Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In the ghetto

My roommate just returned from an artists’ residency, spending time in Rome and Genoa. While there, he snapped this picture, indicating that it was taken in the Jewish quarter of Rome. It got me curious about the Jewish ghettos of Europe, and what exactly became of them.I found this interesting article online, already gone from its website and floundering in a Google cache. Sadly, I’m not even able to recover the author’s name. I’ll be curious to see the Venetian ghetto when I’m en route to Slovenia in a couple weeks. I realize I may be disappointed, as I discovered when tromping through the Marais in Paris. In Paris’ famed Jewish quarter, culture abounds, but is mixed with cheesy Judaica shops and caricature figures of klezmorim plying their trade mainly for tourists. At any rate, happy reading.

The Ghetto: The BackBone of Roman Jewish Religion and Culture

“The history of the Jewish religion and culture is cloaked in the chronicles of ancient Rome and Catholicism. The walls of the Ghetto, which were meant to demolish the Roman Jewish population, have stood as the backbone of the Jewish culture and religion. This backbone has been crucial in the continued presence of Judaism in Rome.

“Pope Paul IV had the gates of the ghetto first locked in 1555. The clamping of the lock confirmed segregated quarter of Rome. Behind the locked gates, Jewish men, adorned with yellow hats, and the necks and heads of women choked by yellow kerchiefs, roamed through the scum and masses and labored in futile markets and trades like astrology. On Sundays the preachers stuffed the words of Christ into the ears of Jews standing with their yellow badges reflecting the sun that had managed to seep into the sky-scraping walls of the Ghetto. Physical boundaries still exists and the religion and culture has yet to permeate itself outside the walls of the Ghetto. Passing through the remainder of the old gates, still cold with steel, the words kosher and Rabbis jump out from all corners.

“Christians packed Jews into the Ghetto because of their narcissistic views of religion: ‘The desire to retain the Jews was based on the biblical understanding and theological conception of their place in Christendom and their role on the final day of judgment. The most central theological arguments for the necessity of their continued presence in Christian society were frequently and persistently put forward by Innocent III. To Innocent, and in the traditional view of the Church, the very existence of the Jews served to prove the truth of the scriptures and their degraded position in society testified to the triumph of Christianity and the fact that God had chosen the Christians as his people and rejected the Jews. Scripture demanded, moreover, that their conversion should be patiently awaited, wherefore forced baptism was to be avoided, and according to the prophecy, a remnant of the Jews were to be saved on Judgment Day, making their survival crucial in soteriological terms.’ In simpler terms, Christians forgot about the persecution they endured from the pagans or were seeking revenge for their ancestor’s agony. The restrictions of the Ghetto were lifted by Pope Pius IX in 1870.

“The history of Roman Jews cannot be limited to these 300 hundred years. Records of Jews in Rome exist from 161 BCE. Records from the Roman Empire states the existence of 40,000 Jews and 13 synagogues. Transplanting the Jewish religion and culture into the Ghetto, the Christians give Judaism a means of survival.

“The connections of Ancient Rome and the Ghetto are indisputable. The Synagogue, which gives of the aura of being at the beach with its sandy facade flanked by palm trees, is directly west to the crumbling brick of the Portico d’Octavia (once the home to the temple of Jupiter and Juno). In the haze of people the side of the porticus could be mistaken for another slightly larger restaurant. Under the surface live the less well known, subtle connections.

“One cannot help but not notice the signs for ‘Jewish artichokes’ (carciofi Romani all guidia) or the heaps of artichokes lying on tables outside restaurants. Waiters pester tourists to taste. Most stare back with sheer confusion and stick to the Italian staples.

“Eating pizza and pasta does not give a proper taste of Ancient Rome. ‘Jewish artichokes’ do because ancient Romans dined on them. The food in the Jewish ghetto is based not only on Jewish religion and culture but on the diet of ancient Romans: ‘It’s a style of cooking shaped in part by old Roman cuisine, in part by ancient Jewish dietary laws and in part by the extreme impoverishment Jews experienced during their centuries of confinement within the tiny walled ghetto just across the river from Trastevere….The traditional food of Roman Jews was the traditional food of poor Romans.’ The Jews and Romans inevitably traded their cooking traditions.

“Forcing the Roman Jewish population to live in a confined area cemented these traditions. The Jewish Ghetto allowed Roman soul food to be brought into modern times: ‘Think of this as old Roman soul food. It is hearty, unsophisticated fare concocted from inexpensive cuts of meat and with an emphasis on deep frying.’ The presentation has the appearance of hours slaving in the kitchen as the artichoke blossoms into a ripened flower and the oil stains the leaves with shimmering bronze color.

“The ancient Roman food tradition of liking things fast and fried is not only seen in the artichokes. The fast food restaurants in Rome include McDonalds, a Burger King, and take away pizza. Other than that one is stuck at a table dealing the schedule of their waiter. The Via del Portico d’ Octavia is divided: walking back from the Synagogue, turning right is the slow sit down restaurants and on the left is the tacky fast Kosher take out places.

“In the Jewish Ghetto not only can one get fast food but it is Kosher. This combines the Roman soul food tradition (fried) and the Jewish dietary restrictions (Kosher). So much history and culture packed into a deep fryer.

“They have even managed to make the oppressions of the Ghetto into a tourist trap. Near the Synagogue is a large astrology shop. Astrology was one of the limited means of money when the Ghetto was in effect. This practice continues to live but if look at the other sign one realizes that profit is now coming from this oppression. The second sign on this shop says “Astrologo: Souvenirs T-Shirts”. Tourists, hunting for the perfect snow globe, are lured into experiencing the history of the Ghetto.

“This is what makes the Ghetto so unique: in one little quarter of the city so much history and culture is jammed into not only the architecture but the food and shops as well. Outside the Ghetto one can pick and choose their history. In the Ghetto one is forced to absorb it all; through their eyes and stomaches.

“Although the religion and culture stand strong, the Jewish population of the Ghetto has dwindled. When the Ghetto was first designed there were four blocks meant to house 2,000 people. The Ghetto’s population skyrocketed with over 10,000 people living in the area before World War II. Mussolini dwindled the Ghetto’s population by shipping 2,000 off to concentration camps. The Jewish population is now a shaky 200 to 300 persons in the ghetto.

“This diminishing is not a political motive to get closer to Hitler as was the case with Mussolini. Instead it has become in-vogue to move to the Ghetto: “High real estate prices, not violence or bias, are driving the last Jews from their homes in the old ghetto, which is slowly transforming itself into a trendy enclave for the rich and famous”. Ironic considering the ghetto looks like the rest of Rome, winding brick buildings ornamented with Roman ruins. Not so ironic that the rich and famous would want to associate themselves to a place that once was layers of filth and hate. They probably love to smear this history to prove they are just like everyone else.

“The Roman Jews refuse to let this site be warped into the typical tourist playground. If one wants a panino, they better like it kosher. If one wants to admire the Roman ruins, be prepared to have Jewish history mixed in.

“Catholicism dominates the religious scene in Rome. The Jewish religion and culture, though lacking in numbers, prevails with its ties to Ancient Rome and the popularity of the Ghetto: ‘Rome has always been an important centre of the Jewish culture.’ The ghetto proves the Jewish culture is still here and will not be leaving anytime soon.”

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