• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Jews of Italy

This essay was prepared for a meeting at Brandeis University last year in honor of Vito Volterra, the great Italian mathematician who died in 1940. Volterra had been a professor at three Italian universities—Turin, Pisa, and Rome—where I also taught. He was elected by the king to the Italian senate in 1905 and later spoke out strongly against Fascism. Two distinguished mathematicians of my own family, Eugenio Elia and Beppo Levi, were inspired in their work by him. My friendship with his sons, especially with Edoardo, a student of Roman law, goes back to 1929, when I had just moved to Rome from Turin.



Italian history is always a difficult subject. Behind it and inside it there is the extraordinary variety of regional and urban units: the history of Florence is not the history of Pisa, or even that of Arezzo or Siena or Volterra. Where the Jews are involved, the differences in local traditions are increased by substantial local differences in the past treatment of Jews. Much of southern Italy and Sicily—splendid Jewish centers in the Middle Ages—lost their Jews in the sixteenth century during the Spanish rule. It is sometimes forgotten that Jews were kept out of most of Lombardy for more than a century until the Austrians replaced the Spaniards in 1714.

In addition, there are the differences of origins of the Jews themselves. Some of us are descendants of the Jews who lived in Italy during the Roman Empire. Some are Ashkenazi Jews who, especially in the fourteenth century, left Germany and came to Italy. French Jews had to leave France in the same century, and there was the Sephardi immigration and the return of Marranos of Spanish origin to Judaism at the end of the fifteenth and during the sixteenth century. Contacts with the East always existed, especially in Venice and southern Italy, as long as Jews were allowed to remain there. Other Jews from Muslim countries were attracted by the new porto franco of Leghorn (Livorno) after the middle of the sixteenth century.

Leghorn remained the easiest Italian town for Jews to live in during at least two centuries and developed that Jewish style of its own which is preserved in the books of Elia Benamozegh and of which perhaps the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani show traces. The differences of origins were of course reflected in the differences of rituals and melodies, and in their turn the differences of rituals were preserved by separate synagogues. Three synagogues—la scola italiana, la scola tedesca, la scola spagnola—were frequently to be found in the same town; in Rome not long ago, there were still five synagogues preserving an interesting distinction between scola catalanoaragonese and scola spagnola.

We in Piedmont, together with Italian, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi synagogues, had that curious minhag apam—the three rather small congregations of Asti, Fossano, and Moncalvo—which preserved the fossil of a French medieval ritual with its peculiar mahzor, or prayer book. That the Jews were tolerated in one of the states of Italy, however, did not mean that they were tolerated in all parts of the same state. That the popes allowed the Jews to live in Rome and Ancona, where we find the Volterras, does not imply that they were allowed to live in Bologna. It fell to one of my grandfather’s brothers, the rabbi Marco Mordechai Momigliano, to be sent in 1866 to rebuild the Jewish community of Bologna. This community, where Obadiah Sforno, Azaria di Rossi, and Samuel Archevolti had worked and thought, had been closed down in 1593 and had not existed, at least officially, for more than 250 years. On the other hand, the Jews prospered at Ferrara under the same papal rule and preserved some of the brilliance characteristic of their culture under the house of Este, which ended in 1597. The explanation is partly in the agrarian situation of the region, which helped to form the pro-Fascist attitudes of the Jews of Ferrara centuries later.

Differing in rituals and often with conflicting interests among themselves, the Jews of Italy were not, however, beset by more linguistic differences than their Christian counterparts. The linguistic situation of Italy was already complicated enough in itself. What we call Italian remained basically a written language to the end of the nineteenth century. Ordinary people spoke what we call dialects, and the Jews spoke the same dialect as the other inhabitants of the place. Venetian Jews spoke and speak Venetian, and we Piedmontese Jews spoke Piedmontese. My parents spoke Piedmontese between themselves and Italian with us children. So my sisters and I were the only native Italian speakers of our little Piedmontese town and much admired for our linguistic accomplishments. When I grew up I returned to the Piedmontese dialect in conversations at home with my parents—though not with my sisters.

No doubt, ghetto life favored some peculiarity. The dialect of the Roman Jews is known to have remained considerably more archaic than that of the Roman Christians, and of course Hebrew words and sentences were inserted into the local dialect. In the Piedmontese jargon of the Jews there were some Yiddish words imported into Piedmont by Jews of Ashkenazi provenance—the Ottolenghi, Treves, and Diena, who were destined to play such an important part in recent Italian history. So it was usual to speak of the Becher for kiddush, or of the Orzai for Jahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.

The other element that has to be kept in mind concerning the Italian Jews is that we have been so few—so few especially in the last centuries. There were at most perhaps 30,000 Jews at the beginning of the nineteenth century, including the Jews of Trieste, which was technically in Austria, and those of Nice, which became French in 1859. This represented about one per thousand in the population of Italy. Before the last war there were about 50,000. Ten thousand of us were murdered by the Fascists and the Nazis in alliance, and this included eleven members of my family, among whom were my father and mother. About six thousand emigrated, never to return. Others were lost during the period of the persecution when the rate of conversion was higher than average. Among the converts, as is well known, was the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zoller, baptized in Santa Maria degli Angeli at Rome on February 13, 1945. If there are now between 30,000 and 35,000 Jews, it is because emigration from Libya, and to a lesser extent from Eastern countries, has swollen the native Jewish population. This figure represents one person for each two thousand of the entire population of Italy. Most of the Jews are now concentrated in a few large towns. Most of the old synagogues are empty, if they still exist.


Every time I am in an Italian town, I try to figure out whether and how Jews fared in it. Some of these cities I know well enough. I have passed many summers in the peace of the beautiful town of Spoleto in Umbria. Going around the city, I can easily reconstruct the history of Spoleto since the time of Hannibal. But when I enter the little medieval street which is at present called Via San Gregorio della Sinagoga I am baffled. When did the synagogue there stop being a synagogue? Does the name of the street imply that the San Gregorio church was superimposed on the synagogue? And where are the descendants of the famous Renaissance Jewish doctors of Spoleto, one of whom was David De’ Pomis, the author of the Hebrew-Latin-Italian dictionary Zemah David, “the offshoot of David,” which I used daily as a child? At the moment there is in Spoleto one Jewish family that moved from Rome. Perhaps I ought to add that two or three years ago I discovered that a couple of American Jewish artists were trying to make a living by opening a sandwich bar in Spoleto. I hope they are successful.

The disappearance of the small Jewish communities makes it difficult to follow up family histories and, even more, local cultural traditions. I wish I could explain how the Volterra family left Tuscany, where they appear well established in the Renaissance, to go to Ancona. There is, as we know, more than one version of the transfer of Disraeli’s grandfather to England in 1748: some have him depart from the small but learned community of Cento, others from Venice. Research now in progress at Tel Aviv by Shelomo Simonsohn and his colleagues will no doubt clarify many details; and the Jerusalem volume by Robert Bonfil has already told us much that we did not know about the Italian rabbis of the Renaissance. Research on Jews has become fashionable in Italy, too.

It still remains difficult to say something precise even about one’s own family. I envy my colleague Vittore Colorni, the remarkable professor of the history of Italian law at the University of Ferrara, who has been able to produce a neat genealogical tree of his family from 1477 to 1977 in a book dedicated to the memory of Umberto Nahon and published in Jerusalem in 1978. His success was made possible by the unusual fact that his family, the Colorni, remained for more than four centuries in the same place, Mantua. As for my family, I can at least say that about the beginning of the fourteenth century, an ancestor of mine had the prudence to leave the little Jewish community of Montmélian in Savoy for the capital of Savoy, Chambéry, where he was duly registered as Lionel—or, if you prefer, Jehudah—de Montmélian. The juiverie of Montmélian virtually disappeared about fifty years later when Jews were thrown into the wells as responsible for the black plague.

The descendants of Lionel de Montmélian, following up the expansion of the dukedom of Savoy into Piedmont, went into trade, moneylending, and rabbinical positions in the small Jewish communities of Piedmont: Busca, Cuneo, Mondovì, Asti, Chieri, Ivrea. There they remained for centuries, terribly poor, pious, and scholarly until Napoleon brought new ideas, new hopes, and—as my grandfather, the last traditional zaddick, or “just man,” of Italy, was never tired of repeating—new delusions to the Italian Jews.1

How are we to explain the sudden explosion of initiative, creativity, intellectual and political responsibility that characterize the history of Italian Jews after Napoleon and above all after 1848? That was the year in which the king of Piedmont and Sardinia gave to the Jews the equality later to be extended to the other regions of Italy in what ultimately became the unification of Italy; the process took more than twenty years.

No doubt the irrational factor—patriotism—had a decisive influence. I shall only indicate what may seem an absurd fact: the sudden enthusiasm of a basically conservative Jewish scholar, Samuel David Luzzatto—Sadal—in 1848. It is not by chance that the Giudaismo illustrato by Luzzatto appeared in 1848. It is self-explanatory in its appeal to the tradition of Italian Jews from the days of Shabbatai Donnolo and of the various members of the Kalonymus family of Lucca and Rome to the present day. It is even more characteristic that Luzzatto was moved by seeing a man of Jewish origin, although baptized, Daniele Manin, become the president of the revolutionary republic of Venice in 1848–1849; Daniele Manin’s ancestors had been called Medina until the end of the eighteenth century.

  1. 1

    Yet though I am not the first trained historian of my family to be interested in our history—I have been preceded by a better man than myself, my late cousin and friend Arturo Carlo Jemolo, a Momigliano on his mother’s side, a Sicilian Catholic on his father’s side—there are too many facts we do not know. I wish I knew more of Giuseppe Vita Momigliano of Ivrea who was one of the representatives of the Piedmontese Jews in the Napoleonic Sanhedrin of 1806. Another Piedmontese Jew of the Segre (my wife’s) family, Salvatore Segre, was the av-bet-din, the chairman of the same Sanhedrin. I wish I knew more also of Isacco Momigliano, who pestered eminent men with his questions on religion and literature; it was to him that Sadal—Samuel David Luzzatto—wrote his famous letter on Judaism and Christianity, arguing, of course, for the right to exist of the former.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print