Roman Jews fight for ghetto’s ‘soul’: Area becoming trendy, driving many locals out

ROME — For more than three centuries, the Jews of Rome were kept behind locked gates in the city’s Jewish ghetto, treated as pariahs by the Vatican and the majority Catholic population. Today, Jewish community leaders say, their problem is the opposite one, as the neighborhood’s few remaining Jewish residents find themselves being driven out.

The culprit is not bigotry but gentrification. Like other former working-class districts in Rome, the picturesque and centrally located ghetto has become fashionable. Television personalities and politicians call the area home, and real estate prices now top $1,000 per square foot.

As a consequence, landlords have evicted long-term tenants or paid them to vacate , and speculators have used lower-income residents as fronts to buy public housing at below-market prices, said Riccardo Pacifici , vice president of the Jewish Community of Rome.

Some have turned apartments into lucrative short-term rentals and bed-and-breakfasts, lending the once close-knit quarter an increasingly transient feel. Pacifici estimates the size of the neighborhood’s Jewish population at fewer than 300, compared with about 6,000 just after World War II.

The decline in the number of the ghetto’s traditional residents means a loss of “historical and cultural memory,” Pacifici said.

The Jewish presence in Rome is said to be the oldest in Europe, dating to at least the second century BC. During the Middle Ages, Jews in Rome periodically were the victims of mob violence and official humiliations such as a requirement to wear yellow badges. They worked as merchants, bankers, craftsmen, and physicians, and even served at the papal court. Their participation in wider Roman life is evident in several of the city’s traditional dishes, mostly famously fried artichoke, or alla giudia.

But in 1555, under the influence of the Counter Reformation, Pope Paul IV segregated Christians and Jews by confining the latter to a malarial- and flood-prone stretch of land on the left bank of the Tiber River. As many as 5,000 people had to live in an area of less than 6 acres. They were forbidden to work except as rag sellers or money lenders, and required to attend regular Catholic services at which they were urged to convert. Few did.

Emancipation came with the unification of Italy in 1870, after which Jews were free to live anywhere they wished. Yet many remained in the ghetto, attached to centuries of tradition and the city’s main synagogue, which was completed in 1904 and stands today as a prominent riverside monument with a distinctive rectangular dome.

Michele Zarfati, 81, remembers the lively scene on the ghetto’s main street, Via Portico d’Ottavia, on Saturdays in the 1920s and ’30s. Women sat and chatted while men and boys competed at tamburello, a ball game played with tambourine-like paddles, and street vendors hawked fried artichokes and salt cod.

“Life was very animated; there was a little bit of everything,” he said.

The ghetto became a site of infamy again on Oct. 16, 1943, when the German occupiers used it as a collection point for Jews they had rounded up throughout the city, before sending them to death camps. Of the 1,023 Jews deported, only 16 returned.

Zarfati, who survived the German occupation by hiding for five months in a stable, stayed in the ghetto after the war. But many of his former neighbors took advantage of postwar prosperity to seek more modern and comfortable housing elsewhere.

“These are very old buildings,” he said. “We didn’t have gas heat, bathrooms, showers. It wasn’t hygienic.”

In the late 1990s, traffic restrictions in the city center made business tougher for the ghetto’s clothing wholesalers, once an economic mainstay of the community; the conversion last year of much of the neighborhood into a pedestrian zone has made things only worse for the few such enterprises that remain. Yet thanks to the synagogue and to the survival of kosher bakeries and butcher shops, the area still functions as a kind of town square for Rome’s Jews, who today number about 15,000.

“Even if they live elsewhere, they always make an appearance in the ghetto,” said Angelo Sermoneta, president of a men’s social club on a narrow side street, Via della Reginella. “People need to see their old friends again.”

The neighborhood has actually grown more Jewish, in its institutional and commercial aspects, over the last three years, with the relocation there of the city’s Jewish school. Several new delicatessens and a “McKosher” fast food franchise cater to about 1,000 students and the parents who ferry them back and forth.

Last year’s re opening of an expanded museum in the synagogue also enhanced the ghetto’s role as a cultural center.

“They’ll always have a point of reference in the synagogue,” said Luciano Calò, owner of Bartaruga, a fashionable piano bar on Piazza Mattei. The grandson of ghetto residents, Calò believes that as long as Roman Jews continue to visit, they need not actually dwell there to preserve the quarter’s “soul.”

“There is a serene coexistence” between long-term residents and newcomers, said Rosario De Simone, originally of Naples, who last year moved into an apartment on Via della Reginella that he operates as a bed-and-breakfast. His relations with Jewish neighbors have been friendly, he said.

Yet Jewish leaders are not content to reclaim the ghetto by day. To bolster their residential presence in the neighborhood, community organizations have provided apartments at subsidized rents to about a dozen needy Jewish families.

Such efforts have aroused misgivings in some Roman Jews, who warn of the danger of “auto-ghettoization” cutting themselves off from the wider society that they struggled so long to join.

But Pacifici, vice president of the Jewish community, insists that strengthening the ghetto’s Jewish identity will not isolate it from the rest of Italian society. He envisions the historic quarter as a showcase of Jewish life, for the edification of a nation that has been traditionally oblivious to it.

“How can we promote awareness of Jewishness if we don’t let others see how we live, eat, congregate, and work?” he said. “We don’t want the quarter to become an open-air museum, where people come and say, ‘Here lived the Jews of the ghetto.’ “

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