Why the Italian Jews Are Winning

The illumination of the Dome of the Grand Synagogue of Rome sends a powerful message.

Barbara and I were married in the Grand Synagogue in Rome in a ceremony that dates back to the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Refugees from the ancient center of the Jewish people came in significant numbers to Rome (many as Roman slaves; the story is famously illustrated on the Arch of Titus in the Forum), and to this day both the liturgy and the melodies of Jewish worship are believed to be those celebrated in the Jerusalem temple. Our marriage was in the old Spanish (or Sicilian) synagogue beneath the Grand Synagogue, which was built at the turn of the 20th century.

So I took great pleasure from the news that the Grand Synagogue has now been illuminated, thanks to a joint venture involving the Jewish Community, the electric company, and the city government. The Jewish Community is the city’s oldest, and it’s entirely appropriate that the city should single out the synagogue as one of its landmarks. 

When the synagogue was completed, the dome was made of highly reflective metal, which made the structure stand out on the Roman skyline. In time, the metal was removed, and the temple now regains its prominence in the night, and, as Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni movingly reminded the citizens of the city, it brings to mind the first lines of the Old Testament, when God created light. “Light was the first divine creation,” he said.

There’s the light of the sun, and light from other sources.  But that which shined in the first day of creation was the holiest, the most powerful, primordial energy, which remains hidden until better times.  We hope, symbolically, that the light we turn on tonight reminds us of that primordial one, which is reserved for the righteous.

The dome is now illuminated by modern LED technology, thanks to some 44 projectors. Probably the best place from which to see it is Piazza Garibaldi, up on the hill on the other side of the Tiber. When you look down, and if you then take a stroll through the neighborhood, you should brush up on the recent history of the Roman Jews, from the Holocaust to the present.

Most people do not realize that Italy surrendered to, and then joined, the Allies during the Second World War (Rome fell to a joint US-UK army on D-Day, in fact). In the process, Mussolini was overthrown, fascism was abolished, a military government was installed, and the country was taken over by Hitler’s armies. The Roman Jews were rounded up by the occupying Nazi forces in October, 1943. If you walk through the Jewish neighborhood, until very recently still called “the Ghetto, you will see bronze markets in front of the buildings from which the Jews were dragged off, ultimately to Auschwitz.

Some returned, some fought the Nazis all over the country. In Rome itself, a group of Jews organized a resistance group that fought throughout the occupation, and continued to defend the Jewish Community afterwards. Unlike most other European Jews, the Romans learned a fundamental lesson: the state was not going to defend them against the anti-Semites. If they were going to survive, they would have to defend themselves. So they studied self-defense, getting help from the security forces (notably the carabinieri), and later from the Israelis.

Remember, if you ever knew, that Italy was uniquely free of an indigenous anti-Jewish movement. Indeed, by World War I there had already been two Jewish prime ministers, and the Jewish defense forces had plenty of popular support. In direct contrast with the rest of the old continent, Italy’s Jews seem to be flourishing. In Rome alone there are now roughly twenty synagogues. Chabad is very active, especially in the north. There is a revival of Judaism in the south, most surprisingly in Sicily, where Jewish Communities are reemerging for the first time since the Inquisition. Kosher food is suddenly very popular, especially in Rome.

Indeed, one of the greatest fans of kosher food is none other than His Holiness, Pope Francis. When his Jewish friends come to visit from Buenos Aires, the pope sends out for kosher takeout, and not just to cater to his guests’ culinary requirements. He loves it.

So when you hear that the European Jews are destined to leave, and that European antisemitism is relentlessly rising, keep in mind the words of Ruth Dureghello, the president of the Rome Jewish Community. The illumination of the Grand Synagogue, she said, “is a victory…it is a signal that we don’t wish to hide…we are our Jewish history, we wish to be a light for the future.”

They’re fighting for that future, and they’re winning.