When my husband and I were planning our European honeymoon, we were excited to include Rome on our list of destinations, along with Florence, Venice, London and Zurich. For me, it would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. We were eager to taste authentic Italian gelato and interested in seeing the Colosseum and other historical sites. Little did we know that immersing ourselves in Rome’s rich and fascinating Jewish history would prove to be the highlight of the entire trip.
Rome has a fascinating connection to Judaism. Aside from the city’s historic ghetto, it’s also the location of the Arch of Titus—a sad reminder of the Churban. We even visited the place where the Romans eagerly displayed the plundered keilim from the Beis Hamikdash after it was destroyed, just minutes away from the Arch.
According to David Walden, Rome is home to the longest-documented Jewish community in the world. As he quipped, “We Jews have been here a long time and have a lot to say.”
What’s “a long time”? An astounding 22 centuries, ever since 161 BCE!
the heart of the ghetto
We arrived in Rome on Erev Shabbos, so we immediately ran from our hotel to the area of the former Jewish Ghetto to take the last tour of the magnificent Great Synagogue of Rome, the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (also known as the Synagogue of Emancipation), which is still in regular use. The synagogue was guarded by several stern-looking security guards, who won’t let you in on Shabbos unless you have proper identification. Because we showed them our passports on Friday afternoon, they allowed us in on Shabbos day without having to bring them along.
The Ghetto was officially abolished in 1870, when Italian soldiers conquered Rome and wrested control of the city away from the pope. As our tour guide at the Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum, Sara Pavoncello, explained, “Because having a segregated area was in direct contradiction to Italy’s desire for complete unification of the country, the Ghetto was abolished.”
While the Jews now had their pick of any location to build their new shul, they decided to build it on the same site as the old Ghetto synagogue, which had stood for 300 years. Completed in 1904, the new structure, paid for by the Jewish community, is everything the Ghetto wasn’t: beautiful and grand, elaborate and ornate. The two main colors of the synagogue, red and yellow, are the colors of the flag of Rome. According to Ms. Pavoncello, “This was the Jews’ way of thanking the city for giving them back their rights.” (In a fascinating aside, she pointed out how only half of each pillar, built in the Byzantine style to connote ancient times, is made out of genuine marble, as it was simply too expensive. The upper portions of the columns have only a marble veneer.)
Moreover, the square-shaped aluminum domed ceiling was designed to make it look as different as possible from the typical round-domed ceilings that are found on a church. In celebration of their new freedom, the Roman Jewish community wanted their synagogue to be visible even from a distance.
Each of the four ceilings has a mural of the sky with an abundance of yellow stars, recalling the promise Hashem made to Avraham to increase his progeny. And the rainbows painted on the central dome allude to Hashem’s promise to Noach to never destroy the world again with a flood.
Ms. Pavoncello told me that the shul is a popular venue for weddings and other celebrations, and has even welcomed several chief rabbis on visits. In fact, we witnessed many wedding guests mingling outside the synagogue on our last day there. Three popes have also come to visit the Great Synagogue since the Emancipation.