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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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  • larry Stillman says:

    Bravo Antonio,
    Sono molto felice che Galus ha deciso di pubblicare un articolo riguardo la communita’ ebraica d’Italia. In fatto, ierasera, ho trovato, per la prima volta, questo giornale. E’ vero che in Italia, al meno tra la classe media, mi sembre che la storia e la cultura della communita’ ebraica — fondato nella  eta degli imperatore l’affiscinante. Non dimenticare, che autore come Bassini, Primo Levi, Moravia, oppure ricercatore come Della Vida, e Momigliano, e molti altri sono una parte integrale della cultura italiana moderna.
    Good on you cobber, you know, like, but, there’s a lot of interest in Italy in Italian Jewry because they are  part of Italian history, at least since Roman times. Many writers and intellectuals have been part of the history of modern Italy. And don’t forget, the Italians despite Mussolini, suffered under the Nazis.  I’ve looked at  Pagine Ebraiche  and in fatto, as they say, a number of the articles are imporant because they indicate how much the community is a lodestone for the current xenophobic and intolerant climate emerging in Italy. Italians are struggling with the issue of diversity & immigration in a country, which in some ways is very strange, because it is a country formed from many small kingdoms and regions which continue to have strong differences.   Of course, the major ‘problem’ for Italy is that of Islam and how to deal with religious difference, and that party explains the interest in Jews.
    I think it is right to say that the Italian Jewish community is as much deeply Italian as Jewish–and therein is a cultural difference with Australia.  While Chabad has a presence, I suspect that they are not steering the community which from what I understand, is much more traditionally lax though still technically orthodox, with some reform Jews.
    Second, I  noticed that the paper appears to stay away from an  in-your-face Zionism perhaps a wise thing to do.
    בראבו אנטוני

  • ariel says:

    Italians are not only fascinated by Jews but come close to loving them (collectively). As Larry points out, Jews have been a part of Italian history since Roman times.

    The Italian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe and started out when the Romans brought back Jewish slaves after their conquest of Israel. Italian customs and prayer services are conducted according to Nussach Italki, which is neither Ashkenaz nor Sephardi. (The Yemite Jews also have their own nussach but this has been absorbed into the more general Nussach Eidot Misrakh used in Israel).

    Initially under Mussolini, not only were Jews not persecuted, but they prospered. The Italian people have never really had a gripe with their Jews and only after Mussolini signed a pact with Hitler did the country turn against him and protected their Jews (much like the Bulgarians). The evidence lies in the fact that “only” about 20% of Italian Jewry perished in the Sho’ah as opposed to 80% perishing in most of the rest of Europe.

    Italians for the most part also love Israel. I was greeted with applause when I explained to a group of people in a cafe in Milano that I had just come from Israele and spoke Ebraico.

  • Chaim says:

    From my personal experiences Greeks these days also seem to love Israel and Jews… How times are a-changing…

  • TheSadducee says:


    Jews were in the Italy well before (arguably a century) Pompey’s conquest of Seleucid Syria and the establishment of a Hasmonaean client-state kingdom (c.63 BCE onwards).  These Jews were apparently Greek speaking and not all of them were slaves. 

    As to Mussolini, his government did pass anti-Jewish laws in 1938 and was, until 1943 (when the Social Republic was under German occupation as a puppet-state) generally speaking not as bad as other areas affected by the Shoah.  A large part of the credit for their survival lies partly in the ideology of Italian Fascism, the sympathy of their non-Jewish neighbours and the Vatican’s efforts.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    The Vatican’s efforts, The Sadducee: Is that why they are going to make Pius XII a saint? Have a read of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews.

  • Sam says:

    Fantastico Galus Australis for keeping us informed on every thing.
    Molto bene.  Gracius. 

  • In one of the episodes of Commissario Montalbano they showed a Jewish Avvocato wearing a Kippa, however as ar as I am aware, there is no Jewish Community in Sicily today, so how can they depict a solitary Jewish man who must be seen as religious as he was donning a skull-cap? Unless I’m wrong and there still is some Jewish lie let in Sicily today!!!

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