The Jews of Italy

Arnaldo Momigliano


Italian history is always a difficult subject. Behind it and inside it there is the extraordinary variety of regional and urban units; the history of Florence is not the history of Pisa, or even that of Arezzo, or Siena, or Volterra. Where the Jews are involved, the differences in local traditions are increased by substantial local differences in the past treatment of Jews. Much of southern Italy and Sicily – splendid Jewish centers in the Middle Ages – lost their Jews in the sixteenth century during the Spanish rule. It is sometimes forgotten that Jews were kept out of most of Lombardy for more than a century until the Austrians replaced the Spaniards in 1714.

In addition, there are the differences of origins of the Jews themselves. Some of us are descendants of the Jews who lived in Italy during the Roman Empire. Some are Ashkenazi Jews who, especially in the fourteenth century, left Germany and came to Italy. French Jews had to leave France in the same century, and there was the Sephardi immigration and the return of Marranos of Spanish origin to Judaism at the end of the fifteenth and during the sixteenth century. Contacts with the East always existed, especially in Venice and southern Italy, as long as Jews were allowed to remain there. Other Jews from Muslim countries were attracted by the new porto franco of Leghorn (Livorno) after the middle of the sixteenth century.

Leghorn remained the easiest Italian town for Jews to live in during at least two centuries and developed a particular Jewish style of its own, which is preserved in the books of Elia Benamozegh and of which, perhaps, the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani show traces. The differences of origins were of course reflected in the differences of rituals and melodies, and in their turn, the differences of rituals were preserved by separate synagogues. Three synagogues – la scola italiana, la scola tedesca, la scola spagnola – were frequently to be found in the same town; in Rome not long ago, there were still five synagogues preserving an interesting distinction between scola catalanoaragonese and scola spagnola.

We in Piedmont, together with Italian, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi synagogues, had that curious minhag apam – the three rather small congregations of Asti, Fossano, and Moncalvo – which preserved the fossil of a French medieval ritual with its peculiar mahzor, or prayer book. That the Jews were tolerated in one of the states of Italy, however, did not mean that they were tolerated in all parts of the same state. That the popes allowed the Jews to live in Rome and Ancona, where we find the Volterras, does not imply that they were allowed to live in Bologna. It fell to one of my grandfather’s brothers, the rabbi Marco Mordechai Momigliano, to be sent in 1866 to rebuild the Jewish community of Bologna. This community, where Obadiah Sforno, Azaria di Rossi, and Samuel Archevolti had worked and thought, had been closed down in 1593 and had not existed, at least officially, for more than 250 years. On the other hand, the Jews prospered at Ferrara under the same papal rule and preserved some of the brilliance characteristic of their culture under the house of Este, which ended in 1597. The explanation is partly in the agrarian situation of the region, which helped to form the pro-Fascist attitudes of the Jews of Ferrara centuries later.

Differing in rituals and often with conflicting interests among themselves, the Jews of Italy were not, however, beset by more linguistic differences than their Christian counterparts. The linguistic situation of Italy was already complicated enough in itself. What we call Italian remained basically a written language to the end of the nineteenth century. Ordinary people spoke what we call dialects, and the Jews spoke the same dialect as the other inhabitants of the place. Venetian Jews spoke and speak Venetian and we Piedmontese Jews spoke Piedmontese. My parents spoke Piedmontese between themselves and Italian with us children. So my sisters and I were the only native Italian speakers of our little Piedmontese town and much admired for our linguistic accomplishments. When I grew up I returned to the Piedmontese dialect in conversations at home with my parents – though not with my sisters.

No doubt, ghetto life favored some peculiarity. The dialect of the Roman Jews is known to have remained considerably more archaic than that of the Roman Christians, and of course Hebrew words and sentences were inserted into the local dialect. In the Piedmontese jargon of the Jews there were some Yiddish words imported into Piedmont by Jews of Ashkenazi provenance—the Ottolenghi, Treves, and Diena, who were destined to play such an important part in recent Italian history. So it was usual to speak of the Becher for kiddush, or of the Orzai for Jahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.

The other element that has to be kept in mind concerning the Italian Jews is that we have been so few – so few especially in the last centuries. There were at most perhaps 30,000 Jews at the beginning of the nineteenth century, including the Jews of Trieste, which was technically in Austria, and those of Nice, which became French in 1859. This represented about one per thousand in the population of Italy. Before the last war there were about 50,000. Ten thousand of us were murdered by the Fascists and the Nazis in alliance, and this included eleven members of my family, among whom were my father and mother. About six thousand emigrated, never to return. Others were lost during the period of the persecution when the rate of conversion was higher than average. Among the converts, as is well known, was the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zoller, baptized in Santa Maria degli Angeli at Rome on February 13, 1945. If there are now between 30,000 and 35,000 Jews, it is because emigration from Libya, and to a lesser extent from Eastern countries, has swollen the native Jewish population. This figure represents one person for each two thousand of the entire population of Italy. Most of the Jews are now concentrated in a few large towns. Most of the old synagogues are empty, if they still exist.


Every time I am in an Italian town, I try to figure out whether and how Jews fared in it. Some of these cities I know well enough. I have passed many summers in the peace of the beautiful town of Spoleto in Umbria. Going around the city, I can easily reconstruct the history of Spoleto since the time of Hannibal. But when I enter the little medieval street, which is at present called Via San Gregorio della Sinagoga, I am baffled. When did the synagogue there stop being a synagogue? Does the name of the street imply that the San Gregorio church was superimposed on the synagogue? And where are the descendants of the famous Renaissance Jewish doctors of Spoleto, one of whom was David De’ Pomis, the author of the Hebrew-Latin-Italian dictionary Zemah David, “the offshoot of David,” which I used daily as a child? At the moment there is in Spoleto one Jewish family that moved from Rome. Perhaps I ought to add that two or three years ago I discovered that a couple of American Jewish artists were trying to make a living by opening a sandwich bar in Spoleto. I hope they are successful.

The disappearance of the small Jewish communities makes it difficult to follow up family histories and, even more, local cultural traditions. I wish I could explain how the Volterra family left Tuscany, where they appear well established in the Renaissance, to go to Ancona. There is, as we know, more than one version of the transfer of Disraeli’s grandfather to England in 1748; some have him depart from the small but learned community of Cento, others from Venice. Research now in progress at Tel Aviv by Shelomo Simonsohn and his colleagues will no doubt clarify many details; and the Jerusalem volume by Robert Bonfil has already told us much that we did not know about the Italian rabbis of the Renaissance. Research on Jews has become fashionable in Italy, too.

It still remains difficult to say something precise even about one’s own family. I envy my colleague Vittore Colorni, the remarkable professor of the history of Italian law at the University of Ferrara, who has been able to produce a neat genealogical tree of his family from 1477 to 1977 in a book dedicated to the memory of Umberto Nahon and published in Jerusalem in 1978. His success was made possible by the unusual fact that his family, the Colorni, remained for more than four centuries in the same place, Mantua. As for my family, I can at least say that about the beginning of the fourteenth century, an ancestor of mine had the prudence to leave the little Jewish community of Montmélian in Savoy for the capital of Savoy, Chambéry, where he was duly registered as Lionel—or, if you prefer, Jehudah—de Montmélian. The juiverie of Montmélian virtually disappeared about fifty years later when Jews were thrown into the wells as responsible for the black plague.

The descendants of Lionel de Montmélian, following up the expansion of the dukedom of Savoy into Piedmont, went into trade, moneylending, and rabbinical positions in the small Jewish communities of Piedmont: Busca, Cuneo, Mondovì, Asti, Chieri, and Ivrea. There they remained for centuries, terribly poor, pious, and scholarly until Napoleon brought new ideas, new hopes, and – as my grandfather, the last traditional zaddick, or “just man,” of Italy, was never tired of repeating – new delusions to the Italian Jews.1

How are we to explain the sudden explosion of initiative, creativity, intellectual and political responsibility that characterize the history of Italian Jews after Napoleon and, above all, after 1848? That was the year in which the king of Piedmont and Sardinia gave to the Jews the equality later to be extended to the other regions of Italy in what ultimately became the unification of Italy; the process took more than twenty years.

No doubt the irrational factor – patriotism – had a decisive influence. I shall only indicate what may seem an absurd fact: the sudden enthusiasm of a basically conservative Jewish scholar, Samuel David Luzzatto – Sadal – in 1848. It is not by chance that the Giudaismo illustrato by Luzzatto appeared in 1848. It is self-explanatory in its appeal to the tradition of Italian Jews from the days of Shabbatai Donnolo and of the various members of the Kalonymus family of Lucca and Rome to the present day. It is even more characteristic that Luzzatto was moved by seeing a man of Jewish origin, although baptized, Daniele Manin, become the president of the revolutionary republic of Venice in 1848–1849; Daniele Manin’s ancestors had been called Medina until the end of the eighteenth century.

This patriotism, this devotion to the new Italy of the Risorgimento, has been in our blood since the days of our great-grandfathers and fathers, whatever reservations they and we may have about what was happening and is happening in Italy. It explains why my grandmother used to cry every time she listened to the “Marcia Reale – the royal hymn of the Italian monarchy – and if you can cry at such atrocious music you can cry at anything. More seriously, it explains why during the First World War the three university professors who died in battle were all Jews, and at least two of them were volunteers. One of the best-known heroes of the First World War remains Roberto Sarfatti, the eighteen-year-old student who happened to be the son of Margherita Sarfatti, who was later the mistress and the biographer of Mussolini. Even in the disgraceful Abyssinian and Spanish wars of 1936 the young hero was one of our Jewish students in the University of Turin, Bruno Jesi, who soon found himself confronted by the racial laws.

Interestingly enough, it was not the change in economic conditions that gave a new direction to the lives of Italian Jews. No doubt, there was a new opening of opportunities, and they were taken. The most important was the possibility of becoming farmers and landowners. Italian Jews, especially of Piedmont, Veneto, Emilio, and Tuscany, were indeed strongly inclined to buy land and settle on it or near it. This, incidentally, explains the strong conservative bias of many Italian Jews. But Italian Jews never became leading capitalists and industrialists. None of the few great Italian industries, such as Fiat, has been in the hands of Jews; there was an attempt to import a branch of the Rothschild bank into Italy – in Naples, of all places – but it did not last long. The nearest approximation to Jewish ownership of great industry is to be found in the Olivetti firm with its peculiar tradition of technical sophistication and attention to social problems. Many Jews prospered in the medium-sized industries and in the insurance business; others, like my people, stuck to the traditional Italo-Jewish combination of banking and silk mills (filande) to which first Japanese competition and later artificial silk dealt mortal blows.

But the explanation for the high contribution of the Jews, both in quantity and quality, to the Italian social and intellectual life of the last 150 years is to be found elsewhere. First of all, even before 1848, they had managed to get for themselves a very good modern education, all the legal obstacles notwithstanding. Some Piedmontese Jews like the future secretary of Cavour, Isacco Artom, were sent to study in Milan where, under Austrian rule, Jews were allowed to go to a public school. A banker, who was a member of the Todros family, emigrated from Turin to Paris in about 1835 in order to give a good education to his children. The future mother of Cesare Lombroso put only one condition to her father, a Piedmontese Jew, when he was going to arrange her marriage: the husband should be a subject of Austria, where education for Jewish children was better. So it happened that Cesare Lombroso, the erratic genius who revolutionized psychiatry and much else, was born in Verona and there he has his monument. But normally it was by reorganization of the traditional school, the Talmud Torah, that Italian Jews acquired knowledge of modern culture before they were admitted to the state schools. As for the Italian universities, there was limited entry for Jews to some, such as Padua and Ferrara, especially in medicine. Later Italian Jews studied hard both in Italian and foreign schools and were known to go gladly abroad to improve themselves. I believe that Leone Sinigaglia, the exquisite musician who collected the Piedmontese songs, was the only Italian pupil of Mahler in Vienna; Sinigaglia died when the Nazi-Fascists knocked at his door in Turin to capture him.


What the contribution of traditional Jewish instruction was to this renovation of Italian-Jewish culture is more difficult to say. One fact is obvious. Both traditional Jewish studies and modern research and education prospered in the places where there was greater liberty and prosperity. In certain cases the continuity from traditional, rabbinical education to ordinary modern humanistic and scientific formation is clearly recognizable. Jewish traditional learning was strongest in places like Trieste, Gorizia, Venice, Padua, and Mantua, especially under Austrian rule, then in Leghorn and in Ferrara. During the eighteenth century, Isacco Lampronti, the Talmudic encyclopedist of Pahad Yizhak, came from Ferrara; new sections of his Encyclopaedia are still being published in Israel. One of the founders of modern Hebrew literature, Moshe Luzzatto, came from Padua. In the nineteenth century, Isacco Reggio lived in Gorizia; Sadal, the greatest of all, was born in Trieste and taught in Padua. Elia Benamozegh, the mystically minded adversary of Sadal, lived in Leghorn, where at the beginning of the century David Azulai had ended his legendary life as “Wunderrabbi.”

Rome, which had the largest Jewish community, was not conspicuous for intellectual activity: there Jews were the most miserable and the most oppressed. It must be generally emphasized that there was in Italy more traditional learning and more use of Hebrew as a learned language than is usually believed, at least among modern-day Italian Jews. We even exported a member of the Artom tribe to become the Haham, or rabbi, of the London Sephardi community (1866). He was a poet in Hebrew and in Italian. And of course Sabato Morais came to the United States and became, perhaps to his surprise, one of the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that the last Italian poet in Hebrew was a woman, Rachele Morpurgo, the cousin and friend of Sadal and a member of that Morpurgo tribe which has contributed so many professors to the Italian universities and several members to the Italian Parliament, and in recent years has produced the first woman professor of comparative philology at the University of Oxford, Anna Morpurgo.

If one looks, then, at the map of the provenance of learned professors, the correspondence between the older Jewish and the newer Italian culture is fairly obvious. The greatest comparative philologist and, in the absolute sense, the greatest Italian philologist in the nineteenth century, Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, came from Gorizia where he had been a pupil of Rabbi Reggio. He remained a close friend, even in his Milan days, of Sadal and of Sadal’s son Filosseno Luzzatto, the promising Assyriologist who died prematurely. The great master of Italian studies, Alessandro D’Ancona, who was a director of the Scuola Normale of Pisa, grew up in Tuscany. From Venice and Trieste came the families Venezian, Pincherle, and Polacco, to fill the Italian universities and Parliament. The learned rabbi of Mantua, Marco Mortara, whose library was famous, was destined to be the father and grandfather of a dazzling family, the greatest member of which is indisputably Ludovico Mortara (1855–1937), first-class jurist, head of the Supreme Court of Cassazione, minister of justice in 1919, and vice-prime minister.

Examples could easily be multiplied of this continuity of secular and religious Jewish tradition. I shall add only one case which has always seemed to me the most bizarre. The name Mussafia is connected in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries with a series of distinguished rabbinical scholars. The best known is Benjamin ben Immanuel Mussafia, who in the late seventeenth century published in Holland a supplement to what remains the most important Italian contribution to Talmudic studies, the Lexicon Arukh. Two other Mussafia, father and son, followed each other as rabbis and Talmudic scholars at Spalato (Split) in Dalmatia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their linguistic and hermeneutic abilities were suddenly transferred by their respective grandson and son, Adolfo Mussafia, to the study of the Romance languages. Adolfo Mussafia, the son and grandson of rabbis, became a convert to Catholicism and a professor in Vienna in about 1855, and was later even a member of the Upper House of the Vienna Parliament. He introduced into Romance philology incomparable rigor and subtlety. In later life, he felt more and more that he was an Italian, not an Austrian, and toward the end of the century, he left Vienna to live and die in Florence. The only devoted pupil he ever had was Elise Richter, a Jewish woman who lived long enough to die in a Nazi extermination camp.

This transition from Jewish to secular culture with all its vagaries is striking enough, but what is perhaps characteristic of the Italian Jews is that during the twentieth century they came to play a very important part in the state administration as civil servants, judges, and above all soldiers. Italy must have been the only country in Europe where Jews were welcomed in the army and navy and could reach the highest rank without any difficulty. The Piedmontese Jews became famous at that. General Giuseppe Ottolenghi, as a minister of the war, did much to reorganize the Italian Army at the beginning of the century after the African disasters. General Roberto Segre, as a commander of artillery in the battle of the Piave in June 1918, was the mind behind the strategy that saved Italy. The military profession passed from father to son, as was the case with Roberto Segre and even more conspicuously with two eminent generals, Guido Liuzzi and his son Giorgio.

In 1939, when the Jews were thrown out of the army, the navy, and all other governmental positions, the Italian fleet, which had been rebuilt by the Jewish naval architect General Umberto Pugliese, was commanded by two Jewish admirals, Ascoli and Capon, the latter being the father-in-law of Enrico Fermi. In 1940, the Italian fleet was virtually destroyed by English bombing in the harbor of Taranto and General Pugliese was called back to save what could be saved of the fleet he had built and the Fascists had lost. Admiral Capon, if I remember correctly, was allowed to fall into Nazi hands.

One should of course dwell on all the branches of the Italian civil service, including the Foreign Office, to give a correct picture. I shall only mention pietatis causa the name of Giacomo Malvano, who as an authoritative permanent secretary at the Foreign Office controlled Italian foreign affairs for about thirty years at the turn of the century. Given the close connection between civil service, universities, and politics in Italy, access to the civil service made the entry into universities and politics easier, and vice versa. My impression is that the transition from the ghetto to the upper class happened more frequently in Jewish families through entry into the civil service and the universities than through prospering economic activities.

University professors have made up a very high proportion of the people prominent in Italian politics since at least 1870. During the last decades of the nineteenth century attempts were even made, ultimately to no purpose, to limit the number of university professors who could be members of the House of Deputies at any given time. University professors often became ministers of the crown and even prime ministers. In this sense, Luigi Luzzatti, the only Jewish prime minister, conformed to pattern in 1910. He had been both a high civil servant and a university professor of law.

But other factors contributed to the prestige of Jews in politics. One was the advantage some of them had of foreign, especially British, connections. Sidney Sonnino, technically a Protestant but the son of a Jewish landowner from Tuscany, derived advantage from the connections represented by his English mother. He was twice, for a short time, a prime minister, but above all he is known as the foreign secretary during the entire First World War. He will forever remain associated with the name of his Jewish friend Senator Leopoldo Franchetti, with whom he undertook some of the most penetrating research yet made into Italian social problems. English connections also counted for Ernesto Nathan, a mayor of Rome at the beginning of this century and the head of the Freemasons; the British branch of his family had been the friends of Giuseppe Mazzini during his exile in England.

A second element to be considered is the decisive importance of the Jews of Trieste in the so-called irredentismo, the claim of Trieste to be Italian. To the cultural side of the problem I shall return briefly in a moment. As for the political side, Trieste’s political irredentismo was personified by three Jews: Felice Venezian, Salvatore Barzilai, and Teodoro Mayer. The Italian character of Trieste was and is owing to a great extent to Jews who were often of German and Eastern origins but chose Italy – the Italy beyond the border, which seemed to offer an equality for Jews that did not exist in the Austrian Empire.

And finally came socialism. In Italy very few Jewish socialists studied Karl Marx deeply. One exception – the professional economist Achille Loria of the University of Turin – was attacked by Engels and had a bad reputation with the left. He was destined to make a lasting impression in America on Frederick Jackson Turner and his frontier hypothesis. But socialism, as a messianic movement, appealed to Jews in Italy as elsewhere. It gave them an alternative faith. Emanuele Modigliani, Claudio Treves, and Rodolfo Mondolfo are perhaps the most important of the early Italian Jewish socialists.

As a member of a family that has a permanent place in the history of the Italian socialist movement, I have always had the feeling that somehow the messianism did not quite fit. In fact, the most original thinker among my socialist relatives, Felice Momigliano, a professor of philosophy in the University of Rome, tried to combine socialism, Mazzini, and the Hebrew prophets, but found himself thrown out of the Socialist party when the war came in 1915. About the enigmatic and tragic character of this religious thinker, who was basically a reformed Jew like his friend Claude Montefiore – in a country where there has never been any organized reform Judaism – there is much to be said, if we want to understand why the Jews were less a part of Italian life than they thought they were. I felt the same even for the other conspicuous name in my family, Attilio Momigliano, the interpreter of Dante, Ariosto, and Manzoni, of the last of whom he profoundly understood the Catholic inspiration. Though he had many devoted pupils in the universities of Pisa and Florence, Attilio was deeply alone.

It will be enough here to say that this is, in effect, the question lying behind those Jewish Italian writers whom Stuart Hughes has recently put together under the suggestive title, Prisoners of Hope. What perhaps my friend Stuart Hughes ought to have made clearer is that writers of Jewish origin existed, of course, and were respected in the nineteenth century. Tullo Massarani and Giuseppe Revere, two friends who did the most to introduce Heine into Italy, were widely read and respected. They were consciously and explicitly Jewish; so were other, less-read writers – such as David Levi, the author of poems on Jewish themes, or Enrico Castelnuovo, the author of a novel on Italian Jews, I Moncalvo, and, incidentally, the father of the mathematician Guido Castelnuovo.

Younger generations of writers, for example the half-English Jewish poet Annie Vivanti – whom Carducci loved – never explicitly admitted their Jewishness until 1939. Three of the greatest writers came from Trieste or nearby, Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba, and Carlo Michelstaedter, the last an extraordinary thinker who committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. A fourth, Alberto Moravia, lived in Rome but is of Venetian origin.

Characteristically, Svevo, Saba, and Moravia used pseudonyms, but while Italo Svevo and Alberto Moravia were concealing the non-Italian names of Schmitz and Pincherle, Saba, whose real family name was Poli, was trying to convey cryptically his allegiance to his Jewish mother rather than to his Christian father. Even when the persecution of Jews made it absurd to deny the Jewish experience – and Carlo Levi, Giorgio Bassani, and Natalia Levi Ginzburg did not deny it – a deeper problem remained: what could Judaism mean for these writers? Primo Levi is of course the exception: he really has a sense of Jewish tradition, but he had to acquire it by surviving in a Nazi extermination camp.


Jewish Italian society developed on its own lines – realistic, connected with business, comparatively open to foreign ideas, but fundamentally introspective, concerned with social justice and yet suspicious of too much novelty. Music, painting, literature, socialism, and science became intense preoccupations of the Italian Jews. Profane music had been one of their interests since at least the Renaissance. Now we had composers such as Vittorio Rieti, Alberto Franchetti, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Leone Sinigaglia. Painting was more of a novelty. Perhaps it is not chance that the socialist leader Emanuele Modigliani and the painter Amedeo Modigliani were brothers. Jewish scientists showed uncommon methodological preoccupations; two Jews, Eugenio Rignano and Federico Enriquez, created that important international forum for scientific methodology, the periodical Scientia.

How much this brooding, introspective mood contributed to the greatness of Italian mathematicians, physicists, and chemists I can only guess, thinking as I do of some who were my relatives and friends. Where were the roots of the legendary mathematical imagination of Tullio LeviCivita? Fascism was bound to exclude most of those Jews who had solid liberal or socialist traditions behind them, while economic interests led some Jews to direct involvement with fascism. One of the most honest Fascists was Gino Olivetti, the representative of industrial interests inside Fascism. Fascist ideological sympathies were also to be found among jurists like Gino Arias and Giorgio del Vecchio, who wanted a reform of the Italian state on corporate lines. I have already mentioned the special situation of Ferrara, where the Fascist mayor was a Jew with a prestigious Jewish name, Ravenna.

But most of the Jews were clearly out. And men like Vito Volterra, a teacher and a senator of immense prestige, spoke clearly and fearlessly for the majority of Jews. To the name of Vito Volterra I would like to add at least the name of my Roman teacher, Giorgio Levi della Vida, the Orientalist of rare distinction who was for some years during the war a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Max Ascoli, who in 1924 had published a book on Judaism and Christianity (Le Vie dalla Croce), came to the US in 1931; Piero Sraffa, the economist, left Italy for England (Cambridge) even earlier. Active opposition was personified by the two brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli, in whose ancestral house at Pisa Mazzini had died. They were both assassinated on Mussolini’s order. The repugnance toward Fascism was repugnance toward Mussolini. During his career, he had been helped by Jews, both men and women. He had exploited them ruthlessly, above all the women, and he had betrayed them. He betrayed his Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti, his old comrade Angelica Balabanoff, and innumerable friends from the early years. When the hour of rebellion came, Jews went into the resistance movement, led it, died for it.

Umberto Terracini, the Jewish Communist leader who had survived about twenty years of confinement in a Fascist prison, was the president of the constituent assembly following the referendum in 1946. Guido Castelnuovo emerged from persecution to become the first president of the revived Accademia dei Lincei in 1946. But a whole generation had been deprived of its best members: men like Eugenio Colorni, the philosopher; Leone Ginzburg, the critic; Emanuele Artom, the young historian of Judaism; and Sergio Diena, a smiling hero full of intelligence and determination. The deaths in the resistance compounded by the deaths in the Nazi-Fascist torture camps created an empty space which has not yet been filled. It made more questionable the existence of a Jewish variety of Italians.

The problem had existed before. It is obvious in a great writer like Italo Svevo, so charged with Jewish Central European culture, and yet so ignorant of traditional Jewish culture and so reluctant to admit his Jewish past. For a few Jews there was a straight choice in favor of a return to Judaism via Zionism and immigration to Palestine. But those who, like myself, have still been fortunate enough to know the older generation of the Italian Zionists – Dante Lattes, Alfonso Pacifici – and to be friends of Enzo Sereni, know also that their choice was not so simple. It was not by chance that Enzo Sereni came back to Italy during the 1940s to fight and die for what he, in private conversation, had always recognized as not dissociable ideals, Zionism and anti-Fascism.

Talmudism had practically ceased to interest Italian Jews at the end of the eighteenth century. Even Sadal was no longer interested in the Talmud. Reform Judaism, as I said, had no roots in Italy. Mystical and cabbalistic trends persisted longer, well after Moshe Luzzatto had removed his Maggid – the “angel” who accompanied him – from Padua to Amsterdam. My grandfather found consolation in his old age in reading the Zohar every evening and sang Simeon Labi’s Hebrew hymn, “Happy are you, Bar Yohai! He annointed you,” on Lag Ba Yohai! He annointed you,” on Lag Ba ‘Omer, the anniversary of the death of Simeon bar Yohai, who is believed by cabbalists to be the author of the Zohar. But, in fact, Jewish culture was seldom transmitted in the sense we Jews intend it to be transmitted. If the Jews themselves know so little about their own Judaism, they can hardly complain that their neighbors understand it even less. Even Benedetto Croce, who was so near to us during the years of persecution, could only recommend that the Jews try to eliminate their peculiarities. It would be foolish to close on a note of optimism when a Jewish child can be assassinated in the synagogue of Rome, as one was in 1982, without an outcry of public opinion. The lines of Nahman Bialik on the murder of children come back to my mind, but I shall not repeat them. And unlike Immanuel of Rome, our old friend who, if not the friend of Dante, was at least the friend of Cino da Pistoia, I do not intend to give any advice to the Messiah. I shall therefore not say: “But if you mean to ride on an ass, my Lord, go back to sleep.”

I shall rather seek some consolation in the words of my earliest predecessor, the chronicler Ahimaaz of Oria in southern Italy, who wrote his book of genealogies in the year 4814 of the creation of the world (1054 CE)—the first Jewish historian of the Jews of Italy:

I will set down in order the traditions of my fathers, who were brought on a ship over the Pishon, the first river of Eden, with the captives that Titus took from the Holy City, crowned with beauty. They came to Oria; they settled there and prospered through remarkable achievements; they grew in number and in strength and continued to thrive. Among their descendants there arose a man eminent in learning…master of the knowledge of God’s Law, distinguished for wisdom among his people. His name was….2

Ahimaaz says “Rabbi Amittai.” But he might as well have put another name, “Vito Volterra.”

Yet though I am not the first trained historian of my family to be interested in our history—I have been preceded by a better man than myself, my late cousin and friend Arturo Carlo Jemolo, a Momigliano on his mother’s side, a Sicilian Catholic on his father’s side—there are too many facts we do not know. I wish I knew more of Giuseppe Vita Momigliano of Ivrea who was one of the representatives of the Piedmontese Jews in the Napoleonic Sanhedrin of 1806. Another Piedmontese Jew of the Segre (my wife’s) family, Salvatore Segre, was the av-bet-din, the chairman of the same Sanhedrin. I wish I knew more also of Isacco Momigliano, who pestered eminent men with his questions on religion and literature; it was to him that Sadal—Samuel David Luzzatto—wrote his famous letter on Judaism and Christianity, arguing, of course, for the right to exist of the former

The Chronicle of Ahimaaz, translated by M. Salzman (Columbia University Press, 1924).

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