2000 Years in the Island of Divine Dew - I - Tal - Yah
In 2011 Italy celebrated the 150th anniversary of its unity, but the influence of an Italian culture spanning over the whole peninsula from the Alps to the heart of the Mediterranean is much more ancient. Italian Jews are unique as they have been uninterruptedly present in the country over the last 2200 years – since well before the Roman Empire and the inception of Christianity.
Three major waves affected the history of Italian Jewry – during the ancient Roman period, from the Middle Age to the age of Renaissance, and from the modern emancipation through the national Risorgimento. Each period of growth was followed by major population declines, with Christianity becoming the official faith of the Roman Empire and the Empire’s demise; the Counter-Reformation, expulsion of Jews from the South and Islands, and the closure of most remaining Jews in urban ghettos; and fascism’s rise to power, the racial laws, and the Shoah.
The long Jewish presence in Italy caused direct exposure to Greco-Roman and Christian culture – including prejudice – that imbued Italian society in the past and present. Rootedness of Jews in local customs affected the Jews’ own identity and perceptions of friendly and unfriendly forces around them. Italian Jews belonged and sometimes were needed in the local town, spoke Italian, and could not be easily distinguished from their non-Jewish surrounding. Yet, they could develop a unique cultural synthesis, combining adherence to Jewish traditional values with an Italian humanistic perspective. Continuing immigration since antiquity through the Middle Age and modernity from Western, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East enriched the cultural experience of Jewish communities and was preserved in their rites.
In 1938, when the fascist racial laws were enacted, 46,000 Jews lived in Italy. In 1945, after 7,500 perished in the Shoah, 6,000 converted to Catholicism, and 6,500 emigrated, there remained 26,000. Today there are less than 30,000, reflecting continuing immigration, but also a negative balance of Jewish births and deaths, remigration, assimilation, and withdrawals from community membership.