Around the Jewish World What’s Old is New Again: Rome’s Jewish Museum Gets Facelift

The snappy slogan of Rome’s new Jewish Museum says it all: “Ancient History, All New.” Technically, the recently opened museum is an expanded and updated version of the original Jewish museum, which was founded in 1959 to display the community’s priceless collection of textiles, ritual objects and carvings.

In reality, however, the new museum is a radically different facility in scope, concept and underlying philosophy.

The more than $2 million renovation was funded by the European Union, the Italian Culture Ministry, the Rome Municipality and the Province of Lazio, as well as private donors.

No longer a static display of Judaica, the museum instead uses ritual objects, photographs, documents, family stories and other material to narrate the history, customs and traditions of Europe’s oldest continuous Jewish community.

As such, it forms a public affirmation for Jews and non-Jews alike of more than 2,000 years of Jewish presence and influence in the Eternal City.

“It is a very Roman museum,” said the museum’s director and chief curator, Daniela Di Castro.

“It is important not to forget that Jewish history is not just the history of the Jews,” she said. “Throughout the museum, we always try to tell this history in context, alongside the history of other Jewish communities and also alongside the history, art, customs and folklore of Rome itself.”

People who visited the old Jewish museum will scarcely recognize the new one.

For decades, the community’s collection of opulent synagogue textiles and beautifully wrought ritual objects was crowded into dingy cases in a couple of cramped rooms in the complex housing the city’s main synagogue.

Little historical information or other background material was provided. Visitors were not encouraged to view the museum on their own: They had to be guided by a member of the museum staff to learn about the objects on display.

In addition, there were few modern preservation methods in place to protect fragile objects. One of the senior museum staffers was even known to sit chain-smoking at a desk in the very heart of the exhibition space.

The new museum is still located in the synagogue complex that towers above the Tiber River, but it now occupies a series of large, vaulted and climate-controlled halls in the basement.

Each hall is devoted to a specific theme or time period, and the ritual objects, paintings, textiles and other items are arranged to illustrate them. Wall panels and captions for individual objects provide a wealth of historic and descriptive information.

Jews first came to Rome in the second century BCE when Judah Maccabee dispatched them as ambassadors in an attempt to forge an alliance against Antiochus IV.

Prisoners sent back by victorious Roman armies in Judea swelled the community, particularly after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and numerous synagogues as well as catacomb Jewish cemeteries were found in ancient Rome.

The community flourished in the Middle Ages, but in 1555 Pope Paul IV segregated Jews in a Ghetto, where they were forced to live until the gates were definitively opened in 1870.

In 1943, the Nazis deported about 2,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. Today, with some 12,000-15,000 members, the Rome community is the largest in Italy: A continuously playing video in the museum uses interviews, film clips and documentation to depict modern Jewish life.

“This museum is an integral part of a vital organism in which, despite all the difficulties, Jewish life and culture continue to be produced,” Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said during the museum’s opening ceremony.

“Many of the ritual objects that are exhibited will not remain closed forever in glass cases, but will be used on various occasions in our synagogue ceremonies,” he said. “There will not a break between past and present, but a continuous interaction.”

Most of the material in the museum comes from the ghetto period. Living conditions were extremely harsh for most Jews then, but the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque textiles and ornate silver ritual objects also bear witness to a world of grace and opulence.

The museum also explains kashrut, religious practice and Jewish life-cycle customs, using examples and practices that reflect Roman Jewish traditions.

One section, on Jewish wedding traditions, shows how the local expression for being a third wheel — to “hold a candle end” — comes from the Jewish wedding custom of the brother of the groom holding a candle during the ceremony.

“The history of the community emerges through the objects, through their own stories and the stories of the families associated with them,” Di Castro said.

She pointed to a large, richly embroidered parokhet, or ark curtain, that depicts the Temple in Jerusalem.

“This was made by a Jew in the middle of the 18th century, living behind the walls of the ghetto,” she said. “He had to imagine what the Temple in Jerusalem would be like — he couldn’t hop on El Al and fly there. So what emerged? The Temple as depicted here looks like a typical Roman palazzo.”

NEXT STORY