In the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, against the backdrop of the Coliseum, it may seem crazy to think of Rome as a Jewish city. However, after four days here, I could not help but think about how much Jews are inextricably bound up in the history of ancient Rome, how Jews were central characters in the drama that would capture the imagination and faith of millions from the halls of the Vatican and how Jews emerged from the ghetto to become a vibrant minority in modern Rome.
To come to this understanding, it helped that I was in the hands of an expert storyteller and historian, Roy Doliner and his equally gifted associate David Walden. Their cultural association, Rome for Jews, has been guiding Jewish visitors on tours of the great sights of the eternal city for 15 years. Together, David and Roy led me on a two-thousand year old journey from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, depicted in the famous Arch of Titus standing amid the ruins of the Roman Forum near the Palatine Hill, through the halls of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel where numerous Jewish references are found on the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the dramatic busts of Roman emperors discussed in our very own Talmud. Talk about history coming alive!
Fluent in multiple languages, boasting fraternal connections across faraway lands and skilled in commerce and trade, Jews came to the port city of Rome before it was a global power and stayed for the next two millennia. Jews helped finance merchant routes between the near east and beyond during the Roman Empire and absorbed many thousands of immigrants during the dislocations caused by the diaspora, it is a community both diverse and deeply rooted in history. The Jewish community in Rome is the oldest uninterrupted Jewish community in the world. A visit to the awe inspiring Great Synagogue is a source of immense pride for the community of 20,000. Inaugurated in 1901 and rich in imagery and allegory, the Synagogue is still in use three times each day. It is adorned in marble, gold and silver, and spared from looting by the Nazis by a twist of fate by the Pope, who stood quiet as thousands of Italian Jews were deported to death camps, but requested the Nazis spare historically significant buildings listed on a national registry – a list which the Great Synagogue had apparently been added several years earlier.
Next door, the Jewish Museum’s collection of manuscripts, textiles, and silver represent one of the most important collections of Judaica ever assembled under one roof.
The food traditions of Jewish Rome are equally impressive. The humble artichoke was once feed for livestock and was reinvented as a delicacy by the Jews who claim ownership over one of the most popular seasonal vegetables in Italy. Non-Jews flock to the historic Jewish Ghetto to try the twice fried artichoke stripped of its bitter and tough outer leaves, leaving crispy inner leaves, glistening with olive oil and incredibly edible protecting the tender heart that has stolen mine at every single meal.
Rome boasts well over a dozen kosher restaurants featuring variations on traditional Italian and Roman delicacies, with multiple meat and dairy options to choose from. If you are tiring of pasta or somehow missed artichoke season, the city is buzzing about its newest kosher establishment – an upscale sushi bar that is apparently all the rage.
In my ravenous rampage through the historic center of Jewish Rome,Taverna del Ghetto had the best artichokes – they were delicately fried and gently seasoned with salt and pepper -- the oversized purple-green flowers were perfection on a plate and even better in my mouth. At Taverna, I loved the slow cooked braised veal cheeks in a rich wine and tomato sauce and feasted on a chargrilled steak that rivals any New York steakhouse. At Nonna Betta*, a casual dairy eatery next door, my favorite dishes were the rice cakes, fried artichoke and spaghetti cabonara, homemade pasta covered in a light yellow cream zucchini sauce dusted with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
At the beautiful and trendy Ba Ghetto, I savored each bite of the antipasti and charcuterie, pasta with real Italian sausage and a main course of braised lamb shanks with a side of, yup, more fried artichoke. I somehow left room for an outrageous chocolate torta prepared by their pastry chef, which was absolutely divine and looked as good as it tasted.
If you have been to Rome, please share some of your experiences with us below.
*Editor's Note: Since the time of this article it has come to our attention that Nonna Betta is no longer kosher, please check all restaurants before visiting, this is article was written in 2012.