A Visit to Southern Italy – David Viniker

Simone and I have visited Italy on many occasions. It is a beautiful country with great variety of stunning scenery and a large share of iconic cities. Inevitably, we look for Jewish culture, seeking out synagogues and kosher cuisine. Sadly, there are no Jewish areas to compare with London, Paris or New York. The total number of Jews in Italy is 28,000 –0.046% of the total.


Venice boasts five synagogues but they are mainly of historical interest with only two having regular services which are taken in turns. On our last guided tour of the Jewish Quarter, our guide was asked about the losses to the Jewish Italian community. She replied that Italy did not have many Jews in 1939 and there were many known examples of Catholics saving their Jewish friends. During the Second World War more than two thousands Jews of Rome perished in the extermination camps.


Rome has a large central synagogue with two small kosher restaurants nearby. Florence has a beautiful synagogue worthy of the city’s artistic qualities. It was built in the late 19th century and has Italian and Islamic elements.

Lecce Mikvah Stairs

Lecce Mikvah Stairs

For our latest visit, we travelled around Apulia, also called Puglia – the heel of Italy. Lecce is a baroque town, known as the Florence of the South, situated the middle of the region. It once had a thriving Jewish community. Sadly, all that can be seen now are remnants of a Mikvah used as a decorative feature in a bistro and Via della Sinagoga which has no synagogue.


It is difficult to imagine the rich Jewish life that flourished in South Italy from Roman times to 1300 (1500 in Sicily). Among them were painters, physicians, actors, poets, tradesmen, and peddlers. During the 9th century, schools of Hebrew poetry emerged, and 100 years later Venosa, Bari, Otranto, and Oria had Talmudic academies. It is sobering to realize that today the number of Jews in South Italy is probably fewer than 100. One would hope that these communities moved on like the Jewish community in the East End of London but it likely that most did not leave voluntarily.

As Italy is located centrally in the Mediterranean it has been an important crossroad between North and South, East and West, and for Jews between Sephardic and Ashkenazi culture.

Italy has some of the oldest Jewish Communities in Europe. Jews arrived in South Italy after the destruction of the First Temple and later thousands of Jews lived in Rome before the Christian era. At the time of the Romans there were ten to fifteen synagogues in Rome.

In 160 B.C. Simon Maccabeus developed an embassy in Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Syrians. The ambassadors received a cordial welcome from the Senate and from the Jews who lived in town.

Under the rule of the Emperor Claudius, a census was taken, which estimated the Jewish population of the empire at 7 or 9 percent of the total population.

Until the fall of the Roman Empire periods of persecution were followed intermittently by periods of quiescence.

During the first Dark Ages there were flourishing communities of Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Messina, Agrigento, and in Sardinia.

Under Norman rule the Jews of southern Italy and of Sicily enjoyed great freedom.

When Benjamin of Tudela visited the country between 1160 and 1165 he found large communities “old of centuries” on his route.

In 1235 Pope Gregory IX published the first bull against the ritual murder accusation. Other popes followed his example.

Large towns such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa, realized that their commercial interests were of greater importance than politics or the religion and Jews found their condition better than ever before. They became bankers and merchants, and obtained permissions to establish banks and to engage in monetary transactions.

When in 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain, many took refuge in Italy.

The Jewish communities of Naples and of Rome received the greatest number of accessions and at times the immigrants exceeded in number the Jews already domiciled. Arriving from Spain many Conversos (Jews who were forced to accept Catholicism or be executed) returned to Judaism. In 1516 the first Ghetto was established in Venezia (Venice). Later other ghettos were established.

In 1541 Jews were expelled from South Italy (Kingdom of Naples). The Italian Jewish community, with its 2,000 years of history, was formed also by the merger of several Jewish groups that arrived in Italy from the Middle Ages onwards:

– 14th century from France and Germany;

– 15th centuries from Spain and Portugal because of the expulsion;

– 16th century because of internal migrations;

– 17th century from East Europe;

Under the influence of the liberal religious policy of Napoleon the Jews of Italy were emancipated. The new political ideas broke the power of the Church.

After the Revolution of 1848 a political movement began that led to the political Unification of Italy (1860-1870). Jewish volunteers died in the cause of Italian liberty and the ghettos were opened. After the Unification of the Italian Kingdom, Italian Jews had full civil and political rights. During those times there were tens of synagogues in Rome.