Opposite the Tiber, still flowing muddily and calmly under its ancient bridges, stands the grand synagogue of the Jewish community of Rome. Behind it stand the fragmentary columns of the Teatro Marcellus, and behind it also, on the other side, lies what is left of the Roman Ghetto.
The old bridge in front of the synagogue, the guide books say, used to be called the Ponte Giudei, so that the narrow streets and buildings in the vicinity have many years behind them.
And the inhabitants of the Ghetto, only a few hundred, and a small portion of the entire Jewish population of Rome, which numbers about thirteen thousand, seem as rooted in the city as is their ancient habitat, and as far away from the present as the columns of the Teatro Marcellus. It is almost impossible to recognize them as Jews, even with a practiced Jewish eye, but what they possess of Jewishness is solidly in them.
TYPES IN THE GHETTO
To an American, the Jews of Rome seem more recognizably Italian than the Italians one sees in the Via Nazionale. It is in the Jewish ghetto that one finds the types that are exemplified by the class of immigrants most frequently seen in America. The women are uncorseted and wear black cotton dresses; they alone are adorned with golden earrings drawn through pierced ears; the men look like New York fruit peddlers.
And when you are most certain that there is not a Jew in the vicinity, go up to the group in front of any store and say: “Giudei?”
There will be a chorus: “Si, si. Giudei. Shalom.”
This is the only Hebrew word they know, “Shalom.” Sometimes, if you struggle to draw something else from them, they will manage to tell you that they are “Giudei Kasher.”
There were three of us, and when the news spread that we were Jews, we were surrounded. Dozens of men and women and children clustered around, we were asked the inevitable question as to whether we were from North or South America (strange to the ears of a North American, to whom the southern half of his continent hardly exists); we were asked how many Jews there were in New York, and the number was passed around, with much clacking of lips and shaking of heads.
We went into a drug store, where we happened to see a Jewish National Fund box. The proprietor sent out and bought lemonade for us, and assured us that the National Fund box was for “gli poveri”, the poor.
In front of a small dry goods store we saw an old automobile, with a large Mogen Dovid in front of the radiator, bearing the word “Shadei” within it. Two small boys stood near the automobile, and we asked them about the Mogen Dovid: what was it, why was it there? One of them drew out an amulet on a golden chain from under his shirt. On it, too, was a Mogen Dovid and the word “Shadei.”
“That is our sign,” he said.
Angelo Sacerdoti, the Rabbino Capo of the Jewish community of Rome, says that the use of the Mogen Dovid comes naturally to the community, just as the use of the cross comes to the Christian portion of it. Pride on one side elicits pride on the other, and friendship between.
On the train from Rome to Naples, a Fascist official rode in our compartment. I asked him what feelings of fraternality existed between the Italian Fascists and the German Fascists.
“None at all,” he said. “It is impossible. The principle of the State may be the same, but only a primitive people can persecute another race.”
Rabbi Sacerdoti admits this feeling of comradeship. Officially it has its background.
“About three years ago a law was passed,” he said, “formally recognizing the rights of the Jewish community as a unit, and giving us the right to appoint a committee to deal with the government in all matters affecting the Jewish community. And since the concordat with the pope, the Jewish community, as a recognized part of the state, has become party to that concordat.”
“It is a well-organized community. There is a Talmud Torah, open all day, and giving a complete course of education. There is an orphanage, a hospital, and a home for the aged. The synagogue itself, a massive structure only thirty years old, is maintained in strictly orthodox style, with the women allowed to sit with the men only at weddings. In the entire community there are only about five or six hundred poor Jews, living in the ghetto, the rest being spread throughout the city. There are two smaller synagogues.
There are about twenty Jewish doctors, and five Jewish dentists in Rome, but any number of Jewish lawyers and engineers. The general tendency of young Jews to step out of the trades of their fathers into professions is as potent in Rome as anywhere else, but since the proportion of Jews is small, the abnormal proportion of Jewish professionals to their own community is not felt. Dr. Sacerdoti estimates, however, that more than twenty percent of the university professors in Italy are Jews.
According to him, the Fascist movement has many Jewish participants and officials.
“All Italians are Fascists now,” he says. “And Mussolini is a sincere and an intelligent man. He knows people and he knows his country. And in spite of general belief, he is not a reactionary; his sympathies are always with the workers.”