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…

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