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Special Report Thousands of Jews, Others Attend Rome’s Third Annual ‘ghetto Festival’

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Dreamt up by Rome’s Jewish, Cultural Center four years ago, the “Ghetto Festival” successfully went through its third edition Sunday. The “meeting at the Portico d’Ottavia” as it is officially called, drew thousands of Roman Jews, and other Italians plus wandering tourists into the Via Portico d’Ottavia and the three or four side streets surrounding Rome’s main synagogue — an area inhabited by Jews for 2000 years.

This year the program was rich with features grounded in an historical awareness of the Rome Jewish community. An exhibition reconstructing the story of the five “soole” (“shuls”) of various. Jewish ethnic origins that were once housed where the main synagogue, currently under repair, now stands was put together on the basis of photographs and layouts that were gathering dust in the city’s archives. The opening, in the basement of the synagogue, the area of the “Spanish Temple,” was attended by Italian notables, the Chief Rabbi and head of the Rome Jewish community and the Ambassador of Israel in Rome.

Another highlight, truly unique both as a tradition and as a “happening” was the sign off of the day: the “Mishmarah.”

Dating back to the custom in Biblical times of gathering at the table with food, wine, prayers and songs the night before a circumcision was to take place, the “Mishmarah” in Rome was extended around the 16th Century, to include all-night joyous vigils before other main events in Jewish life such as weddings.

Sunday night, a U-shaped table was placed in a comer of the “ghetto’s” main square, presided over by the Chief Rabbi, Prof. Elio Toaf, plus four other rabbis. The other places were occupied by whoever could get there first.

A young bride and bridegroom were introduced to the crowd of thousands eagerly waiting to participate and the ceremony proceeded. The sound of the voices of those seated, backed by the throngs of families standing around the feast table, singing prayers obviously as familiar to them as the ABC, were a moving experience especially to those in the audience who had never seen a similar event.

NUMEROUS PERFORMANCES

Many a three-or-four-year-old enjoyed the best view on the shoulders of a father or uncle, vociferously joining in the choruses.

Other “shows” consisted of performances of Bruch and Mendelssohn; dances; a recital by Hannah Roth who sang and told Yiddish jokes in an Italian as fluent as her Hebrew, a puppet show based on an original Jewish fable written by the Roman Giacometta Limentian with participation by the children of Rome’s Jewish orphanage after-school groups; and an “audio-visual” entertainment center set up against a natural background landscape of Rome’s “Teatro d’Marcello” ruins, which played off slides with comments on the Jewish name and the history of Roman Jewry.

There were beautiful street displays of children’s three-dimensional “Pongo” pictures and ceramic backed sculptures showing aspects of Roman Jewish life, past and present. All the classes of Roman Jewish schools participated, even the nurseries. The usual stands of the Jewish National Fund, of WIZO, of the youth groups, and others were set up, plus stands that sold Jewish culinary specialties.

The festival was largely financed by Rome’s Town Hall, which also finances on extravagant series of city festivals throughout the summer with paid entertainers from Italy and abroad lighting up the lazy June-through-September evenings every year. These events have gone on for several years, no matter the current domestic and/or world crisis of the moment.

The Ghetto Festival took place this year two days after the European Economic Community (EEC) Venice summit declaration on the Mideast which shook Jews around the world. Nonetheless, everyone present, including practically the entire Israeli diplomatic staff in Rome, seemed relieved at this tangible manifestation of the surviving acumen of the Jewish ethos which in Rome is a most singular combination of pagan-religiosity, assimilated non-assimilation, and a single-minded will to overcome the tragedy of the past, the majority of Roman Jews last one or more family members during the Nazi occupation, with a truly Jewish celebration of life.

The festival was originally conceived as an occasion when Rome’s Jewish community, harassed by a myriad of internal problems and a lingering sense of inferiority dating back to the not so far removed ghetto times, which ended only after Italy’s unification in 1870, could get together and celebrate its uniqueness. This year, in particular, marked a real sense of participation by all strata of the 18,000 Jews currently living in “the Eternal City.”

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