Not in the best frame of mind for my maiden post - jetlag and general exhaustion - but I have to start somewhere. Upon my arrival in Rome, the first challenge was resolving the inevitable first hassle - namely that the rental agency had double-booked our apartment for the first ten days of our stay (che sorpresa!). This has basically been resolved, but in the meantime I am staying in another apartment in Rome's old Jewish Ghetto.
This is actually a welcome change of plans. I have visited the Ghetto on many occasions, but never had the opportunity to explore it fully. After a walk-around today, I am struck yet again at the unique flavor of Jewish life in the Eternal City - far from being eternal outsiders, these Jews are quintessentially Roman in their manner, their outlook and their rhythms of life. Few would argue with the fact that the cuisine of the Ghetto is some of the city's most traditional and typical - most famously, the carciofi alla giudia but also pasta e ceci, filetti di baccalà and other fried specialties. The same goes for the local dialect, which is particularly strong here (though occasionally inflected with some Hebrew).
Significantly, then, Roman Jews are not only a longstanding historical presence but a crucial repository of the city's identity and traditions. As such, they confound conventional wisdom about both Jews and Romans. Although they were targeted by the Fascists in the late 1930s (and, of course, with greater vehemence by the Nazis in 1943-44), and before that suffered centuries of discrimination under Papal rule, they have been a key strand in the tapestry of Roman life for millennia. Even when they were marginalized and demonized, they could never be attacked as foreign or alien presences in the body politic. At the same time, the importance of Jews to Roman culture demonstrates that the Eternal City has always been a melting-pot of influences, and never simply a homogenous Catholic society. Let us also not forget that the Jews of Rome were the initial conduit for Christianity into the capital of the ancient Empire, the building blocks for what would become the Catholic Church.
Ironically, if Rome's Jewish community is in peril today, it is less because of the legacies of the Holocaust, contemporary anti-Semitism or assimilation into gentile Italian culture. Rather, the assimilatory pressures seems to be coming from the pro-Israel right, from American and European ultra-Zionists who want these people to conform to their homogenizing conception of what it means to be Jewish. This is clear from newer businesses and organizations headquartered along the Via del Portico d'Ottavia, the main drag in the Ghetto - selling Israeli flags and books, kosher kebabs, etc. Roman Jews have always told me that they feel neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi, but rather that their traditions go back to the days of the Caesars. I hope that this fascinating and lively culture is given to grow and breathe on its own terms.