Judaism is a religious experience based on action. It’s a culture that is visible in the way people behave.
In the Jewish religion, it is only the Jews who tell “the story over and over from the beginning to end every year, every moment on earth”. This is obviously one of the major reasons that Jews have survived throughout the many persecutions they have faced.
While Italy is experiencing another lockdown, a local tour guide from the Jewish community of Rome, Laura Hannuna continues to enrich and educate Italian locals who are fascinated with the Jewish culture of the Eternal City. Although the Jewish museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, “Jewish history is human history and it does not stop,” explains Hannuna.
“We are the only Jews in all the world that share our history with the Roman emperors, Europe’s Kings and the Popes from the Vatican, yet the average local Italian doesn’t know this!”
Mixing together history, personal anecdotes, and love for her Jewish culture, Hannuna organizes the opportunity to meet outdoors, in small groups, respecting wearing masks and social distancing to visit the alley and squares of the Jewish Quarter in Rome.
“I understand that the Corona pandemic and travel restrictions have made visiting the Jewish Museum of Rome more challenging - explains Hannuna - but it has not stopped me in any way, shape, or form from meeting curious Italian locals or tourists who want to learn about the Jews of Rome”.
Jews in the Roman Empire
“The presence of the Jews in Rome dates back to the second century BCE when Jerusalem was under the Greek rule and Judah Maccabee, the military leader of a nationalist revolt against that rule over the land of Israel, sent a delegation of Jews to the Roman Senate in order to ask for protection and friendship. We know that members of this delegation decided to settle in Rome. But what is really interesting is that unlike what happened in the other European countries from which Jews were continuously expelled during the Middle Ages and even later, with the most absurd accusations, they were never expelled from Rome. We have had an uninterrupted presence for twenty-two centuries.
“The participation of Roman Jews in the traditional founding of Rome often goes unrecognized. Unfortunately, this is mainly a result of traditional scholarship which focuses primarily on pagan and Christian sources to the founding of Rome”, explains Hannuna.
The founding of Rome from a Jewish perspective is where I make references to traditional Jewish sources, intended to touch on significant religious aspects of the lives of Jews from the ancient past is another walking tour I provide for those who want to visit the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum after our visit of the Jewish Quarter.
The Old Ghetto
“In 1555 Pope Paolo IV established the ghetto in one of the most decrepit and rundown districts next to the Tiber River where Jews were forced to live apart from the rest of the population.
The Jews were not free until 1870 and the whole area of the old ghetto was demolished and rebuilt over the river level.
I like to take visitors on a pleasant walk through the picturesque streets and squares of the Jewish neighborhood that extends over an area of four city blocks, crossed in its length by Via Catalana and Via del Tempio. It is delimited on one side by Via Portico d’Ottavia and on the other by the Tiber river. It’s s truly amazing how the past is always present.
The “Jewish Ghetto” is a lively showplace of modern and ancient Rome. Even though most of the original area has disappeared, there are still visible evidence and tangible testimonies of its history to show you”, says Hannuna.
“I usually like to begin in the late morning and have a walk with my group starting from Lungotevere De’ Cenci, to San Gregorio’s Church, to Largo XVI Ottobre, passing trough Via del Portico d’Ottavia, Via della Reginella, Piazza delle Cinque Scole and Largo Stefano Taché.
The Jewish neighborhood which was built on the site of the ancient ghetto is where today we can see a lot of great Kosher restaurants.
If you walk through the wonderful alleys of Trastevere, one of the most characteristic quarter of Rome and the area where most Jews were living in ancient times, there are plenty of other good restaurants where you can eat the best dishes of Roman Cuisine. Well, there is something you should really know and is that the Roman Cuisine is nothing but the Jewish Roman Cuisine because the Roman Jews are the real Romans, being very proud of it!” says Hannuna.
Rome Jewish culinary
“In addition to my tours of the Jewish Quarter, Ancient Rome from a Jewish perspective or the Jewish Vatican, I also offer Rome Jewish culinary tours, where I show you how the Italian Jewish culinary tradition is still very much alive and vibrant today", says Hannuna.
Judeo-Roman cooking originates in local traditions combined with Judeo-Spanish customs, added at the end of the 1400s. It is closely related to religious life and time-honored ritual. Every festive moment is marked by traditional foods and established menus, featuring unique full-course meals, crowned by luscious desserts, for every conceivable occasion. The ingredients come from simple foods customarily eaten by the poor: vegetables (artichokes, chicory and endive), low-cost fish (for instance, sardines and anchovies), entrails and inexpensive cuts of meat (magically and masterfully rendered into salted dried meat and pot roasts), ricotta cheese, honey and candied fruit.
A Jewish Rome tradition
“Throughout all the Jewish communities from all over the world, opening the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, is a great honor”, explains Hannuna.
In Rome, we have a tradition of placing one of the keys that open the ark under the pillow of a pregnant woman to wish her an easy delivery.
The uniqueness of the Jews of Rome
“Our community is really unique”, says Hannuna. “The Roman Jews are neither Sephardi, nor Askenazi, we came straight from Jerusalem. We have a different liturgy, the so-called Minhag Bnei-Romi, which is the rite from the Children of Rome and this is the liturgy celebrated also in our outstanding Main Synagogue. We do not speak Yiddish, nor Ladino, but we have our own dialect that is called Giudaico-Romanesco, a mixture between Italian and Hebrew that includes some grammatical forms coming from Spanish. This was the language spoken in the alleys of the ghetto, not to be understood by an often menacing, hostile outside world, was the language of family life and solidarity, of alarm and danger. Today the Giudaico-Romanesco is not spoken as a separate language any longer but if you walk in the alleys of the former ghetto area, it is not uncommon to hear the oldest of the community seated on the benches speaking an Italian peppered with some of the dialect’s phrases and expressions”.