In Andrea Grover’s fascinating program about the Jews of Italy, she explained that Jews originally came to Rome during the time of the Second Temple for business purposes. Even the Maccabees came to forge trade agreements.
After the Romans conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, 50,000 Israelites were brought to Rome as slaves. Over the next centuries, however, the largest Jewish population in Italy was in Sicily.
The Jews of Sicily had difficulty obtaining adequate kosher meat, and they developed lots of recipes for the local vegetables, especially eggplant and artichoke. The native Sicilians held their noses at this food. They thought vegetables weren’t healthy and didn’t taste good.
In the 1500s, Spain conquered Sicily and banished all the Jews, as they had exiled them from Spain in 1492. But Jews were never expelled from Rome, so many Jews made their way to northern Italy. They brought their recipes—their cucina de ebraica (Jewish kitchen)—with them. The locals there loved these dishes, and that’s how eggplant and artichoke became staples of Italian cuisine.
Italian Jews suffered a setback in 1555, when the pope issued a papal bull ordering the Jews to live in ghettos and wear a badge, in an attempt to convert them to Catholicism. The attempt was unsuccessful, as only about 10 Jews a year underwent conversion. Little by little, cities in Italy confined Jews to ghettos. That is, until Napoleon conquered most of Italy in the early 19th century and freed the Jews wherever he went.
Through much of its history, Italy was a loose-knit group of city-states. But in 1861, the country was unified under the Savoys of Turin, and Jews became an important part of building the new nation. Many joined the military and rose to high positions; others became politicians, working in government. That’s primarily because literacy rates among Jews were much higher than in the general population.
Andrea, an adjunct professor of humanities at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, whetted our appetite to learn more about Jewish Italian cuisine, and to learn much more about Jewish history in Italy.
She suggested the following cookbooks:
- Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin
- Cucina de Ebraica by Joyce Goldstein
She also recommended books about the Jewish community of Turin:
- The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
- Christ Stopped at Emboli by Carlo Levi
- Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzberg
And a book about Jews just before World War II:
- Benevolence and Betrayal by Alexander Stille
In addition to Andrea’s suggestions, we recommend Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gates, her historical novel about ghetto life and liberation during the time of Napoleon.
Thank you so much to Debbie Schwartz and her Programming Committee—Mindy Tegay, Jen Halpern and Anne Gorman—for their wonderful work to bring this program to our section.
—Susan Neigher, with Diana Grayson