Home > Archives > 03 - 2006 > Di Segni, Rome and Italian Judaism
from issue no. 03 - 2006

Tradition and modernity

Di Segni, Rome and Italian Judaism

by Giovanni Cubeddu

The scroll of Esther (meghillà) written and illustrated in 1633 by Yacov Zoref of Castelnuovo, preserved in the Jewish Museum of Rome

The scroll of Esther (meghillà) written and illustrated in 1633 by Yacov Zoref of Castelnuovo, preserved in the Jewish Museum of Rome

«The pivot of our religious thinking is the principle of solidarity and of social justice, for citizens and for those who are considered foreigners. Even from the political point of view, this community must not be only the body that responds to solicitation, but the promoter of the common good». And again: «It is because of this awareness of responsibility that dialogue with all, with the religions, but also with the different cultures and societies, must be considered by us as a duty; but this dialogue must always start from the presupposition of equal dignity, must build and must not destroy identities». The foregoing are two passages from the speech with which Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni presented himself four years ago to the Jewish Community of Rome at his investment as Chief Rabbi. He was elected by a unanimous vote, because of the esteem he enjoyed, helped also perhaps by the fact that his family had already in the past furnished remarkable rabbis.
Of a Roman father and Ashkenazi mother Di Segni was teacher and then director of the Italian Rabbinical College. He has a degree in medicine and chose to be Chief Rabbi without giving up his work as radiologist at the San Giovanni hospital in Rome and daily contact with the patients. Rereading his words of February 2002 today one can see that the encounter in the mosque was no impromptu move by Roman Judaism but a gesture in line with its past and its own identity. As we know, the Jews have been in Rome since the 2nd century BC and they have never left it. There were 40,000 in 70 AD, when the eternal City numbered 800,000 inhabitants, while at the end of the 15th century, after the expulsion from Spain, there were about 120,000 in Italy. During the period of the ghettos they increased from 21,000 to 34,000 throughout Italy, and from 1,750 to around 5,000 in Rome. In 1870 there was 39,000 Jews in Italy. After the dreadful racial laws, and after the Second World War, a count was made of how many Italian Jews had gone to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and never returned: 7.389. In the following years the Italian census showed there to be 32,000, a figure that later increased to 35,000 because of the incoming of people fleeing from Arab countries (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq…), who generally preferred Milan, while Rome was mainly enriched by the arrival of lively Jews from Tripoli. Today the capital city harbours half of the around 40,000 Italian Jews, whose freedom of religion is also guaranteed by article 8 of the Constitution and above all by the 1987 Understanding between the State and the UCEI, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities, signed by Bettino Craxi and Tullia Zevi.
In Italian synagogues prayer takes place in a language, and with music and rhythms that differ according to the rite chosen, but the one most followed is the Italian one, practiced by the first Jews to arrive in Italy after the second destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD. Italian Judaism enjoys great respect in the Jewish world, and the Roman community, because of its history and its special position, even more. During his investiture Di Segni told the Roman Jews to «be proud» of their peculiarity and called on them «to continue the great traditions of Talmudic culture for which Rome was renowned and celebrated in the Middle Ages», a period in which the intellectuals of the community, among other things, also took pleasure in being a bridge between the Christian Rome that harboured them and Islam. «Jewish Rome and Christian Rome that meet, respect each other, co-exist in peace, collaborate, but each remaining faithful to itself, are an example to the world troubled by conflicts, often sustained by exaggerated religious visions», Di Segni said to Pope Benedict at the audience of 16 January last. In a way perfectly consistent with the acute definition that Tullia Zevi gave of Riccardo Di Segni on hearing of his nomination as Chief Rabbi of Rome: «A jealous custodian of tradition, a man for dialogue, with a very modern outlook».

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