Aug 2008

Parashat Ekev

Allison Shapira is the coordinator of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and is based at the Harvard Kennedy School. She can be reached at

Jews in Italy normally keep a low profile – when I lived in the northern city of Padova, the Jewish ghetto was a quiet place with few people walking around. Not so in Rome, where the Jewish ghetto is a vibrant quarter alongside the Tiber river. Its thriving restaurants are filled night after night serving Romans and tourists such Jewish Roman delicacies as fried artichokes and baked cod.

Spending a few weeks in Rome this summer brought some uniquely Jewish experiences. One night, I dined at the Taverna del Ghetto, a popular kosher restaurant in the main piazza of the ghetto. The outdoor dining space consisted of tiny tables clustered side by side, creating an atmosphere that was both familial and chaotic. Our waiters were from Egypt, Italy, and Israel – imagine speaking both Hebrew and Arabic at a Jewish restaurant in Italy, eating fried artichokes and listening to Israeli pop singer Sarit Hadad on the stereo system. It took 10 minutes just to say good-bye to all the waitstaff.

During the day, I walked by the same piazza and expected it to be deserted, but not so – I was impressed to see many shops open and dozens of children running out of the Jewish day school while their parents gossiped nearby. No one needs to hide their Judaism here. Of course, it was both reassuring and chilling to see the armed policemen who are stationed 24 hours a day outside the synagogue to guard against potential attackers.

While in Rome, I met up with the American Jewish Committee’s liaison to the Italian Government and the Vatican. She invited me to a private presentation sponsored by the Angelica-Costantiniana Academy of Arts and Sciences, during which three religious professionals discussed the recent book “Jesus of Nazareth” by Pope Benedict XVI. 

There we were, two Jewish women listening to a discussion of the story of Jesus, in Italian, as written by a pope and interpreted by a priest. It was clearly not intended for an interreligious audience. Think about the kind of “mishpacha” conversations we have when we’re with only Jews, then imagine two Christians listening in the back. I was impressed when my colleague asked the speakers a question that highlighted the complementary relationship between Jews and Christians, countering the idea of Christianity replacing Judaism. I realized that by her vocal presence at that event, my colleague was representing the Jewish community. 

These were just a few of the unique experiences that highlight the active and vocal Jewish community in Rome. I was pleased to be part of it.