The Jews of Italy

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Jews of Italy

Jochnowitz, George, Midstream

There was no country called Italy until unification took place, in the 19th century. But in the first or second century, the writers of the Mishnah recognized Italy as a place. In Tractate Sanhedrin 8:2 of the Mishnah we are told that to be identified as a stubborn and rebellious son, one must drink half a log (275 cc.) of yayin ha-italki (Italian wine).

The Jews living in first century Israel knew about Italy and its wine. And in Rome itself, Emperor Augustus knew enough about Jews "to order the Roman courts not to call Jewish parties or witnesses on the Sabbath." (l) The benevolence of Augustus was one side of the picture; the other facet is illustrated by an order given by a counselor of Emperor Tiberius named Sejanus. The historian, Salo W. Baron, writes: "The Jews were expelled from Rome and perhaps from all of Italy, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor in Sardinia. Tiberius soon reconsidered, however, and 12 years later formally readmitted the Jews to the city, from which many of them had probably never departed." (2)

The island of Sardinia is one of several places in Italy where there are catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions. Three inscriptions were found in the catacombs of Sant'Antioco dating from the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The language is "ebraico-latino" (Hebrew plus Latin).

In the language of Sardinia today, there are at least two words that hint at a Jewish presence on the island: the word for "Friday" is cenabura, pronounced keNAbura, from Latin cena pura, meaning "pure feast," suggesting the Sabbath meal; and the word for September is caputanni, from Latin caput meaning "head" and anni meaning "of the year," a literal translation of Rosh Ha-Shanah, "head of the year." (3) Maybe this is all a coincidence. It is entirely possible that Sardinians, before the Roman conquest, began their year in September and had a special meal on Friday. Nevertheless, the coincidence of caputanni and cenabura suggest an influential Jewish presence. Be that as it may, Jews were expelled from Sardinia and all of southern Italy in the period 1492-1541, when the territories in question came under the rule of the Spanish royal family. There are no Jews left in Sardinia.

The town in Italy most associated with inscriptions in Jewish catacombs is Venosa, in the area known today as Basilicata but earlier generally called Lucania. According to the historian Baron, "An unbroken series of inscriptions in Venosa, in particular, shows the continuity of Jewish life from ancient to medieval times."(4) Between the 3rd to the 6th century CE, there were 51 such inscriptions. Twenty-six of them are in Greek, 13 in Latin, 2 in Hebrew, 2 in "ebraico-latino"; 10 are illegible. (5) More and more discoveries of Jewish inscriptions are being made at Venosa all the time. (6)

Why Greek? Greek was the language of the eastern part of the Roman empire but was widely known in Italy as well. The Jews in Italy could have come from Asia Minor and Egypt as well as from Judea; in either event we would expect that at least some Italian Jews spoke a variety of Greek rather than Latin. Later inscriptions from Venosa and elsewhere are likely to be in Hebrew. The revival of Hebrew in the late days of the Roman empire is no doubt a subject that merits further investigation.

Jews were expelled from southern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were expelled from Sicily and Sardinia in 1492, as part of the expulsion from Spain. They were expelled from the rest of southern Italy as the Royal house of Spain acquired more land in Italy.

There were Jews in Rome and southern Italy before the Common Era; there are Jews in Rome and northern Italy today. We don't know whether there were Jews in northern Italy in Roman times. We have records of them from the 14th century and later. They came from southern Italy, southern France, Germany, and later from Portugal and Spain.

We might think of Italian Jews as Sephardic. …

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