Cultural Impact of Italian Jewry Throughout the Peninsula’s History

Page of Roman Siddur from 15th Century

Introduction

Catholicism is often the religion associated with the modern developments in society on the Italian peninsula, being the region’s dominant religion for almost 2000 years. It has greatly shaped Italian culture and history, being a major influence on the renaissance, leading to the creation the idea of the common good, and influencing new ideas of what a leader should be. There has been, however, a religious practice in Italy that long predates Catholicism and has continually influenced the nation’s culture throughout the middle ages, renaissance, and the modern state. The Italian-Jewish (Italki) history is a long and complex one, with relations with the rest of the nation greatly varying during different points of time and in different regions. Despite this shaky history the people have had a significant impact on the arts, philosophy, and the economy during the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

Early History in Rome

Arch of Titus depicting the Roman destruction of the Temple

Arch of Titus depicting the Roman destruction of the Temple

Historians and archaeologists have found that the first Jewish settlements in Italy were in Rome and the South, along trade routes and ports in the south. These original communities comprised of free men and slaves, made up by artisans, merchants, weavers, dryers, and farmers. A study by Joseph Abraham Levi indicates that their way of life “shows a high degree of cultural assimilation to the local customs, including the language.” In the year 70, Jerusalem fell and the Second Temple was destroyed, with Titus ending the political unity of the Jewish people. Many were enslaved and sent to Rome, while others were sent to the south of the Italian peninsula. There was a great enough inflow that, according to Cecil Roth, “every sizable town in Italy had its Jewish community before the decay of the Roman Empire.” 

After the fall of Rome, the the state in which Jews in Italy lived was one of subjection, though unwillingly, by the Pope against violence and brutality. Despite the issues with the church, in Italy, the overall human rights of the Jews were maintained. There is little known about the period that followed (6th to 8th centuries) with no literary material found until the ninth century, with the exceptions of Josephus and Mattiah Ben Heresh. While their works have survived, they reveal very little about Jewish society during this period.

Later Immigration and Assimilation

Painting of Italian Jew celerating Shabbat during the middle ages

Painting of Italian Jew Celebrating Shabbat during the Middle Ages

Another influx of Jews came in the eighth and ninth centuries following the migration of Jews from North Africa, escaping Muslim intolerance. The arrival of this new group would revive interest in Hebrew and Hebrew studies. It would revive the culture, their language, and eventually would establish rabbinical schools and an increase in productions in Hebrew. This dramatic increase in education would create a new idea of the Jew in Italy, being regarded as highly educated and trained in religious matters. The south became possibly the first center of “ancient schools and religious poetry” in Hebrew outside Eretz Israel.

After multiple centuries of a rich and intellectual culture in the south, there was a thirteenth century persecution in the Kingdom of Naples, requiring many Jews to convert to Catholicism or flee into exile. This shifted the Jewish population to being focused in north and central Italy. A century later, only Sicily had any remaining Jewish life in the south, with the population never having returned since the expulsion.

In the north, trading cities developed into semi-autonomous independent states. The Jews residing there, especially in Pisa and Genoa, found their careers as merchants and traders. Prior to the thirteenth century, however, only a few Jews were allowed to establish a permanent or temporary residence, due fear of economic competition, rather than religious bias. Over the next few centuries, however, the demand for a Jewish presence greatly increased due to the Catholic church’s crusade against Christian usury. This meant that northern Italians needed to increase their Jewish population to fulfill the role of bankers. Due to this need to associate with gentiles, the Jewish population began to live in close contact with the rest of the Italian population. In central Italy, in Marche and Umbria, Jews managed to maintain a cultural tie to the community long established in Rome. The Jews already residing in the north opened the way for the new migrants. These people were Jews, but also Italians, speaking in a Latin based vernacular, making assimilation into those regions easier.

Language and Customs

Italian Jews celebrating Simchat Torah

Italian Jews celebrating Simchat Torah

The linguistic history of the Jews also greatly influenced Jewish history inside and out of the peninsula. Hebrew has always been the literary language of the Italki communities, and was studied at the scholae (a word that would eventually eventually make its way into the Ashkenazi communities of central and Eastern Europe to the Yiddish “shul”), used for daily prayer. Outside of prayers, the Italki community had completely adopted. While mainly kept separate, Hebrew etyma was occasionally glossed in Italian in text margins. 

In a religious setting, the Jewish Italians made their own Kinah, elegies recited on Tisha B’Av (the day to remember the destruction of the Second Temple), and included the Nahem (literally means comforter) for the blessings for the restoration of Jerusalem. Where the Italki Kinah differed from Ashkenazi or Sephardi Kinah is that they are not intended to be learned or memorized, rather read to an audience, as were other Judeo-Italian texts. Unfortunately, many Italian Jews in the late middle ages were unable to read Hebrew, and were more comfortable expressing themselves in the local vernacular. This language mainly consisted of those in Marche, Umbria, and Latium. The Kinah was also meant to be understood by illiterate members of the community, such as women and children, and using the modern, common language made understanding the speech more possible for these groups.

The Italian Machzor, which contains daily, Shabbat, and festival prayers, readings from the Torah, Haftarah, and Prophets, and containing Maimonides commentary, was specifically designed to be easy for prayer. They are organized in a manner so that a reader needs to search for a specific prayer as little as possible. Repetitious parts which are found in different prayers are written in succession so there is no need to search. Additionally, it maintained some texts which other communities have omitted after the Diaspora.

While not many documents have survived from the 15th century, the National Library of Israel has managed to preserve a few documents, including a siddur, which contains many decorations of birds, beasts, imaginary and mythical creatures and symbols. The image in this essay is that of a surviving manuscript, and one which has been key to studying the traditions and customs of Italian Jews during the 15th century.

Toward the second half of the 16th century, the number of Italki texts sharply declined following more forced migrations and, where their presence was tolerated, usually being forced into specific neighborhoods, known as ghettos. This created a seclusion that impacted the social, economic, and cultural state of Jewish life. This gave way to more modern Italki dialects, and created some linguistic distinctiveness. This gave way to the literary works of Crescenzo Del Monte and Annibale Gallico, which provided a portrait of traditional Jewish life in Rome and Mantua. These modern texts were always written in Latin script to reproduce Jewish contemporary speech. This led to the creation of linguistic stereotypes perceived as markers of Jewishness.

Conclusion

Although Jewish life had several highs and lows in every region of Italy, They are the longest continually present religious group in the peninsula with a rich culture and great impact on the development of the nation and the people who inhabit it, holding positions that were key to the economic developments that would allow for the Renaissance to occur and, as a result, every philosophy which was born out of the time. Without the large migration during the middle ages, it is improbable that the north would have been in a situation that could give rise to the cultural changes that came with the Renaissance

Bibliography:

Artom, Menachem Emanuel. The Complete Italian Machzor. 2005, https://www.italian-machazor.com/pdf/presentation%20file%20-%20eng.pdf.

Levi, Joseph Abraham. “La Ienti de Sion: Linguistic and Cultural Legacy of an Early Thirteenth-Century Judeo-Italian Kinah.” Italica, vol. 75, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/479578. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.

“Mahzor According to the Italian Rite.” The National Library of Israel, https://www.nli.org.il/en/discover/judaism/jewish-people-treasures/rome.

8, Michael Weiner July. “Opinion: The Arch of Titus Must Come Down.” The Forward, 8 July 2020, https://forward.com/opinion/450377/the-arch-of-titus-must-come-down/.

Minervini, Laura. “Judeo-Romance in Italy and France (Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Occitan).” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.  28. Oxford University Press. Date of access 14 Dec. 2022, <https://oxfordre.com/linguistics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.001.0001/acrefore-9780199384655-e-454&gt;

projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 1 Dec. 2022, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.

Wachtel, David. “The Jews in the Italian Renaissance.” Sothebys.com, Sotheby’s, 24 July 2018, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-jews-in-the-italian-renaissance.

אשכנזי, יואל בן שמעון פיבש  ((מעתיק)). “סדור מנהג רומה (=רומא): Manuscript NNL_ALEPH000044866: The National Library of Israel.” Manuscript NNL_ALEPH000044866 | The National Library of Israel, The National Library of Israel, https://www.nli.org.il/en/manuscripts/NNL_ALEPH000044866/NLI?volumeItem=1#$FL36912102.

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