian restaurant at which we had eaten, we still felt neglected, since the rushing caused more confusion than efficiency. Rather than waiting for the check after we finished, I said to a waiter, “il conto per favore,” check please. The three teenaged boys at the next table sniggered and mimicked me, repeating “il conto, il conto” in a high-pitched voice, and the waiter laughed. This event, like the previous one, had the effect of making me feel unwelcome in a place where I was a paying customer, and again I left unsure of exactly what offense I had committed. Clearly the ghetto does not foster the work ethic of the cliché “the customer is always right”—at least not when the customer is outside the community.

This restaurant also demonstrated a key distinguishing feature of the ghetto culture: the use of indoor space as public space. While the waiters bustled chaotically, the other patrons were calm and comfortable. They acted as most people do at home or in a casual public gathering place: small children ran and shouted without being shushed; a three-generational family of seven ate in a booth, wandered out of the restaurant’s open door, returned, and sat down in a different configuration at the same table; a group of four teenaged girls entered the restaurant, talked among themselves for a few minutes, was joined by another girl who had eaten there, and left. This use of space is entirely different from that of indoor seating at typical Italian or American restaurants, where entrance and exit are regulated by a closed door and often by a maitre d’, and where each table is a separate social gathering (to use the language of Goffman).

This pattern of using the indoors as a social space is also evident in stores. Usually there are one or two people (presumably the employees) sitting behind or near the counter, and one or two people in their age group (presumably the customers) standing and talking with them for as long as I am in the store. This scenario has repeated itself in almost every store I have visited in the ghetto, be it selling fabric, used clothing, or Judaica. As an outsider to the community, I feel excluded since I know neither the individuals nor the language, and therefore I am very reluctant to interrupt their conversation or attempt to join in their social gathering. Situations similar to this can occur throughout Italy and the United States, but in the ghetto the case seems slightly different, in that the customers are in the store primarily to socialize, and only secondarily if at all to shop.

If indoor space is mainly used as public social space, then what is outdoor space used for? Surprisingly, it does not appear to be used for anything besides transportation, in striking contrast to the rest of downtown Rome. The neighborhood is not well constructed for outdoor socialization, since many streets are narrow and not laid out on a grid, there are few piazze, and there is hardly any public outdoor seating (stairs, fountains, etc.). The piazza next to Tempio Maggiore is used as a metered parking lot for cars, even though it has a decorative fountain, and Piazza Mattei is usually empty despite its large fountain and two wine bars (neither of which have outdoor seating). The only time I have observed large numbers of people outdoors was on September 8, 2004, when I happened to be there when the secondary school next to the synagogue had its lunch break; the kids were standing in the street of Via della Portica d’Octavia or sitting on the curb, talking in large same-sex groups and eating panini. In general, though, the meager outdoor space is not used for socializing during the day or night, which gives the ghetto a deserted appearance while simultaneously much social interaction goes on indoors.

On the other hand, the ghetto is not a monolithic and impenetrable social structure. I have had positive and fruitful conversations with two ghetto locals—a woman in her 20s who works at the Jewish Museum of Rome, and a very Italian-looking woman in her 40s or 50s named Giuliana who works at Yud Judaica. The woman in the museum spoke pretty good English and cooperatively answered my questions about the ghetto, saying that few Jews live there today but that it remains the cultural center of the Roman Jewish community. For me this was a welcome social interaction, but for her it was merely a professional duty.

Giuliana is the only ghetto local who made any attempt to hold a sustained social conversation with me, although my Italian is poor and her English is worse. We discussed my studies in Rome and in Seattle, and she told me about her kids. When I returned the next day with a set of interview questions in Italian, she greeted me with an exuberant “ciao bella, come stai?” and a kiss on each cheek—that is the only moment I have felt truly welcome in the ghetto. Giuliana lives in the ghetto area with her husband and three children, but her parents live in Trastevere. She has a 24-year-old son, a 20-year-old daughter who works with mentally and physically disabled children, and a 7-year-old son who attends a public school in Trastevere. Her son cannot obtain a Jewish education in his school, but she feels that he has access to a Jewish cultural education through the home and the neighborhood community. Giuliana has friends in the ghetto area, in other neighborhoods of Rome, and all over the world. She has a positive view of non-Jews: she called Catholics “benissimo,” her neighbors are Catholic, she has both Jewish and Catholic friends, she thinks positively of the strong police presence in the neighborhood. She said that there are no other Jewish neighborhoods in Rome, but that all neighborhoods of Rome are “iguale” and that she feels that she is a part of Roman culture. This insider’s view of the ghetto is very different from an outsider’s impression.

Similar sentiments are expressing by tourist information websites and websites composed by Jewish organizations. The World Jewish Congress Online, after reviewing some recent anti-Semitic terrorist activities, states that “[f]or the most part, however, Italian Jews live in a tolerant and welcoming society.” A website advertising apartments in the ghetto area (Jewish Quarter online) claims the following: “Present in all professional positions, the Jews today contribute to the broader Italian culture also with many intellectuals. The Italian Jews are quite happy to consider themselves Italian, and are considered by their compatriots an essential variant of the broader Italian society.”

Lastly, the Jewish population in Rome is not now and never has been a single ethnic group. Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe have gradually supplemented the original Jewish population from Palestine (who follow a pre-Ashkenazi and pre-Sephardic religious tradition referred to as “Italian”). Also, there were major immigrations of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Libya in the late 1960s due to turmoil in their home countries (World Jewish Congress Online). Due to these and other ethnic variations, there have been up to 11 synagogues in Rome at a single time, each one catering to a different religious and ethnic subgroup of the Jewish population. Currently there are nine synagogues, which are concentrated in the ghetto, Esquilino, and Trastevere neighborhoods.


My first-hand observations demonstrate that the ghetto neighborhood has a culture and economy that is distinct from those of surrounding neighborhoods. One possible cause of this distinction is the existence of a cultural division of labor. Since the earliest days of the Ghetto the Jewish status group has specialized as used clothing and fabric vendors. This specialization was not voluntary; it was imposed by the papacy through its restrictive legislation. But although these laws were revoked 134 years ago, the occupational specialization persists today. Hechter hypothesized that occupational specialization supports a high level of group solidarity, and this is appears to be the case in the ghetto neighborhood. Jewish culture and identity is pervasive enough in the neighborhood that, for example, a Jewish mother feels that her young son can obtain an acceptable education in Judaism merely by living in her home and in the community. The unusual use of space in this neighborhood is also indicative of a cohesive social structure.

There is evidence that the ghetto neighborhood is moving towards a greater degree of assimilation, though. Using the framework of the two-dimensional model of assimilation, many people, especially in the younger generations, identify strongly with both the ethnic and the mainstream cultures. Residents (when they will talk with an outsider) express the view that the ghetto neighborhood, although it has a strong Jewish heritage, is just another expensive downtown residential district. Also, young people can be seen wearing trendy middle-class clothes while standing in a kosher restaurant or eating a panino from a kosher pizzeria. As the younger assimilated generations grow up and remain in the ghetto neighborhood, they will gradually counteract the conservative and exclusionary influence of the older generations who still remember the atrocities of World War II.

In summary, I have shown that the modern-day “ghetto” neighborhood of Rome has a distinctive culture and economy. The ghetto is the only neighborhood in downtown Rome where features such as use of indoor space as social space, neglect of outdoor space, and strained social interaction with people who are outside the community are visible to an observer. The economy of the ghetto is also based on a different distribution of economic activities than can be found in nearby neighborhood, and some of this difference is due to a historically-based cultural distribution of labor. The neighborhood as a whole has a high degree of ethnic identity, although it contains more than one ethnic group and many members also have a high degree of identification with the mainstream culture. The ghetto is no longer a true ethnic enclave, but neither is it fully integrated into the broader community of Rome.

Works Cited

“Abu Nidal Organisation.” Viewed on 9/17/2004.

“Address to Dr Ricardo Di Segni.” Viewed on 9/17/2004.

Goffman, Erving. Behavior in Public Places. New York: Free Press of Glencoe. 1963.

Giuliana, employee of Yud Judaica. Personal interview. Conducted 9/14/2004.

Gregorovius, Ferdinand. The Ghetto and the Jews of Rome. (Translated by Moses Hadas) New York: Schoken Books. 1966.

Hechter, Michael. “Group Formation and the Cultural Division of Labor.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 84, No. 2. (Sep., 1978), pp. 293-318.

“The Jewish Community In Rome.” Viewed on 9/17/2004.

Jewish Museum of Rome. Information from tour guide and from signs on the walls.

“Jewish Quarter.” Viewed on 9/17/2004.

Porter J. R.; R. E. Washington. “Minority Identity and Self-Esteem.” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 19. 1993), pp. 139-161.

Stille, Alexander. Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish families under Fascism. New York: Summit Books. 1991.

“UCEI: Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane.” Translated by Viewed on 9/17/2004.

“World Jewish Congress.” Viewed on 9/17/2004.


Ten pictures, all taken by the author between 8/31/2004 and 9/8/2004, appear online at

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page