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The Italians are Coming

January 5, 2010 – 11:05 pm7 Comments
John Turturro as Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show (1994) - just one of several Jewish characters played by this famous Italian actor

John Turturro as Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show (1994) – just one of several Jewish characters played by this famous Italian actor

by Anthony Frosh
I grew up in very Italian neighbourhood.  As a consequence, we had several Italian family friends.  And technically speaking, one of my grandfathers immigrated to Australia from Italy (well, he was there for about 6 weeks until his boat departed from Naples bound for the land down under). However, I have never known a great deal about the Italian Jewish community.

Up until now, my exposure to the mere existence of an Italian Jewish community has been limited to the following:

1)      I saw the film Life is Beautiful (but who didn’t?)

2)      For a while, a young man from Milan (who was studying at the yeshiva around the corner from my flat in East St Kilda) used to visit me periodically to drop off a Lamplighter and to encourage me to lay tefillin.

3)      A Jewish character once briefly appeared in a particularly multicultural episode of Il commissario Montalbano (a detective TV drama set in Sicily).  It wasn’t clear whether he was a moneylender, a banker, or just an accountant.  Either way, it was a stereotypical Jewish profession. On the plus side, the moneylender/banker/accountant was shown to have integrity, as he insisted on providing Inspector Montalbano with a receipt, even though Montalbano (who has excellent judgement of character) tries to insist that it isn’t necessary, having complete trust in this Jewish financial worker.

Recently, I have come across a most interesting article (forwarded to me by RachSD, who I must say is a prolific forwarder of high quality articles). The Italian Jewish community is launching a new Jewish newspaper.  Nothing unusual about that, you might think – only this newspaper, Pagine Ebraiche, is aimed at non-Jews, and is not intended to compete with the existing ‘internal’ Jewish publications in Italy.

It seems there are two primary reasons for launching this newspaper.  One reason is that the Italian Jewish community wish to be more active in influencing the way the rest of the Italian population perceives them.  Instead of merely being the “object of news”, Jews will now “make their own voices heard.”

The more interesting reason for launching this newspaper is the perceived demand from the wider Italian community.  According to those interviewed in the article, Italians are highly interested in Jews, and Jews have an important symbolic value in modern Italian society.

“There is a huge interest in Jews and Jewish culture here,” said Emanuele Ascarelli, who directs “Sorgente di Vita” (“Source of Life”), a biweekly Jewish television program co-produced by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and state-run RAI television that draws 200,000 to 400,000 viewers. Ascarelli estimates that 90 to 95 percent of [the audience] are not Jewish …

“Everything that Jews do has a symbolism,” Ascarelli said. “What Jews say counts on issues such as immigration, minority rights, the Shoah, the culture of memory.”

I guess the obvious question for Galus Australis readers is: should the Australian Jewish community launch such a publication?   While I think it is an interesting idea, I’m not convinced that there is enough demand for such a publication in the sunburnt country.  Forgetting the hasbarah aspect, it does not seem like the wider Australian community is overly interested in what Jews are saying and doing, and I certainly doubt whether Jews in Australia have the same symbolic value as the article portrays Jews in Italy to have.

But let’s hear what you have to say.

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