Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Jewish Ghetto of Florence, Italy

Nadene Goldfoot
Jews have been in Italy since the beginning of the Roman period as it and Judah and Israel were so close on the same Mediterranean Sea.   The Romans had attacked Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Then in 132 CE was Bar Kokhba's last stand in Judea after which in 135 the Romans named Judea and Israel "Palaestina."  10,000 Jewish slaves were taken to Rome to help build the coliseum.  The Romans even built the Arch of Titus as a reminder of their victory over the Jews.

 "The position of Jews in Italy worsened considerably under Pope Innocent III (1198–1216). This pope threatened with excommunication those who placed or maintained Jews in public positions, and he insisted that every Jew holding office should be dismissed. The deepest insult was the order that every Jew must always wear, conspicuously displayed, a special yellow badge."

A Jewish community was founded in Florence in 1437.  This was almost a whole century after the Black Death (bubonic plague)  had covered Europe and Jews were the scapegoats, sought out and many were burned alive at the stakes. In this particular year the Jews were invited to establish loan-banks for the benefit of the poor.  There was violence against the Jews in 1458 and 1471. 1492 was the year of the Spanish Inquisition where Jews were expelled in Spain.  Many moved to nearby Portugal.   By 1495 they were expelled from Florence.  The same thing happened again in 1527.

However, they flourished under the Medici. This was a political dynasty which later was the royal house.  It was a banking family, and became the richest family in Italy.  "The family originated in the Mugello region of the Tuscan countryside, gradually rising until they were able to found the Medici Bank. The bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century, seeing the Medici gain political power in Florence — though officially they remained simply citizens rather than monarchs".

The Grand Duke Cosimo I sought the advice of Jacob Abravanel, a Sephardic Jew living in Ferrara. Abravanel convinced Cosimo to guarantee the rights and privileges of Spanish and Portugese Jews, and other Levantines who settled on his borders. This was the start of the growth of the Sephardic Jewish community in Florence.

The handsome Grand Duke Cosimo I enforced the papal policy of repression and made them wear a Jewish badge in 1567.    "Once Cosimo received the title of grande duke of Tuscany, his policies toward the Jews changed for the worse. He forced Jews to wear badges in 1567, closed the Tuscan border to non-resident Jews in 1569, shut down Jewish banks in 1570 and established a ghetto in 1571." This is where Jews were locked into their neighborhood at night.  This ghetto condition went on till the invasion of the French revolutionary armies with Napoleon at the end of the 18th century.  By the end of the 1700's there were less than 1,000 Jews living in Florence's ghetto.

In 1849, the Jews were partly emancipated with this process being completed by 1860.  France was the seat of the Jewish spiritual revival early in the 20th century, and the Collegio Rabbinico Italiano was situated there from 1899 to 1930.  In 1931 there were 3,000 Jews living in Florence.

During the German occupation of 1943-45, nearly 300 Jews were deported to death cams and the beautiful synagogue was severely damaged.  By 1990 the Jewish population was only 1,100.

In Portland, Oregon, the Jewish and Italian immigrants arriving in the early 1900's congregated in South Portland.  On one corner was an Italian deli which would either be across the street or next door to the Jewish deli.  The children attended the same school, Failing Grade School where they all did well.

Resource: The Standard Jewish Encyclopedia'_Medici,_Grand_Duke_of_Tuscany

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