Inti­mate Strangers: A His­to­ry of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome

  • Review
By – May 1, 2023

In the predawn hours of Octo­ber 16, 1943, Nazi troops gath­ered at the Por­ti­co of Octavia in Rome, bar­ri­cad­ed the streets of the Jew­ish ghet­to, and gave the res­i­dents twen­ty min­utes to gath­er their belong­ings before they would be forcibly removed from their homes. In that same spot almost two thou­sand years ear­li­er, Roman Emper­or Ves­pasian and his son Titus pro­claimed vic­to­ry over the Judean rebels, launch­ing their tri­umphant pro­ces­sion through the city and car­ry­ing the spoils from the Tem­ple of Jerusalem.

Dur­ing the inter­ven­ing two mil­len­nia, the Jews of Rome both thrived and endured extreme hard­ship, their fate alter­nate­ly buf­fet­ed by per­se­cu­tion and accep­tance — all at the whims of emper­ors, gov­er­nors and popes. They were some­times pro­tect­ed, some­times betrayed.

Fred­er­ic Brand­fon skill­ful­ly tack­les these stark con­tra­dic­tions in Inti­mate Strangers: A His­to­ry of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome. His book is rich in detail, with com­pre­hen­sive research drawn from bib­li­cal texts and papal decrees, inscrip­tions from the cat­a­combs, medieval art, and folk­tales and poet­ry in Ital­ian, Hebrew, and ebraico,” the lan­guage of the Roman Jews.

Brand­fon, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and reli­gious stud­ies, describes Rome as both the home of the world­wide Catholic Church, [and] home of the old­est Jew­ish dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ty.” He notes that Jews actu­al­ly pre­dat­ed Catholics in Rome, hav­ing lived there since 139 BCE. This pre-Chris­t­ian his­to­ry was doc­u­ment­ed by Jose­phus, born Yosef ben Matityahu in Jerusalem. He trav­eled to Rome in 61 CE, attempt­ing unsuc­cess­ful­ly to seek free­dom for fel­low Jews impris­oned there. He even­tu­al­ly gained favor with Roman offi­cials and chron­i­cled Jew­ish his­to­ry in four books intend­ed for the Roman elite.

The trea­sures cap­tured from Judea and Jerusalem fund­ed the build­ing of the Colos­se­um. Accord­ing­ly, Jews invol­un­tar­i­ly financed the sym­bol of the Eter­nal City found today on T‑shirts … in a thou­sand Roman sou­venir shops,” Brand­fon wry­ly observes. 

The fate of Roman Jews fluc­tu­at­ed wild­ly depend­ing on who was pope, as it had depend­ing on who was emper­or. As ear­ly as 1120, a papal bull accord­ed Jews cer­tain rights in return for their accep­tance of Chris­t­ian canon law. It decreed that no Chris­t­ian shall com­pel them to come to bap­tism unwill­ing­ly,” nor seize, imprison, wound, tor­ture, muti­late, kill or inflict vio­lence on them.” Most sub­se­quent popes reaf­firmed these orders, and Rome even accept­ed exiles from the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion. Still, Jews were con­sid­ered out­siders and had to be iden­ti­fied as such, lest Chris­tians be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed” by them; cer­tain popes even man­dat­ed that Jews wear iden­ti­fy­ing cloth­ing, like a yel­low hat or red coat. 

The worst of times began with the estab­lish­ment of the Jew­ish ghet­to under Pope Paul IV in 1555, who object­ed to Chris­tians and Jews so much as liv­ing on the same street. Jews were con­fined in a squalid part of the city and allowed only to sell used cloth­ing to make a liv­ing. Catholic offi­cials assumed ghet­to con­di­tions would be so harsh that Jews would want to con­vert to Chris­tian­i­ty to escape them. 

Anoth­er effort to con­vert Jews was manda­to­ry atten­dance at church ser­mons. Wor­ried that the Jews would be inat­ten­tive, the cler­gy searched them as they entered the chapel, look­ing for balls of wax, wool or cot­ton that could be used as earplugs.

The Risorg­i­men­to, a move­ment that unit­ed Italy into one repub­lic, turned the tables once again. While the Vat­i­can refused to rec­og­nize the legit­i­ma­cy of the new nation, Jews, now freed from the ghet­to, wel­comed it. Rome even had a Jew­ish may­or, Ernesto Nathan, from 1907 to 1913. But with the rise of Mus­soli­ni and the fas­cists, the pen­du­lum swung back. The Racial Laws, insti­tut­ed in 1938, barred Jews from most pro­fes­sions, schools, and libraries. Kosher butch­ers were outlawed.

In 1943, 1,020 Jews were round­ed up by the gestapo and shipped to Auschwitz, where all but six­teen per­ished. Many Roman Jews who elud­ed the Nazis were giv­en refuge in monas­ter­ies, con­vents, and Catholic schools. Ordi­nary Catholics hid Jews as well: one fam­i­ly was shel­tered for almost a year in the base­ment of a broth­el, while Ger­man sol­diers were enter­tained upstairs. 

Jews and Catholics became com­rades in the resis­tance, bomb­ing rail­way sta­tions and bridges and ambush­ing a col­umn of SS sol­diers in 1944, killing thir­ty-two. In retal­i­a­tion, the Nazis ordered ten Romans to be mur­dered for each slain Ger­man; they were exe­cut­ed in mines south of the city. That site, the Fos­se Ardea­tine, has become a nation­al shrine, hon­or­ing the Jews and Chris­tians who per­ished there togeth­er for their resis­tance to fas­cism, their bones and ash­es mixed.

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

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