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Jewish Italy and its Literatures Trip

In the first part of the Duke University Jewish Studies and Italian 2024 course, “Jewish Italy and its Literatures: The Most Ancient Minority,” the class explored the Jewish literature of Rome, Venice, and Trieste. Our authors ranged from Giovanni Boccaccio, Leon Modena, and William Shakespeare to Elsa Morante, Joseph Brodsky, Claudio Magris, and Igiaba Scego. We both analyzed these authors’ literary works, as well as discussed what the terms “Jewish Italy” or “Jewish Italian literature” mean, or could mean. Thanks to a generous gift from and the support of the Center for Jewish Studies, the whole class went on a trip to Italy over spring break. During our time in Italy we built on our historical knowledge, reflected on how seeing sites in person changed our interpretations of the we have read, and considered what new questions our visits raised for the next part of the course, which will be guided by students’ individual research projects. While a range of courses would benefit from the addition of a travel component, Jewish Italian literature and history are especially rich and complex topics that have garnered increasing scholarly and popular attention. In large part because of this trip, students have found precise research topics that will contribute to current discussions about the significance of Jewish Italy and its literatures.

Below are the students’ trip blogs. We were very lucky with our guides, organized in Rome with Micaela Pavoncello’s Jewish Roma. I am grateful to these guides, the Center for Jewish Studies — especially Serena Bazemore, Professor Martin Eisner – the other professor helping to lead the trip, and the wonderful Duke students of the class. The students’ blogs reveal how their personalities and interests helped shape our understanding of Jewish Italy.

Day 1 in Rome: Roma Sparita, San Clemente, and Moses by Madison Johns

After a long flight, our group landed in Rome with plans to meet Igiaba Scego, who authored Adua, a book depicting the events leading to and following Italy’s attempted colonization of the Horn of Africa.

i. The Rome Sparita, the restaurant we ate at, business card

I asked Scego about her reasoning for including Jewish characters within her work. The Jewish family within Adua were empathetic of Zoppe, who was experiencing racism and physical harassment by his Italian counterparts. As I read the novel, it seemed apparent that Zoppe held some clairvoyant abilities, and his visions of the family served to warn him of some future turmoil he’d experience or call away his attention from his present struggles. The characters presented a symmetry to Zoppe, who was working with the Italians who were also assaulting him. Likewise, the Jewish Italian family were Italians themselves, but the one thing that made them slightly different from others negatively impacted their realities and made them face prejudice.

Scego admitted that she would write her book differently today than she did in the past. The passage of time leads to the production of different works. For my project, I am discussing two books, The Jewish Husband and Adua, that touch upon events of the past through a modern lens, published decades after the events their narrative surrounds. These works provide a different perspective than works produced immediately following the events they discuss whilst also understanding that history can be cyclical. For instance, the contrast between Zoppe’s Italy and Adua’s Italy within the novel show that times change while sentiments may still exist in different forms—with racism and colonization shifting to anti-immigration sentiments, which helped to inform my project for the class.

ii. A group photo with Igiaba Scego outside Roma Sparita

After lunch with Scego at Roma Sparita, Professor Eisner first led us to a gelato shop, where many of the students ate.

iii. The storefront of the first of many gelaterie we will go to on the trip

Then, he led us the Basilica of San Clemente, which hosted ornate frescoes above-ground and below. Rome reminded me of an ordinary Southern town in the United States as it seemed you could not go far without walking past a place of worship. However, the differences became evident when we entered the Basilica. On the surface, the frescoes caught my attention, and the images told the stories of Christianity. However, more was to be told as we delved further and deeper into the Basilica. The further down we got, the further back in time we went. The Basilica did not speak of one moment in time. Instead, as we progressed down the stairs, moments of time were peeled back for us to see.

iv. The ceiling of San Clemente

v. A group photo in the underground level of San Clemente

Later, we went to see the statue of Moses in a San Pietro in Vincoli. Eisner told us that due to mistranslations, many depictions of Moses included horns. The idea of mistranslations and misunderstandings were somewhat prevalent within Adua. Zoppe was a translator for the Italians, which many deem as an act of betrayal. By translating, he was betraying his own people. Towards the end of the novel, he had the opportunity to mistranslate something between his boss and another powerful individual, but in the end, he decided to do his job—making him complicit for the consequences that would follow for his own people. The horns of Moses are meant to represent Moses’s strength and proximity to God, so it is interesting to see what translations and mistranslations can lead to—whether it be history in the making or artistic depictions.

vi. Seen here, the Moses statue has horns due to a mistranslation of earlier texts

The Italy I saw on my first day of Rome was different than I thought it would be. During our meal, Scego spoke of a strong population of Africans and Afro-Italians within Italy, building a community in the city, providing a contrast to Zoppe’s experience in Italy during his story. Zoppe and Adua both combat hardships, tribulations compounded upon due to their lack of connections elsewhere. Zoppe’s one bright spot was his interaction with the Jewish family—as the character bonded over their shared experience with intolerance—and separating from this connection worsened his experience. This narrative of community and attachments was very informative for my project, and I believe it paints a picture of Rome—of it being a community of different groups rather than a society of individuals.

vii. In Adua, the titular character speaks to the statue seen here, which was located near our hotel.

Day 2 Part 1 in Rome: More Cappuccinos by Christina Colwell

Do you know the English translation of funny Yiddish sayings or Latin inscriptions? You have earned a cappuccino from Mrs. Micaela Pavoncello, our tour guide for the day! Do you know the story behind an Old Testament mural? Another cappuccino for you! And if you’re Sydney (shoutout to her awesome random trivia knowledge), many cappuccinos for you! This was the consistent banter between our group and our tour guide as we excitingly tested our knowledge of the Roman ghetto to exponentially grow our understanding of the complexities of this network. Simply put, this was a tremendous day. There were three components which facilitated our immersion and engagement of the Roman ghetto, its history, and its people: 1) a tour of the exhibit attached to the synagogue 2) exploration of the synagogue and 3) walking tour of the ghetto itself. The second half of our day included a Kosher lunch at a restaurant within the Roman ghetto and a tour of the Jewish catacombs- my classmate and blog-partner, Lily, will elaborate on those aspects of our day.

Our tour guide’s energy, from the start of our day, was infectiously captivating as she shared her breadth of knowledge with us amidst trivia questions and witty comments. Micaela was born in Rome to a Roman Jewish father and a Libyan Jewish mother. Fun fact, her family has been in Rome since Caesar’s time! Her pride in her Roman Jewish heritage radiated in the way she articulated the richness of the history surrounding us. Before we entered the museum, she gave a short introduction. “How many Jewish people were in Rome at the time of the ghetto?” she asked us. Numbers were blurted out as hopeful guesses. “13,000 is the number,” she responded. This stayed with me later as we explored the ghetto by foot and I tried to imagine to feasibility of this quantity of people in this space. “Do you know how we can tell the boundaries of the ghetto?” she asked. Silence. She began to point to the corners of the ghetto that were visible from our positioning. “Churches,” she said. “You can always tell the borders of the original ghetto because immediately past it would be a church”. This was something I began to be more cognizant of as we continued with our walking tour of the ghetto later. Established in 1555, the ghetto we were currently standing in had changed drastically- becoming significantly more habitable and less crowded. I learned that the Roman Jews had their own dialect, neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi. Additionally, I had not realized that the Jewish people of Rome were living in diaspora but still obtained the same rights as those in Jerusalem. Micaela began to lead our group into the museum, and I entered with curiosity and anticipation to explore the history of the ghetto.

One church up close which sits on the border of the ghetto and one church in a distance which marks the border of the ghetto 

We began in the museum attached to the synagogue which displayed a variety of historically preserved, religious elements of the people and the temple. The museum and synagogue were not the original synagogues during the ghetto period. Rather, during this time, the land upon which the exhibit and current synagogue stand obtained one large building which was composed of 5 rooms which were considered synagogues. These were demolished in 1890; however, the synagogues’ legacies have been preserved due to the efforts of the community to maintain these artifacts and people like Micaela, who share their stories.

Images of each of the five synagogues before destruction  

One of the rooms, where our tour spent a significant amount of time, was a room with many of the architectural and physical elements of the original synagogues. The synagogues are aligned with typical practices and symbols of synagogues; for example, having a lamp which is lit 24 hours a day in front of the ark which holds the scrolls of the Torah, the ten commandment tablets above this display, and benches with the names of the people. I found the craftsmanship of the embroidered curtain particularly stunning. There were a few aspects of these synagogues that surprised me, including the seating separation of men and women, the exceptionally small size of the space, and the uniqueness of the last names of the benches- they were not typical Jewish last names. Micaela explained how in the Roman ghetto most people used their occupation, city, or family crest as their last name. No matter the confinements of space or restriction of materials the Jewish people were faced with in the ghetto, they utilized their circumstances to create a place of worship and tradition.

The original elements of the synagogues that were destroyed in 1890

We were then shown beautiful, intricate, multi-color torah covers. As we have discussed in class and noticed in our class readings, many Jewish Italians worked with second hand textiles and fabrics. This skill translated into creation of beautiful torah covers. We were even shown one cover which was made from the dress of a Swedish queen. I marveled at these pieces as I imagined Umberto from Stille’s A Family of the Ghetto whose shop faced the synagogue, in the Roman ghetto, as he specialized in selling clothes for all people in various jobs.


The displays pertaining to the intricate, skilled Torah covers/skirts 

Stepping into Il Tempio Maggiore or the ‘Great Synagogue’ of the Roman Ghetto was breathtaking. This was the largest synagogue in Rome, built in 1904 after the ghetto was abolished in 1888. The synagogue walls were adorned with intricate carvings and the space was illuminated by the glow of the sun through the beautiful stained glass. Micaela described a story about the first interaction between the pope and a rabbi from the Roman ghetto. The pope visited the Roman Ghetto synagogue and embraced the rabbi with a big hug. Micaela emphasized that the implications of this moment were profound. This interaction underscored the interconnectedness of faith and humanity as the relations between these two leaders of two different faiths began to build on sincerity and respect. This poignant moment was later echoed in the Pope’s will, which was published, where he fondly mentioned his dear friend, the rabbi—a testament to their friendship. As Micaela is sharing more history of the synagogue, all of a sudden, women in dresses and men in suits entered the space. Boy was our group so fortunate to have the privilege to witness a couple renewing their vows after fifty years of marriage! As the couple stood in front of the rabbi and the ark, surrounded by their loved ones, the ceremony proceeded. Despite the language barrier, as they spoke in Italian, the sweetness of the singing evoked great emotion of my appreciation for tradition and family. My mind kept returning to the time our class spent analyzing ancient depictions of Jewish ceremonies, one of a marriage. Our class discussed with Ms. Ariel, the librarian for Jewish Studies, what the image portrayed and how that related to modern practices. I enjoyed being able to experience the ceremony I previously learned about; knowledge becomes more meaningful with both experiential and academic components.


The interior of the synagogue

Upon leaving the synagogue, we were greeted by cobblestone streets and buildings in various shades of yellow. The modern Roman ghetto was scenic and lively. The streets, though now decently sized in width, whisper tales of a past marred by overcrowding and oppression. It’s hard to imagine that in the not-so-distant past, these same streets were so densely packed with people and buildings that one could not see the sky above from the ground level. This overcrowding, compounded by the challenges of flooding, contributed to the stigmatism, judgment, and distaste associated with the ghetto. I couldn’t help but visualize scenes from History by Elsa Morante- envisioning Ida giving birth to her beloved Usseppe in the ghetto, Ida walking the streets of the ghetto being conflicted about her Jewish identity, Usseppe playing outside with Bella, and the emotions of watching a place of community transform into an empty ghetto after many were transported to Auchswitz. It is interesting how one’s knowledge of the geographic setting of a story can amplify one’s connection to the plot and its characters.

Images from the museum of the Roman ghetto realities 

A map of the ghetto before and after WWII and development

Masses of people waiting in line for a Jewish bakery in the ghetto– popular spot!

Micaela stopped our group in our tracks to point to a golden square on the ground. People are reminded of the history of the people who lived in these exact buildings through the memorials called stumbling stones or stolpersteine. These gold plates inserted amidst the cobblestone ground commemorates victims of the Holocaust with inscriptions of their name, most importantly, and sometimes their date of birth, deportation date, and last known location. These stones of remembrance play a crucial role in honoring the history of the Jewish people, as the ghetto was more than a geographical location, but rather embedded in the identity of Roman Jews.


An example of a Stolperstein in the ghetto as described above


I am so incredibly grateful to have experienced a day like this one, filled with rich history, beautiful scenery, and passionate individuals to both teach and learn. I can only hope I will return and earn “more cappuccinos” from our beloved tour guide as I surely have learned an immense amount from our day with her.

Featuring Sydney and her amazing brain which earned her many cappuccinos


Ciao for now!

Christina Colwell

Day 2 Part 2 in Rome: Jewish Catacombs by Lilly Weisz

After our Jewish tour of Rome with our unique and wonderful tour guide Micaela, we stopped to grab a hearty meal before exploring the chilly underground of ancient Jewish gravesites. Walking through the historic yet lively Jewish district of the city, a long line snaked through the street for Pasticcheria Boccione despite the misty weather.

“This,” our tour guide proclaimed, “is the best Kosher bakery in the city.” Even people who were not Jewish lined up to try the traditional baked goods of the Italian Jewish community. Our guide specifically recommended we try the cheesecake with cherries or chocolate, or a unique Italian Jewish fruitcake she promised differed greatly from the gummy fruitcakes back home.

Kosher bakery in Jewish district of Rome

We then took a quick pitstop at what our guide described as the only Italian Jewish bookstore in the city, an effort of preservation of the minority culture within a majority culture. There, she led us to the cookbook stand, where she proudly showed us how she was featured in not only one, but two separate collections of Italian Jewish cooking and culture. Thus, she further confirmed her credibility as an expert in the gastronomy and culture of her community.

Our tour guide was featured in a Jewish Roman cookbook!

We continued on to the restaurant Yotvata in the heart of the Jewish area of Rome. Because the restaurant is kosher, food served at the restaurant cannot mix dairy and meat (as well as, obviously, an inability to serve us non-kosher seafood). Yotvata had a dairy menu, and we had a pre-set menu to sample different foods offered to us. Notably, our appetizer of Carciofi alla Giudia (literally translating to Jewish-style artichokes) and our dessert of an assortment of cheesecakes our itinerary outlined as traditionally Jewish. The Carciofi alla Giudia is a famous Roman Jewish dish that has now made its way onto menus of Italian Jews and non-Jews alike. The dish is a deep-fried Roman artichoke. Our guide explained to us that the dish originated from the Jewish community because artichokes were cheap produce to buy and cook. Many in the Jewish community were of the lower class because their career choices were limited to moneylending and peddling second-hand clothes, so they could only afford cheap produce such as the artichoke. However, the dish gained popularity among non-Jewish Romans and found its way into Italian gastronomy. This follows the general trend we observed and learned about as a class how pieces of Italian Jewish culture integrate and interact with the larger culture and identity of Italy as a whole. However, our tour guide still let us know that her home cooking was better than that of the restaurant.

Deep-fried Jewish artichoke- now a well-known dish in Rome!

Then, we called taxis in the pouring rain for a 20-minute ride to the Jewish Catacombs of Rome (Catacombe Ebraiche di Vigna Randanini). Our class was lucky to get special permission to tour the Jewish Catacombs; while the Vatican owns the property for the Christian Catacombs of Rome, a wealthy Roman landowner discovered the Jewish Catacombs beneath their vineyard and catacombs remain on private property. There, we met Pierro, a man who maintained the catacombs, and we descended through the dark tunnels to the ancient burial site. In various different divots where bodies once lay, there were still remnants of human bones that had been left behind, untouched in the dirt and dust. While we were all given flashlights, the tunnels were only truly illuminated when the group came together and combined our light; in fact, when I lingered behind to take a few more photos, I almost lost contact with the group, and I realized just how dark, maze-like, and quiet the catacombs were…

Interestingly, the Jewish people did not dig many of the tunnels in the catacombs. Rather, the pagans living in the area had dug the tunnels for their own burial site out of the hardened volcanic tufa ash. Reusing the pagan tunnels was both economical for the less-than-prosperous Jewish community of Rome, and the Jews had in-fact developed on their own in Jerusalem a similar underground cave burial system to the pagans. There are two manners in which people were buried in the catacombs. In one style, people would be layered on top of each other and sealed in by vertical stones, and in the other, rounded holes would be dug out (called kukim, or ovens) and bodies would be placed inside. Micaela told us that Jesus would have been buried in the kukim following his crucifixion. However, in more recent burials, the kukim style was abandoned because it was less space efficient. Again, this follows the trend of similarities between Jewish, pagan, and Christian culture in Italy intertwining and shaping themselves after and assimilating to the surrounding cultures.

The entrance of the catacombs corresponded to the most recent burials, which occurred while the dominant culture of Italy was Latin-speaking. Thus, the grave markers labeling the spaces in the walls where the bodies used to lay were written not in Hebrew or a Jewish dialect, but rather Latin. Funnily enough, the people working on the gravestones were not exactly literare, and would spell out their phonetic interpretation of their Latin grave epithets. In addition to words denoting name, familial relations, and career, there were four common pictures present on gravestone markers: the menorah (not to be confused with the chanukiah for Chanukah, but a candle holder with 7 candles to denote the days of the week), the shofar (a ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur),and an etrog and lulav (plants used for prayers during Sukkot). Other symbols on gravestones include an ivy leaf (which also appeared in Christian Catacombs, as we later saw on a gravestone piece displayed in the Colosseum) and a cornucopia (signifying good wishes). More specific symbols denoted identity pieces of the passed people, such as a rectangle representing a tube to hold a scribe’s papers (for someone whose profession was a scribe) and a dreidel (Jewish spinning top) for a child. Many of the burial holes in the catacombs were for children, indicating both the reduced life-expectancy of the time period and the tenderness and care of the Jewish community for their young as they created graves for children who had barely been alive. Historians and archaeologists can’t be sure where exactly these gravestone markers were in relation to the spaces in the wall meant to hold different bodies because the stones had fallen to the floor; instead, they did their best to place them in the walls closest to where the stones had fallen. Then, as we moved farther back into the catacombs to the older graves, we found gravestones in Greek, marking the period when Rome was Hellenized. Again, the language assimilation of Jewish gravestones to the dominant culture of the city demonstrates how Jews lived parallel lives to gentiles within the city, embracing the culture of the city they lived in.


We also encountered entire rooms beautifully painted with decorations. Our tour guide explained that it is most likely that these rooms had been used by pagans as burial rooms before the Jews used the space as their own catacombs. Many of the illustrations on the walls and ceiling depicted Greek/Roman gods, such as Apollo or Gaea, and stories from their mythology. Because these rooms had so much space and were well-decorated, these gravesites belonged to wealthier families who could afford to give their family a nicer burial place.


Interestingly, while, after the Racial Laws of 1938, fascist Italy aided the Shoah and enacted antisemitic policies to discriminate against–and later murder–Jews, during the 1920’s, the country allowed Jewish tourists to visit the catacombs. These Jewish tourists signed their names on the walls of the catacombs. Seeing these names was very full circle for us as a class, as we had now come as tourists as well to see and experience Jewish history in Rome. Death and our rituals around honoring the dead are deeply human, no matter the era in time. Seeing the catacombs helped give us a glimpse into the intimate details of the Roman Jewish community’s practices as they lived alongside the Roman gentiles.

Day 3 Part 1 in Rome by Ava Bailey

Our third full day in Rome began with a brisk walk through the city center past the “Wedding Cake” (or properly, il Vittoriano) and up to the Colosseum to meet our tour guide Silvia.

Il Vittoriano also called “The Wedding Cake”

Although the southern side of the Colosseum is partially damaged resulting from the great earthquake in 1349, the amphitheater is certainly still an architectural marvel modeling closely the design of modern arenas with three stories of seating, numbered entrances, and a canvas awning that could be opened or closed depending upon the weather. The Colosseum’s construction was started sometime between 70 and 72 CE by Emperor Vespasian and was completed by his son, Titus, in 80 CE.

The Colosseum’s exterior

The Colosseum is a notable sort of artifact for the Jewish community as its construction was at least partially funded by Rome’s spoils of siege of Jerusalem (also referred to as the start of the Jewish-Roman war) in 70 CE in which the Second Temple was destroyed and Rome took numerous relics from the Temple including the golden Temple menorah whose whereabouts are still unknown today. Along with the physical objects taken from Jerusalem, Rome also took many Jews as slaves. From the slave population, emperors would select slaves with a certain physique and athletic-build to train as gladiators to fight in the Colosseum. Contrary to popular belief, the Colosseum was not meant for executions of prisoners. It was constructed for entertainment for the people of Rome with many people betting on their favorite fighters and developing attachments to them. For this reason, emperors would often call off fights before the gladiator was killed. It was also financially advantageous for the emperors to keep the gladiators alive because, as previously mentioned, the gladiators were specifically selected to entertain the people and to ensure they were adequately prepared for the games, emperors spent money on housing, feeding, clothing, and training the gladiators. Returning to the discussion of the gladiator selection, many people believe that the emperors selected Colosseum fighters based on religion as a function of religious persecution, specifically against Christians in Rome but also regarding Jews in Rome, especially those who were taken captive following the siege of Jerusalem. Silvia made sure to emphasize the fact that the Colosseum was not intended for punishment, persecution, or executions, but strictly for entertainment, so no gladiators were selected on a religious basis; pagans, Christians, and Jews alike were all selected solely based on physique and sporting potential.

So, what would a typical gameday look like in the Colosseum? One particularly impressive feature of the Colosseum is that it could house the normal hand-to-hand combat on the sandy stage (sand was used because it absorbed blood very well), but the stage could also be flooded using water from the aqueducts to accommodate performative water-based combat with small boats that would skim the surface of the watery stage. Beneath the stage housed what would serve as a modern-day backstage area where animals, gladiators, props, stagehands, pulley systems, and more were kept during the games. Today, this backstage area is visible as the wooden stage of the Colosseum was not preserved.

Images showing the “backstage” of the Colosseum underneath where the original stage would have been located

In terms of attendees at the games, everyone in Rome was welcome, and to accommodate large influxes of people, the Colosseum has numerous entrances for guests. The three levels of the Colosseum provided seating based on social class with the lower class sitting higher up and the wealthy politicians, including the emperor, sitting on the first level right in front of the action. The Colosseum also housed a lot of décor to attract guests including many marble statues, frescoes, and carvings. Many of the statues were damaged and lost to theft, and a vast majority of carvings and frescoes were not well preserved and naturally lost to age over time, however some remain and are displayed in the Colosseum today.

Carvings left by guests in the Colosseum that show depictions of what the games might have looked like including the gladiators’ attire

A map of Rome painted above an archway in the Colosseum

After traversing the bottom two levels of the Colosseum and taking ample photos, we set off in the direction of the Roman Forum which is very close to the Colosseum.

In walking towards the Forum, we passed two important arches. The one closest to the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine shown below.

Arch of Constantine

The one closer to the Forum’s entrance is the Arch of Titus which was created in celebration of Titus’s siege of Jerusalem.

Arch of Titus

On the interior surface of the Arch there is a carving depicting the Temple menorah being carried off from Jerusalem. Although none of the original color remains, it is thought that this scene on the Arch was painted as suggested by some remnants of yellow paint on the menorah. One mystery of the scene is who exactly is meant to be carrying the menorah. If we were able to see the Arch in its original state complete with paint, we would likely be able to decipher the identities of these people based on the coloring of their clothing. There has been particular interest in whether these people are Romans or Jews taken as slaves being forced to carry their sacred menorah to their oppressors. Unfortunately, this question persists today without a certain answer.

Up-close image of the Arch of Titus

The scene in which the golden Temple menorah is being carried

After passing by the Arch of Titus, we entered the Roman Forum, home to many notable ruins from the Roman Empire including, but not limited to, the original home of the emperors at the foot of Palatine Hill, one of the first basilicas of Rome (Basilica Maxentius) which is actually a sort of courtroom of which one part was converted to a church by Constantine (which is the birth of the word’s religious association), Rome’s first sort of capitol building (the Tabularium which sits atop Capitoline Hill, which is actually a hill unlike our D.C. version), the Temple of Romulus, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (which later became a church), the quarters of the Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Vesta where the hearth was kept, the Temple of Caesar where he was cremated (at this point it began torrentially raining, so the picture is obscured by umbrellas!), and Trajan’s Forum.

Old home of the emperors at the bottom of Palatine Hill

Basilica Maxentius

The Tabularium

Temple of Romulus

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

The Temple of Vesta

The Temple of Caesar

Trajan’s Forum

The tour through the Colosseum and the Forum revealed an interesting past detailing relations between the Jewish community and ancient Rome that still influences the Jewish community of Rome and Italy today. The Jewish community first came to the Italian peninsula during this period of Roman empirical occupation, and it would seem that the treatment endured by Jews both in the city of Rome and in conquered Roman territories like Jerusalem set a precedent for the treatment of Jews in the region for years to come. For instance, I found the financial abuse Jews have experienced in Italy throughout history is certainly an line that can be followed through many different eras first with the plundering of Jerusalem to build the Colosseum, commemorative arches, and furnish forums and gardens and then later as we saw in Venice when the Jews were treated as the economic safety net being exploited for cheap labor and goods while also paying extremely inflated rents in the Venetian ghettos. It is also clear that the Jewish community in the 20th century still identified with the Jews under ancient Roman rule when hundreds of Jews including Holocaust survivors walked backwards under the Arch of Titus following the establishment of Israel as the Jewish state as a symbol of their return to the homeland and reclamation of the land and heritage that Rome took from them.

Along with garnering a deeper understanding of the Jewish community’s longstanding ties with Rome, we also learned more about some of the authors and literature we read in the first half of our class. In particular, Silvia revealed some information about Josephus Flavius whose preface to The Antiquities of the Jews we read in class. Josephus was a military leader during the Jewish War and fought against the Romans in Galilee. His forces ended up surrendering to the Romans, but he made sure to tell them of the Jewish messianic prophecies, which initiated the war, also referred to Vespasian’s appointment as Emperor. Vespasian, likely pleased as Josephus’s indication that he was destined to be proper Emperor, kept Josephus as a slave and interpreter and eventually freed him through adoption (hence the family name Flavius as was shared by this line of Flavian emperors to which Vespasian belonged).

The first half of this rainy day in Rome was full of meaningful history both relating to the general ancient Rome but also to the presence of Jews throughout Rome’s history, and I think the journey back to ancient Rome prepared us very well to understand the broader history between the Jewish community and the city which of course then has influence on the idea of personal identity and being Jewish and Italian even today as we saw during our tour with Micaela on day two.

Day 3 Part 2 in Rome by Sydney Weiner

After another delicious lunch of pizza and pasta, we made our way to the Vatican, which was (thankfully) less crowded than we heard it was last time. Once inside, our guide Silvia taught us about Michelangelo, the famous Italian artist and architect who not only designed the famous dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, but also helped paint the Sistine Chapel. We learned that as a teen, Michelangelo studied with the tutor Francesco da Urbino before going to the Humanist Academy, founded by the family of his first patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici (aka “Lorenzo the Magnificent”), the de-facto head of Florence at the time. Among the languages he learned was Hebrew (quite uncommon) with the result that he didn’t have to rely on St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible (the Vulgate); this knowledge led to unique portrayals of Biblical stories that I’ll discuss a little later. Silvia also talked about the massive amount of art in the Vatican’s possession, including Jewish art. Although it is heavily debated whether the Vatican has/had possession of the golden menorah taken from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus, it is known that the Vatican still has art that they were given by/took from Jewish families during World War II. After the war, only the families that had receipts were able to get their art back, a small minority. Because of the Vatican’s secrecy and sovereignty, those families and communities will most likely never get their items back because of the possible ramifications. Ultimately, the Vatican values their own power over justice for these families. The receipt requirement reminded me of the artist who makes the memory stones for Italian victims of the Holocaust only wanting to work with families of survivors, implying that the thousands of entire families from whom no one survived are inherently less deserving of being remembered. 

A view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Vatican Courtyard


Next, we toured the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clemente, created by Clement XIV and Pius VI, in the Belvedere Palace of Pope Innocent VIII (Belvedere comes from the Latin for “beautiful view”; I can confirm the view is in fact beautiful). The museum has tons of amazing paintings and sculptures spanning hundreds of years, including one of my favorite sculptures, Laocoön and His Sons. Having researched his impact on Civil War photography in 7th grade (war photographers used to pose dead soldiers like Laocoön to indicate their victimhood) and read the actual episode of Laocoön in my Aeneid class in 10th grade (book two!) I was VERY excited. We also saw statues that inspired Michelangelo’s depictions of Biblical characters in the Sistine Chapel, maps of Italy, and tapestries that took ten years of handiwork each to make.  

Me totally not freaking out seeing Laocoön and His Sons

One of the tapestries, depicting Jesus’s resurrection. It had bees on the four corners, which are also on the coat of arms of the family of Pope Urban VIII

 Many of the pieces had symbols from the family crests of the popes that commissioned them, reminding us of how the power and wealth of the heads of the church have shaped artistic output. We also went through the Sala Rotonda, which is painted to look like the Pantheon (it’s a really convincing trompe l’oeil, or “trick of the eye”). It has pagan statues in it, reminding us of what Silvia often called the “Roman lasagna”–how one can see remnants from the different religions, inhabitants, and institutions of Rome throughout history physically combined/layered on top of one another throughout the city. 

 After descending a few flights of stairs, we were finally at the Sistine Chapel. The room, without a spot undecorated, is a collection of work from the height of the Renaissance, completed by its masters. The walls have paintings of different scenes from both the Old and New Testament. There are three scenes of Moses–him leaving for Egypt to tell the pharaoh to free the Jews; escaping Egypt after by splitting and walking through the Red Sea; and seeing the Golden Calf after receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai. Silvia explained that many Christians felt that Moses’s life mirrored that of Jesus, which reminded me of how some Christians have incorporated Moses into Christianity (with us even seeing a church dedicated to him in Venice) as well as how Roman Catholicism incorporated/adopted many local pagan rituals/beliefs. The ceiling has depictions of scenes from the Old Testament, the most famous of which is “Creation.” You can see the influence of the Vatican’s statues everywhere–Silvia taught us that the strong bodies depicted across the ceiling mirrored the strength of the characters and beliefs of the viewers. It was interesting to compare the chapel’s depictions of Moses and other individuals from the Old Testament with the different synagogues we saw throughout the trip. Most of their decorations (from the stars and rainbow in Rome’s synagogue to the crowns in the Venetian synagogue to the trees in the Triestine synagogue) are largely symbolic of God, the Torah, or the Jewish population overall instead of any single figure. This lack of person-focused iconography contrasts the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which Michelangelo painted from 1508-1512. 

The Descent from Mount Sinai by Cosimo Rosselli, photo from

Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise by Michelangelo, photo from–expulsion-from-paradise-sistine-chapel/

These different views stem from varying beliefs on who one can pray to: Judaism believes in the “exclusivity of the divine” (only praying directly to God) while Catholicism approves of praying to Saints and other intermediaries. That’s why Judaism forbids idols and discourages iconography while Christianity embraces iconography. Even though Rosselli show’s Moses enraged by the golden calf, it was still weird for me as a Jewish person to see him depicted with God next to the rest of these New Testament figures, especially when the tablets that Moses has in the painting are the ones that outlaw idolatry. These symbolic depictions also reminded me of how, in the time of Michelangelo, Judaism encouraged group reading and studying of holy texts in a way that Catholicism did not. Reading from the Torah (and often talking about your own interpretation of it in a D’var Torah) is how Judaism welcomes children to adulthood; meanwhile, the Bible was inaccessible to most Christians Pre-Reformation. Thus, as Silvia noted, depictions of these figures were helpful for members of the congregation to learn and know about different Bible stories. 

 Also notable on the ceiling is Jonah’s depiction. Remember how I said before that Michelangelo was able to translate the Bible on his own? Well, he found that St. Jerome had mistranslated the word for “big fish” as “whale” (although, to be fair, I can kind of see the similarities), and so portrayed Jonah with a such, contradicting the Vulgate. Doing so, as we learned, would have been controversial for anyone else but Michelangelo, of whom Pope Sixtus IV (who commissioned the chapel) was a superfan. Another example of this insubordination is his portrayal of Biagio da Cesena, a priest who Michelangelo…did not like, to say the least (de Cesena had led a censorship campaign against the painting due to its nude figures). In the fresco, he’s in hell, naked, with donkey’s ears.  

The Prophet Jonah by Michelangelo (with big fish pictured on right), photo from

Another notable feature of the chapel is its preservation policies–you are not allowed to speak too loudly or take photos (hence the online images). I think that those policies, combined with how covered in paint the walls and ceiling are, created what we in the art history world call the “aura,” coined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Basically, representations of any work of art, whether it be a picture, drawing, or verbal description, don’t have the same “presence in time and space, [a] unique existence at the place where [they happen] to be.” It’s one thing to see pictures of the chapel on Google, another to be there with everyone else, hearing the mumbles of other tourists in languages you don’t know, not seeing every detail, necks hurting from looking up for so long. There truly was something special, a feeling of awe, from being in the room that disappeared when I left.  

 Next, we went to St. Peter’s Basilica, right next to the museum. It’s objectively breathtaking, with vaulted ceilings, statues, paintings, marble, and gilding. As someone who’s studied Latin since 6th grade (probably made obvious by my love of Laocoön) the inscriptions are what interested me most. The one around the top reads “You are Peter and above this stone I will build my church and I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven to you” (Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum). It’s an erasure of Peter’s life before baptism, as a Jewish fisherman named Simon. The word tibi (meaning “to you”) is in the dative case, which can have a positive, negative, or neutral sense; while it’s a pretty clear win for Peter, the informal, singular “you” made me think of other “you”s both in his time and throughout history–everyone who Christianity has advantaged/disadvantaged. 


Photos of the inscriptions in the Basilica of St. Peter


Part of the inscription that goes around the rest of Basilica reads “Once you convert, encourage your brothers” (tu aliquando converses confirma fratres tuos). Although Peter willingly converted to Christianity, what about the harm that has come from this pro-proselytizing messaging? A recurring theme throughout many of the texts we’ve read is a shame/fear of one’s own Judaism (especially Ida in History) and we’ve read authors who have chosen to diminish/shed their Jewish identity. Furthermore, the day before, our tour guide Micaela had told me about an Italian film, Rapito, based on the true story of a Jewish boy converted by his nanny and subsequently taken by the Vatican in 1858, never returned to his family. One of the books we can choose for our final project, from 1997 by David Kertzer, covered the case, but this film came out only last year–showing the continued interest in the impact of this inscription. It also prompts further consideration of the contention between Jews and Christians, especially in Rome, where the Jews lived for over 150 years before Constatine converted to Christianity and made it the religion of the Roman Empire. Connecting back to the Vatican, the Last Judgment, whose depiction we had just seen, depends on the conversion of the Jews to Christianity (to the point where Easter liturgy has traditionally had a “prayer for the Jews” on Good Friday, which became a time of violence against Jews since Catholics attributed Jesus’s death to them until 1965). It made me think of the point of reconciliation efforts between the Vatican and the Jewish community, both in Rome and the world, which have had varying degrees of success. Even though the Vatican has softened the language of this prayer, it still exists. Can there really be any hope of true coexistence when one of the most celebrated Biblical paintings ever implies a world in which Jews no longer exist? 

I’m not going to lie–with Mass taking place and the grandiosity of the Basilica, it is undeniably another awe-inspiring space. But what does it mean for me to be there? To geek out on the art (I mean, have you seen Pietà? It’s insane) in the center of a sect of a religion who wants me to abandon my own? As Sarah and I talked about, we don’t have anything like this (the Vatican, the Basilica, a city with 900 places of worship, nunneries or monasteries or even life-long celibate figures) in Judaism because thousands of years of persecution and violence, including in Rome, has made it impossible. That inner conflict mirrors the general push and pull of Jews and Catholics we read about and have been seeing throughout our time in Rome.  

Exiting the Basilica onto the square designed by Bernini, another incredible artist/architect, the feelings of being an outsider continued. The two colonnades that extend out of the church and frame the square, supposed to be welcoming, felt almost suffocating. To get to dinner, we walked down the Via della Conciliazione, which I had studied last semester. Constructed between 1936, two years before the Mussolini instituted racial laws in Italy, and 1950, only 5 years after Nazi defeat and the liberation of the remaining Nazi camps, it is an implementation of Fascist ideology. Using obelisks and facades on the buildings that line the street, architects Marcello Piacentini and Attilio Spaccarelli create a focus on Rome’s “golden” past, covering up the church’s private property. The word conciliazione refers to the conciliation between Mussolini and the papacy embodied in the Lateran Pact. Signed in 1929, it made Catholicism the official Italian religion and gave the Vatican sovereignty in exchange for its support of Mussolini and Italian imperial efforts. Again, I questioned who the resolution was for, and why I hadn’t thought of the Vatican as such a site of conflict and contradiction before. It made me further realize how taking a class that centers Jewish history has complicated my feelings towards Rome, as both a singular city and site of power. I knew that my trip would obviously be different than the one I took nine years ago, but I hadn’t predicted how much it would complicate my feelings.  

View of St. Peter’s Basilica at night

Street sign for the Via della Conciliazione


Day 4 Part 1 in Rome by Ariana Foster


With the Flooding of Ostia Antica, we were unable to go on our tour there in the morning but were able to have a long tour of our neighboring area and learn about the historical facts and monument all around us including our hotel which was the original head quarters of one of the Italian political parties.

On this tour we visited many different historical and currently significant building that play a large part in Italian history and the roots of the Italian government. The second building in particular was the building for parliament. The flags of Italian and the European Union are being flown directly on the balcony of the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

We even passed the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle that holds the seal of the current Pope, Pope Francis. this was really cool to see because we went to the Vatican the day before and his flag was flying in the air meaning he was currently in Vatican City and on those tours I learned a lot about the actual power, politically, financially and internationally that the Pope holds. The current pope having his seal on the Basilica as we found out is a result of the fact that Pope’s often invest in or create churches or buildings as a way to leave behind something as a remembrance to their time as Pope, so this building is one of the ways the current Pope has established his legacy.

We also walked through a large square called Piazza Navona, which was full of people and fountains that have been historical landmarks in Italian history like the Sant’Agone and the fountain of 4 rivers or the Fiumi fountain (as shown in the photos). The fountain representing the rivers of Donau, Ganges, Nile and Rio de la Plata. However, despite the beautiful town square underneath the piazza is the Stadium of Domitian which was a site made of an emperor in 80 Ad for sporting events. these escalated ruins can be visited even today.



On our tour we even were able to walk through the St. Ivo alla sapienza which was an old church turned into the University of Rome. Although not used as the main building still houses classrooms and professors. The building is usually closed to the public but we got lucky and were able to go inside and see its very vast and extensive courtyard. the building seemed very small from the side we entered but once inside it was incredible to view. Similar to the many building we visited on this tour we realized that even in the area around our hotel we were surrounded by buildings with extensive historical/current significance to the Italian culture were learning and appreciating on this trip, and gave insight to the different aspects of Italy and how it coincided with jewish history. Overall after ending the tour at the Pantheon, the building our hotel was named after, it was abundantly clear that Italian culture and history is deeply expansive and when in Rome, all around you.



Day 4 Part 2 in Rome by Charlotte Haidar, the Non-Catholic Cemetery

As we settled into Rome, surrounded by Bernini sculptures, artichokes, and stumbling stones, we wanted to take a moment to remember the past. While we were originally supposed to visit Ostia Antica, the weather forecast rained on our parade and instead we took a walking tour of Rome, ending at the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps, we learned, had earned their name due to their proximity to the Spanish Embassy- the Palazzo di Spagni– just a stones throw away.

We had justbeen all around Rome.

We started at the Piazza della Minerva, right outside our hotel. The Piazza is famous for several reasons. In terms of our class it was mentioned in the Igiaba Scego book Adua (2017). The Piazza’s central focal point is an ancient Egyptian obelisk, heldby a statue of an elephant chiseledby Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Piazza is named for the place where the obelisk was first excavated.

Piazza della Minerva

Galileo Galilei was actually held imprisoned in the square prior to his trial. There was a convent there. This may be part of the reason why there is a tiny shop just around the cornerwhere the Pope gets hispapal robes made. Gammarelli has been the official tailor of the Popes since 1798, barring Pius XII for some reason.


Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè

Nearby is Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè, a famous Roman cafe known for their Gran Cafe which is made up of a secret blend according to our guide. That secret blend seemed like it was very heavy on sugar as when my roommate and I visited quickly before leaving Rome for Venice the barista triple checked that we were okay having sugar in our coffees. Around the corner from the cafe, there is a public water fountain in the shape of the head of a stag, the symbol of Saint Eustachio, the cafe’s namesake. The Roman water is cool and clear and free for all. It was lovely to be able to take a sip whenever one happened to feel at all parched. Our tour guide in the Ghetto taught us how to make the water spray up towards our mouths if we didn’t have a water bottle with us which is a trick I used all through our time in Rome.

On our walking tour, we also briefly visited the original campus of the University of Rome (est. 1303), which is the largest university in Europe. It was so lovely looking and reminded me of how young and spacious our university is in comparison. From there we visited the Campo de Fiori and Piazza Navona. In the Piazza we took some time to admire the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and the Fontana del Moro which are both Bernini’s (at least in part). Bernini is everywhere in Rome! How wonderful. The Fountain of the Four Rivers has four central figures each representing the four major rivers of the world during Bernini’s era. Yet again we see another Egyptian obelisk. These obelisks, and later the pyramid we visited made me recall Italy’s not-so-distant colonial past and its ancient shadow of the Roman Empire. It is curious to think that the history of Roman Jews begins quite literally in the Roman era and that these statues and ancient artifacts are much closer to our own histories than we might imagine.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

Piazza Navona










After taking a quick trip to toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain (fingers crossed it works and I’ll return to Rome one day), taking a gander at the Spanish Embassy and Spanish Steps, and having a lovely lunch, those of us who were interested headed to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. It has many names- that’s one of the first things we realized about the cemetery. The Non-Catholic Cemetery, the Protestant Cemetery, or the English Cemetery as you will was the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever visited. It is on the very outskirts of Rome by design as non-Catholics were not permitted to be buried on consecrated grounds. Overlooking the cemetery is (shocker) another ancient Egyptian artifact! A pyramid, a crypt of its own right, stands just beyond the secure walls of the packed cemetery. When I say “just beyond,” I really do mean just beyond. How fitting it is that so many people finding their ends in a foreign land might be near a tomb taken far from its intended home. S0me among us were very much taken with the cemetery cats. The cats looked like they were amongst the most spoiled in all of Rome.

Our first stop in the cemetery was of course to that of the famous English poet John Keats. Keats died at the young age of 25 in Rome, Italy after being advised by his doctors, as many were at that day and age, to seek a remedy to his tuberculosis in the warm Italian climate. Reader, he was

not cured, and died with his close friend Joseph Severn at his bedside. All in all, Keats and Severn spent two and a half to three months in Italy, with Keats staying on his prescribed diet of anchovies and laudanum (a mixture of opiates essentially). What was supposed to cure him almost certainly killed him.

Severn stayed on however and had a long artistic career in Rome. When he died 58 years after Keats, he was buried beside him. A young son of Severn’s is buried betwixt the two men.

Keats’ grave reads simply

“This Grave

contains all that was Mortal

of a



on his Death Bed,

in the Bitterness of his Heart

at the Malicious Power of his Enemies


these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone

Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water

Feb 24th 1821″

Upon reflection, maybe not so simple after all. Keats seemed to be pretty torn up about dying. It’s striking that one of the most impactful English poets chose not to have his own name on his grave stone. While this epitagh might lead one to be quite depressed about Keats’ self esteem, he seems to have sucessfully predicted that his legacy would be so large that such things like names on grave stones are unnecessary to the preservation of his memory. Or maybe he knew deep down that his best friend would use his gravestone for both of their memories. Severn’s gravestone reads in part:

“To the Memory of


Devoted friend and death-bed companion



whom he lived to see numbered among

The Immortal Poets of England”

Here’s to friends like Joseph Severn.

The gravesite that Oscar Wilde once described as “the holiest place in Rome.”

Other famous gravesites in the cemetery are Percy Bysshe Shelley on whose gravestone is written:

“Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea=change

Into something rich and strange.”

Shelley’s grave.

The Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life is the full titled given to this deeply personal work by William Wetmore-Story for his wife’s, Emelyn Story’s, gravestone.

Goethe’s son is buried here too under the name “GOETHE FILIUS” or “GOETHE’S SON.” Very descriptive!

Beatrice Lipshitz’s grave.

The Russian Abbott’s grave.

Besides seeing the final resting places of various artists and dignitaries, we were interested in the cemetery’s Jewish connections. Jews, as non-Catholics, have been buried in this cemetery for hundreds of years. My classmates and I looked for identifiable signs that a deceased person might have been Jewish so as to place stones on the top of their gravestones. I found it difficult to find identifiably Jewish graves. We did spot the grave of one Beatrice Pini née Lipschitz from New York and figured that it would be a reasonable guess that she had Jewish ancestry. There was another grave that I at first thought might belong to a Jewish person as it had what appeared to be a Star of David on it, however, upon closer inspection, and with the help of Sarah’s superb Russian skills, we realized it was the grave site of a Russian Orthodox Abbott who had died on a trip to Rome. The monks of his monastery provided this gravesite for him. The Star of David is just one of several religious symbols on this gravestone. As an Orthodox Christian, this Abbott would have also been amongst those excluded from the consecrated land of the Catholic cemeteries.

Ursula Steinitz and Mordko Tenenbaum’s grave.

The only grave that I personally saw as an identifiably Jewish grave besides for guesses, was this grave of Ursula Steinitz (born in Breslau 1916, died in Rome 2008 aged 92) and Mordko Tenenbaum (born in Kobrin 1911, died in Rome 2009 aged 98). Upon doing the slightest bit of digging, it turns out that Ursula Steinitz Tenenbaum and Mordko (Mordechai) Tenenbaum had quite extraordinary stories of surviving fascist Italy and the Nazi Occupation as Jews. The Nazi’s had prevented Ursula from completing high school in her native Germany as a Jew, preventing her from achieving her dreams of becoming a nurse. Not letting this stop her from practicing medicine in some way, she became a midwife. Her Polish husband Mordechai became a doctor. They met in school. Following their marriage in 1939, the couple was arrested. Mordechai was sent to a concentration camp. Ursula was sent to a separate camp for non-Italian Jews called San Donato Val di Comino. Incredibly, Ursula was able to reunite with her husband after convincing Nazi officials that she was ill with tuberculosis and that they needed to release her husband to take care of her. When he wasn’t laboring, he worked covertly as a doctor in the town in exchange for food. When Nazi forces took over the north and center of Italy, the Tenenbaums fled through the mountains, leaving their newborn baby girl Katja in the care of a friendly family they had stayed with called the Cardarellis. After they got through the mountains, the Tenenbaums waited out the rest of the Nazi occupation underground in Roma. Their story, along with some forged documents they used to stay safe during the war where Mordechai is renamed Marco Cedrove, are available on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.

Below I’ve attached a copy of Mordechai’s false documents, and a photograph of Ursula Steinitz Tenenbaum with the baby she had while under Nazi imprisonment, Katja. I found the Tenenbaum’s story to be very moving. It is the kind of extraordinary story you so often come upon when researching the Shoah. In many ways, every story is as extraordinary as it is common unfortunately; the incredible odds that a Jewish person in fascist, Nazi-Occupied Italy faced were immeasurable, and the basic human rights that the Tenenbaums were denied is both heinous and heartbreaking. That their gravestone is so plain, decorated only by a Star of David is striking in some ways, given that they are buried in the most verbose cemetery I’ve ever seen. I’m really glad that I found a part of their story online. I would love if more people knew about it though; I think it’s an extremely important one. I’m glad they both lived well into their 90s, and I’m especially glad that so many of us placed stones on their resting place to honor them. I hope future visitors do the same; I’m sure they will.

Thanks for reading!


Collections Search - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Mordko’s false documents

Collections Search - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Katja and Ursula Tenenbaum after surviving the Shoah.

Day 5 in Venice: The Day We Met Davide and Dario by Ella Cariello 
























Dear Blog,

Today is March 13th, 2024 — our fifth day exploring Italy and the Jewish history rooted deep in its cities.

This morning, we got up bright and early to catch a 9:35 am train from Rome to Venice. What should have been the perfect time to start some of my

assignments due at the return to Duke, actually ended in a lengthy nap. I dozed off to the beautiful rolling hills of Chiusi, Tuscany, and was abruptly awakened as we pulled into the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia at approximately 1:34 pm.

One prosciutto mozzarella panino, an astonishing first view of a Venetian canal, and a speedy walk later, we arrived at our accommodations for the next four nights — the Hotel Abbazia.

(i) prosciutto mozzarella panino

(ii) our first view of Venice!

Sydney, Sarah, and I were certainly surprised by the, let’s say, eclectic decor in our room, given that the rest of the hotel had a comforting European charm. But there was no time to dwell on the silver bench with neon blue LED lighting, as we had to run to catch up with the rest of the class, already well on their way to the Venetian Ghetto.

We started off down the Rio Terà Lista di Spagna, a touristy street full of thousands of people giving in to the shops advertising “The Best Gelato in Venezia” and bags made from “Authentic Venetian Leather.” But, this popular street was not the Venice we arrived here to see.

About ten minutes down the road, we made a few turns onto narrower and quieter streets, very clearly inhabited by locals. Unlike in the US where most people use clothes dryers, we spotted clothes lines outside the windows, denoting the homes of families with children. This brought me back to the reality of Venice being a city lived in; a city with history, people, and lineages. It’s not all gondolas and fairytales.

(iii) clothing lines outside of homes

Then, we crossed a bridge and headed through a short tunnel. Little did I know that that tunnel was gonna lead us straight into the Venetian Ghetto Nuovo. I only realized where we were when I turned around to face back toward the tunnel and was confronted directly with the Scuola Grande Tedesca — the Great German or Ashkenazi Synagogue of the Venetian Ghetto. The amount of joy I felt in that moment, earlier today, is so hard to describe. To study a topic in class and be shown stock images of that place is one thing. But, to have the opportunity to actually get to see the thing you spent so long studying in person is such an insane privilege.

(iv) tunnel to the Venetian Ghetto

While I was sad to find out that the Scuola Grande Tedesca would be closed for restoration until April 2025 and we wouldn’t have the chance to actually go tour the inside, I was still ecstatic to be able to see the signature five arched windows on the third level of the facade, signifying the five books in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

(v) Scuola Grande Tedesca

Taking a step back and looking at the rest of the picturesque piazzo of the Ghetto Nuovo, I experienced a sense of serenity. The piazzo was so peaceful. Children were running around playing soccer and shouting words in Italian that I could not understand; there were little shops open all along the outer walls, run by people with family histories dating back to the creation of the Ghetto; and couples were sitting on benches engrossed in conversation. It was almost like a movie set. I just kept thinking to myself how unreal the entire scene looked.

(vi) a view of the piazza

But, in the spirit of our fast-paced lives, we kept on moving, as there would be time to take in the surroundings after our tour of the Ghetto Nuovo and Ghetto Vecchio.

Here is where we were introduced to Dario. Oh, what a mysterious man he was — pipe in hand, he guided us to the center of the Ghetto Nuovo where he began to recount the history of the Venetian Ghetto from its very start in 1516.

Let me give you a brief history:

By the order of Doge Leonardo Loredan, the Venetian Ghetto was erected in 1516. It had initially been an island of lower-income housing for Christian families. However, these families were given hours notice that they had to leave their homes because the island would now only be for Jewish families.

The Venetian Senate aimed to make the living situation less than ideal for the Jews. These families were secluded to the island from sundown to sunrise, they couldn’t own the properties that they lived in, they had to pay upwards of three times more than a non-Jewish civilian would pay to live in Venice, and they had to dress with items that signified their Jewishness — yellow patches on the jackets of men and yellow dresses, headdresses, or scarves for women. Additionally, Jews in the ghetto mostly held one of three jobs: money lending or usury, secondhand dealing of items, and selling of schmatta, secondhand rags.

Nonetheless, as is the same in Jewish communities around the world today, the strength of the Jewish people never diminishes. So, as more and more Jews began moving into Venice from other Italian cities and European nations, the Ghetto worked to accommodate its rapidly rising population. All of the buildings were built up six or seven floors to make more housing. And five synagogues were established for all of the different Jewish subcommunities: Ashkenazim (1528), Levantine (1541), Italian (1575), Spanish (1580), and the French (1535) which uniquely had removable roof panels so that the synagogue could act as a temporary sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot.

Dario brought allowed us to tour three of the synagogues, starting with the Italian one.

He led us through a narrow staircase and up to the third floor of a fairly inconspicuous building. The only distinguishable features on the outside of the building were a small Hebrew inscription and the signature five arched windows. Entering the synagogue was breathtaking, as I had never been in such an ornate synagogue before. The room was on the smaller side. However, it boasted an ornate aron kodesh carved out of dark wood with red and gold fabric inside. The walls were covered in daisies, of all things — one wall was restored to the original color as well — a muted pistachio color. This synagogue is crafted out of character for Sephardic synagogues because, typically, the bima would be at the center of the room. Unfortunately, due to the fact that buildings in the Ghetto buildings were built in layers, almost stacked like building blocks, the building was not structurally sound enough for that configuration.

(vii) facade of the Italian synagogue

(viii) aron kodesh in the Italian synagogue

(ix) restored wall in the Italian synagogue

Dario also told us two stories about this synagogue: 1) that it has a secret passageway that runs between it and the other Ghetto synagogues, and 2) that there is a secret room beneath the bima where two non-Jews hid the silver possessions of the Jewish community during WWII so that the belongings of the Jews deported to Auschwitz could not be stolen by Nazi soldiers.

(x) secret passageway to other synagogues & our lovely, but mysterious, tour-guide Dario

The next two synagogues we saw, the Levantine and Spanish synagogues, were both designed by Baldassare Longhena. These two synagogues had many parallels in their architectural designs — both showcasing intricate craftsmanship in the carving of dark wood in the bimas, aron kodesh, ceilings, and pews. Both were also ornately decorated with red and gold accents, large chandeliers, and broad windows. There were many distinguishing factors, though, between the two — the biggest difference being that the Spanish synagogue is two times wider and three times longer than the Levantine. They wanted opulence and that’s what they got. The room is massive with brilliant “pimple” glass windows and gold leaf everywhere. The two synagogues are now used at different times of year — the Levantine in the winter and the Spanish in the summer, purely for the reason that the Levantine has central heating (nothing too historically significant about it).

(xi) looking toward the aron kodesh in the Levantine synagogue

(xii) bima in the Levantine synagogue

(xiii) view of the entire Spanish synagogue

(xiv) ceiling & women’s gallery in the Spanish synagogue

(xv) “pimple” glass windows in the Spanish synagogue

After descending back down the steps of the third synagogue, we visited a quaint shop in the Ghetto Vecchio, and that’s where our journey through the Ghetto quickly came to an end.

Of course, we watched as Dario strolled off into the distance, pipe in hand, as if in a movie.

While it’s almost time that I sign off, I think it’s important to recognize how the history of this beautiful community stays alive today. I went into David’s Shop, a little glass shop in the Ghetto Nuovo, and met David, himself! He practically told me and Sarah about his whole life story and family history. He is a Venetian Jew and comes from a long line of Venetian Jews dating back nearly 500 years (before which, they came from Spain, as he has the last name Curiel). His ancestors likely came to Venice during the Spanish Inquisition and were living in the Ghetto when the Spanish synagogue was erected.

David had so much passion for understanding his family lineage and how his people have been able to maintain such a strong community after nearly 500 years (plus thousands before that) of turmoil. But, I can tell you that it’s because of people like David — he wants to share his story and preach the beauty of his home so that people and tourists like us bring other Jews and people passionate about Judaism to this historic place. And maybe it was just a really good sales pitch to get us to buy some of his sister’s handcrafted Murano glass art, but I really believe that this is what keeps Judaism alive around the world.

(xvi) Murano glass depicting a bris

Just a little while ago, our evening ended with a delicious and remarkable dinner at Ba’Ghetto, a Venetian kosher restaurant located at the heart of the Ghetto Nuovo. We dined on Grandma Esther’s meatballs, fried zucchini, braised lamb shanks, and all different kinds of pasta, and finished our meal with orange plum cake and brownies.

(xvii) fried zucchini

(xviii) Grandma Esther’s meatballs

(xix) orange plum cake

I’m not sure we could have asked for a better first day in Venice. Until tomorrow…

(xx) what a view!

(xxi) me and my girls in Venice!

Signing off,


Day 6 Part 1 in Trieste:

Caffè San Marco and the Synagogue of Trieste by Sarah Gorbatov 

Dear Blog,

Today, we journeyed to the bustling port city of Trieste, bordered on one side by the Adriatic Sea and the other by Slovenia. Upon exiting the Stazione Ferroviaria, we were greeted by Trieste’s many storefronts, buses, and Austrian Art Nouveau buildings. We soon arrived at the famous Caffè San Marco.

The inviting aroma of new books and ground coffee beans permeated the air, with a bookshop in the back and an espresso bar on the right. Mirrors on the walls made the cafè seem infinite in space as well as time. The light fixtures, made of brass and strung from metal chains, perfectly complemented the impressive industrial espresso machine on the countertop. And of course, I would be remiss not to mention the painted caricatures adorning the walls (figure 3). Their crazed facial expressions qualified them for my “Absurd Italian Faces” photo collection.


Seated at the tables were academics revising their latest manuscript, young families, tourists speaking an array of foreign languages, chess and card players, and those enjoying a cigarette or perhaps a glass of prosecco. It was natural to envision the likes of Saba, Svevo, Joyce, Voghera, and Magris sitting at those same tables, pen in hand, during the cafè’s heyday. As Magris explains, the cafè is an intellectual atmosphere conducive to introspection and lively discourse. He writes,

“The cafè is a place for writing… Scribble, free the demons, bridle them, often simply presume to ape them. In the San Marco the demons have been relegated up on high, overturning the traditional scenario, because the cafè, with its floral decor and its Viennese Secessionist style reminds us that it can be alright down here: a waiting room in which it’s pleasant to wait, to put off leaving… Exiles from the earthly paradise feel at home in this clandestine Eden… The cafè is a Platonic academy, said Hermann Bahr…”

The meal was likely my favorite during our trip. We had a delicious salad with artichokes, beets, and walnuts, followed by a creamy risotto with beet tops and mushrooms. Next was my absolute favorite: a poached egg, pecorino cream, and leeks. I added some of the cafè’s baguette and olive oil to the mix, and what can I say? Chef’s kiss! Dessert was a decadent pistachio tiramisu.

Our meal at Caffè San Marco

While waiting for the food to come out, a few of us decided to explore the bookshop, which contained everything from Bereshit Rabbah to colorful children’s books to a section dedicated to Magris, Svevo, Saba, Rilke, Joyce, and company. I decided to purchase an English copy of Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, having thoroughly enjoyed the first two chapters and admittedly still somewhat nosy about Zeno’s personal life.

The Magris, Svevo, Saba, Rilke Joyce, et al. section of the bookshop

San Marco, albeit not as visually stunning as St. Peter’s or the Ducale Palace, I think, is a special point on the historical map of Trieste, a paper city, and Italy more broadly. Much like Les Deux Magots in Paris, for example, San Marco has a certain “non so che,” a charm that inspires the visitor to reimagine themself as a prolific author or artist mingling amongst fellow intellectuals, making the cafè’s history interactive. I also found that the visit enriched the Triestine literature we read for class. It placed ErnestoConfessions of Zeno, and Ulysses in context, as they were presumably written in part at the cafè, and a writer’s environment can surreptitiously trickle into their writing.

Later in the day, after a visit to the Jewish Museum, the class walked over to the Synagogue of Trieste, located only a two-minute walk from San Marco. In fact, Magris mentions the Synagogue in a chilling passage that implicitly refers to the Shoah: “When in a certain period, assiduous regulars who also attend the adjacent synagogue stop coming and disappear one after another from their usual tables, then almost no one, not even those who up until recently loved to chat with the people who came out of the Temple and into the cafè for refreshment, almost no one asks indiscreet questions about their absence.”

From the late 13th century, when Jews first appeared in Trieste, to 1746, religious services took place in private oracles in rooms or floors of apartments. The establishment of the Free Port in 1719, which encouraged immigration and religious tolerance, begot a boom in the Jewish population. In response, the community upgraded to four Batei ha-Knesseth within the former ghetto of Trieste, demarked by Piazza Della Borsa and Teatro Romano. These scole were designed with an architectural style popular in northeastern Italy, similar to the Venetian scole we visited the previous day. They all consisted of a rectangular hall with rows of pews facing the center, the Aron ha-Kodesh on the eastern wall, and the Bima on the western wall. Their exteriors were humble and anonymous but their interiors were meticulously decorated.

In the 1920s and 1930s, during the urban regeneration of the city, the scole were demolished with the Jewish community’s approval. The Synagogue of Trieste, constructed between 1908 and 1912, was intended to concentrate worship in one communal space, a space both large enough to fit the growing population of Jews and as grandiose as the cathedrals of the city. By 1938, the Jewish population of Trieste had reached an all-time high of 7,000. This was precisely when Mussolini announced the Racial Laws just blocks away at the Piazza Unità d’Italia, which we visited later in the day.

The synagogue is unique in terms of where and when it was built. Where: outside of and actually quite far from the ghetto walls. When: following emancipation in 1867. The synagogue’s exterior structure is also uniquely impressive, similar to the Tempio Maggiore in Rome. A large dome, a smaller apse, and a Magen David-shaped window welcome you as you approach the synagogue from Via San Francesco. Carole Herselle Krinsky, an architectural historian, describes the exterior as “late Roman of a type found in fourth-century Syria” in her book Synagogues of Europe. The architects, Ruggero Berlam and his son Arduino, Trieste natives, hoped to replicate ancient Jewish architecture as faithfully as possible.

The interior is also worthy of praise. The main prayer room has a rectangular floor plan and is divided into three naves. The apse boasts a majestic golden mosaic. The Aron ha-Kodesh, meanwhile, has two copper doors, on which rests a pink granite aedicule, which itself sustains the tablets. The 10 commandments are inscribed in gold on these marble tablets. There are four bronze menorahs and a sanctuary lamp that hosts the eternal flame, quite similar to the thuribles used in a church. Since human and animal characterizations are forbidden in synagogues for fear of idolatry, decorations with trees, stars, geometric patterns, and Tehillim verses line the circumference of the apse and dome. A wooden mechitzah separates the men and women today, but previously the upstairs women’s gallery was employed. What I find most unusual about the synagogue is the pipe organ opposite the apse, as musical instruments are prohibited in orthodoxy, and it is an element once again strongly reminiscent of a church interior.

Unlike most other synagogues across Europe, especially Eastern Europe, the Synagogue of Trieste was fortunately not devastated by the Nazis during World War II. Instead, it was utilized as a storage unit for art, books, and other possessions looted by the Nazis. The Nazis even hoped to transform the plot of land into a swimming pool, but that dream was never realized before the war ended. From 1938 to 1945, the Jewish community had significantly dwindled in size. Out of the 1,000 Jews deported, a mere 19 returned. Carlo Nathan Morpurgo, the secretary of the Jewish community at the time, decided to stay in Trieste and support the poorest members of the community who did not have the means to flee. He was arrested on Jan 20, 1944, and died due to harsh conditions in Auschwitz only three months later. He is considered a true Triestine hero, and thus the first stumbling stone in the city, erected in 2018 (shockingly late), is dedicated to him and his selflessness.

But as soon as May 1945, the synagogue became active again—not as a storage unit or swimming pool, but as a place of spirituality and prayer, education and chevruta, dance and song, and cooking and meals. This is, after all, the role synagogues have played since time immemorial: proto-JCCs. The Jewish community of Trieste is quite small today, constituted of 1,000 members, but the synagogue, standing tall and mighty, is a testament to the persistence of the most ancient minority.

Our day trip to Trieste with stops at Caffè San Marco and the Synagogue of Trieste offered a truly meaningful cultural and historical experience. I will certainly cherish it forever.



Sarah Gorbatov

Jewish Italy Trip 2024

Day 6 Part 2 in Trieste — Echoes of Resilience: Unveiling the Jewish Italian Tapestry in Trieste by Elie Zeichick

On a crisp morning, our class ventured into the heart of Trieste, where the past whispers through the alleyways and modernity buzzes around the corners. Our destination was a museum dedicated to Jewish history, a repository of memories and stories that have shaped not just a community but the city itself. Strolling through the city of Trieste was like walking back in time, piecing together a complex puzzle of Jewish life in this vibrant Italian city, jumping into the pages of the many stories we have read about.  The experience was nothing short of enlightening, revealing stories of struggle, resilience, and profound contributions to the fabric of Trieste that textbooks just can’t capture. Trieste revealed a vibrant tapestry woven with threads of struggle, emancipation, and rich cultural contributions.

Our educational journey at the Jewish history museum in Trieste was an immersion into the profound depths of the Jewish community’s historical odyssey within this multifaceted city. The museum meticulously chronicled the evolution of Jewish life from the establishment of the ghetto, under the shadow of societal exclusion and religious constraints, to the radiant dawn of emancipation and civil rights.  This transformative journey was marked by pivotal moments, such as the issuance of the Theresian Diplomas in 1771, exclusively granted to the Jews of Trieste, offering them unprecedented rights and freedoms. The narrative further unfolded with Joseph II’s edicts of tolerance, which led to the abolition of the ghetto and the founding of a public Jewish school, painting a vivid tableau of a community inching closer to equality and integration within the broader societal fabric of Trieste. Yet, this path was not linear, as the oscillation of fortunes—seen in the restoration of constraints post-Napoleon and the eventual full emancipation by the Constitution of 1867—underscored a narrative of resilience and unwavering hope. This path led us to understand the privileges granted by Charles VI and the subsequent waves of emancipation and civil rights that culminated in the late 19th century, offering a vivid tableau of struggle.


Trieste in the past

The museum highlighted the economic and cultural flourishing of the Jewish community during the long 19th century, showcasing their central role in Trieste’s transformation as a port city. Yet, what struck me most profoundly were the personal stories of political involvement and the complex identities within the Jewish community, particularly during the world wars and the fascist regime.


The museum did more than just lay out dates and events. It told a story of resilience, starting with the 18th-century saga where Jews in Trieste navigated a world of conditional privileges before finally stepping into the light of emancipation with the Theresian Diplomas. Imagine, for a moment, living a life where your very existence hangs on the whims of those in power. This museum brings that reality to life, showcasing a journey of highs and lows, of rights granted and then cruelly snatched away.

History Lessons

Wandering through the museum, it was impossible not to be struck by the stories of the Jewish community’s remarkable contributions to Trieste’s economic boom and cultural renaissance in the 19th century. They were the brains behind economic powerhouses like the Assicurazioni Generali in 1831 and the Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà, not to mention leading industrial ventures that turned Trieste into a key maritime hub. But their influence didn’t stop at economics; they were key in weaving the rich, cosmopolitan fabric of Triestine society, their lives a vibrant thread in the city’s diverse tapestry. The museum brought this golden era to life, sharing intimate stories and artifacts that showcased the daily contributions, challenges, and resilience of Jewish residents. Their tales, set against a backdrop of prosperity, highlighted a community integral to Trieste’s heart and soul, yet constantly adapting their identity and faith through changing political tides.


The narrative took a somber turn as the museum delved into the darker chapters of history—World War I, the rise of fascism, and the Holocaust’s unspeakable horrors. The 1921 annexation to Italy was a critical juncture, igniting nationalistic zeal but also ushering in a fascist regime that targeted Jews, once patriots, with racial persecution and exclusion. The exhibit didn’t hold back in portraying the stark reality of a community battling for survival amidst the terrors of fascism and Nazi oppression. The personal accounts of resistance, the struggle for survival, and the profound losses during these harrowing times were deeply moving, painting a portrait of a people’s unbreakable spirit amidst adversity. Hearing about those who stood up against fascism, endured the brutality of racial laws, and the heartbreak of the Shoah served as a poignant testament to the Jewish community’s enduring hope, courage, and resilience, even in the face of the darkest moments.


Amidst the darkness of this time, the museum did not shy away from presenting the grim realities faced by the Jewish community. Yet, it also illuminated the flickers of resistance and the undying hope for a return to peace and dignity. This period of history, marred by immense suffering, was a somber reminder of the resilience and courage of those who fought against fascism and the Nazis, including those from Trieste who joined the anti-Fascist resistance.


Our museum visit in Trieste provided enlightening insights into the Jewish community’s life, offering a comprehensive overview of Jewish history that enriched our literature studies. Exploring the nuanced Jewish Italian identity revealed a complex blend of culture and faith, reflecting both unity and diversity. This theme resonates within Jewish Italian literature, spanning identity struggles to everyday nuances and navigating the intersections of cultural, religious, national, and personal identities, highlighted by the museum’s focus on personal narratives. The exhibition of personal objects, each telling its own story of struggle and resilience, made the visit emotionally profound and educationally enriching.


Personal Narrative

One room within the museum that particularly captivated me was dedicated to telling the detailed stories of individual Jewish people through an array of personal objects. This intimate space was a treasure trove of life stories, each object a key unlocking tales of sorrow, struggle, and triumph. Whether it was a delicate piece of jewelry or a faded photograph, each item served as a conduit to the past, offering a tangible connection to the lives that once were. It was profoundly moving to stand amidst these remnants of daily life, each piece whispering secrets of its owner. This approach to storytelling—personal and palpable—brought history to life in a way that was deeply engaging. Witnessing the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of Jewish lives in Trieste through these objects made the experience not just a learning opportunity but a deeply emotional journey, emphasizing the personal narratives intertwined with the city’s rich Jewish heritage.

Stolen Jewelry from the Jewish people of Trieste



As a class, we’ve delved into the works of Jewish Italian authors from Trieste, such as Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo, whose writings offer a window into the soul of the city and its complex Jewish heritage. The museum brought these literary figures to life, particularly through Svevo’s introspective narrative. In ‘Zeno’s Conscience,’ Svevo writes, ‘I remember the big, cool room where we children used to play: now, in these times when space has become so precious, it is subdivided into two parts. In this scene my brother doesn’t appear, and I am surprised because I think he must also have participated in that excursion, and should have shared in the rest afterwards.’ This passage evokes the nostalgic and reflective layers of identity and memory that shape both the characters in his novels and the historical tapestry of Trieste itself. In our exploration of Trieste’s cultural fabric, we also immersed ourselves in the words of Umberto Saba, whose novel ‘Ernesto’ provides a poignant view of the city through the eyes of a young boy. Saba writes, ‘Trieste is such a beautiful city,’ Ernesto thought for the first time in his life. ‘It’s a good thing I was born here.’ This reflection, though infused with Ernesto’s limited experience, echoes through the museum’s exhibits. It challenges us, as visitors, to consider how our own perceptions are shaped by the places we’ve known and the narratives we’ve heard. The museum encapsulates this sentiment by presenting Trieste not just as a backdrop for historical events, but as a character in its own right, whose complexity is revealed through its inhabitants’ stories. Ernesto’s musings about Trieste enhance our understanding of how deeply place can be embedded in personal identity, resonating with the broader themes of Jewish Italian literature and the enduring spirit of the city. Through these stories, the museum weaves a rich tapestry of cultural and religious identity that spans centuries.


Museum’s exhibit on literature

Another great moment of this trip to Trieste was the stroll through the park, adorned with statues of Trieste’s literary luminaries like Svevo, Joyce, and Saba. This homage in the city’s heart beautifully symbolized the profound impact of these writers on Trieste’s cultural landscape, serving as a powerful testament to the city’s recognition and celebration of its Jewish stories and intellectuals. Their literature acts as a mirror reflecting the multifaceted aspects of Jewish Italian life, offering insights into the community’s resilience, challenges, and contributions to the broader Italian culture. This exploration raised new questions about the evolving nature of identity and how historical events continue to shape the self-perception of Jewish Italians today. It significantly enhanced our understanding of Trieste, not just as a backdrop for their works, but as a character in its own right, with its unique narrative shaped by its Jewish authors. This deeper comprehension allows us to appreciate the literature on a new level, recognizing the intricate relationship between place, history, and personal story that defines Jewish Italian literature.


Statues of Authors


Discovering the narratives of female Jewish writers from Trieste was a highlight of our museum visit, offering a fascinating glimpse into how these women wove their literary talent with their civic and political convictions. It was intriguing to learn about figures like Enrica Barzilai Gentilli and Haydée, who navigated the turbulent shift from irredentism to fascism post-WWI, and Willy Dias, whose post-WWII writings were infused with her commitment to communism. These women, despite their diverse ideological paths, played significant roles in advocating for women’s emancipation through their literary and journalistic endeavors. Beyond the political sphere, the museum showcased writers like Rina del Prado, who stayed within the realms of “pink” and children’s literature, and others such as Alma Morpurgo and her sisters, Paola Fano Voghera, and Anna Curiel Fano, who delved into autobiographical works and family memoirs, offering personal insights into the era’s social dynamics. Poets like Elody Oblath and Gilda Nadia Goldschmied, who also expressed herself through painting, added layers of artistic depth to this narrative tapestry. Learning about Gemma Volli, who transitioned from a novelist to a historian of Judaism and anti-Semitism post-1938 persecution, highlighted the resilience and adaptability of these women. Their stories not only enrich our understanding of Trieste’s cultural heritage but also celebrate the indelible mark of female Jewish authors on literature and society.

Women Writers

The museum’s exposition on religious practices and the role of rabbis in Trieste’s Jewish community offered profound insights into the spiritual heart of this group. Learning about the transition from private oratories to the establishment of the first public synagogue in 1748, and the evolution to include four synagogues catering to different rites, illuminated the diversity within the community’s religious observance. This diversity was further exemplified by the detailed accounts of rabbis who shaped the religious life in Trieste, from those who hailed from Northern and Central Italy to those influenced by the Ashkenazi traditions post-1890, when Habsburg law dictated that community officials must hold Austrian citizenship. Figures such as Abram Vita Cologna, known for his diplomatic skills and integration efforts, and Zwi Perez Chajes, a staunch defender of orthodoxy and supporter of Zionism, underscored the dynamic interplay between tradition and modernity, orthodoxy and integration. This segment of our museum visit enriched our understanding of the complexity and adaptability of Jewish religious life in Trieste, reflecting broader themes of identity and belonging within the community.


Trieste’s Rabbis

Our visit to the Jewish history museum in Trieste was not merely educational but a deep dive into the heart and soul of a community that has been pivotal to the city’s cultural and historical tapestry. Through the museum’s extensive exhibits, we witnessed the journey of Jewish life in Trieste, from periods of confinement and struggle to moments of emancipation and cultural flourishing. The resilience of the Jewish community, their significant contributions to Trieste’s economic and social spheres, and the poignant narratives of survival and resistance against the backdrop of war and fascism were particularly moving. This experience, enriched by the exploration of Jewish Italian literature and identity, has left us with a profound appreciation for the enduring spirit and legacy of Trieste’s Jewish community, forever intertwining their stories with our understanding of this multifaceted city.

Day 7 in Venice by Jacob Carnes

This was our first full day in Venice, after having spent the previous two days on trains, both to and from the city. We started the day by meeting our guide, Luisella, on top of the Rialto bridge, a fitting meeting point for a tour of this city. The week from our hotel near the train station to the bridge was a nice one, as every corner in Venice holds something new to behold. The Rialto Bridge is impressive in its grandeur and represents an important place for Venetian history. After meeting our guide and getting our headsets to hear her, we traversed down the bridge, not too crowded at 9:30 in the morning, headed to the fish market nearby Rialto. As we walked, we discussed the importance of outsider communities in Venice. We talked about the migration of groups from Germany, Turkey, the Iberian Peninsula, and many more locations, making their mark on the city. Being at the head of a powerful republic, Venice was an incredibly important city, and one that is in a completely unique position being entirely on the water. For plague and many reasons, it was necessary for Venice to be not welcoming but tolerant of migrant groups in order to continue the city’s dominance and size. We looked at the tangible evidence of these groups’ importance in the city, including the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a beautiful building for German merchants to live and trade now turned into a luxury shopping complex.

(Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi)

At the historic fish market, we walked through the stalls set up by vendors to sell their seafood to the local population. The area has a distinct smell, one that lingers even when the fish market is closed for the day, that reminds me of the power of Venice during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We also walked through a spice market set up quite close to the fish market, with Venetians selling their goods. We then proceeded to cross the Grand Canal by taking a traghetto across the water. The two sides of the Grand Canal are only linked by a few bridges throughout the city, and thus these traghetti, Venetian gondola ferries, are a unique and efficient way to get from one side to the other. Because of the size of our group, we had to take two gondolas to get all of us across. I and one other student went across first with Luisella (along with a group of other people simply trying to cross the canal), followed by the rest of our group in a second traghetto. When it was just three of us waiting for the rest of the group to cross after us, Luisella had a conversation with one of the gondoliers about a sign that they had advertising the location as a crossing point of the Grand Canal in a myriad of languages. She was asking him what language one of the phrases was in, and he told her that he was uncertain. This conversation was brief and not even a part of our tour, but it really struck me in showing just how global of a city Venice is. I later looked up the phrase on my own and found the language to be Māori. I found this to be interesting as Venice is probably one of the farthest places from New Zealand, but here was this inclusion of the language.


(The Rialto Fish Market and the Traghetto Stop)

We proceeded to walk around the city for a while, discussing the history of different buildings and the importance of different places. Venice is incredibly rich in history and depth: there are so many beautiful buildings that they started to blend together until Luisella told us the different backstories they have. We talked about the scuole, Venetian confraternities with many varying purposes. Some of them had religious backgrounds while others were focused on mutual aid and help. We then walked by some statues embedded in the façades of the buildings that represented merchants, most likely of vague Arab origins. These statues were incredibly unique and quite different from other statues that I had seen throughout Venice. Luisella then proceeded to tell us about some myth started that rubbing the replaced metal nose of one of the statues gives you good luck. She did not think too highly of this superstition and urged us onto the last part of our tour: the ghetto. We had been in the ghetto two days prior to tour the synagogues, but Luisella provided us with some new knowledge about the ghetto. We talked about the banking system and how it was separated by color, most likely to assist the large illiterate population in identifying their bank. We ended the tour by talking about the monument made and given by artist Arbit Blatas to the city to remember the Jewish population of Venice that was taken or affected by the Holocaust. We talked about the sacrifice of Giuseppe Jona, a Jewish Venetian who destroyed the list of Jews in Venice and took his own life to protect others. This was where we left Luisella before having lunch.


(Merchant Statue and Monument by Blatas)

Following a delicious lunch at Gam Gam, we trekked to Piazza San Marco, where we had tickets to the Palazzo Ducale. The Doge’s Palace is an incredibly ornate and beautiful building that we toured, on our own pace. There is so much art in this building that it can be very overwhelming at times. The Palazzo Ducale took my group a little under two hours to see, and then I took them to see the external view of the Bridge of Sighs.

(Il Palazzo Ducale)

This was an incredibly impactful day for me. I have a deep love for Venice, having spent a semester of my time at Duke studying there, yet I was so ignorant of much of the Jewish history within the city. When I was formerly in Venice, I toured a lot of churches, and it was a great contrast to visit the synagogues and learn much more about the Jewish presence, both past and present, within the city. Venice is an incredibly unique city, and I don’t think anyone could ever learn half of the history and information of this city in their lifetime. While I know I only have few small perceptions of Venice (a Christian, secular, and now Jewish one), it is deeply rewarding to learn more about it. In regards to our class, this trip taught me a lot. On this day we saw the fish market and the Palazzo Ducale, both mentioned in The Merchant of Venice, which we watched. However, the greatest connection for me was of I Saw Mario Balotelli in the Ghetto, a short story on identity and belonging by Caryl Phillips. It wasn’t what we did on this day specifically that brought up this connection, but it was wandering around the city and seeing people living their lives. Getting lost, both in a sense of physicality and that of identity is integral to the Venetian experience, and thus I felt a strong sense of connection to the Phillips story. This day was wonderful and allowed me to gain a much deeper understanding of a Jewish Venice.

Day 8 in Venice: Venetian Delights, Exploring Artistic Wonders at the Guggenheim Museum by Deb Musonera 

On March 16th, the day began with a sense of excitement as my group  began our scavenger hunt adventure. We moved from place to place, exploring our surroundings and ticking off items from our list. The sites revealed layers of significance and stories that I never would have discovered otherwise. Strolling through the charming streets of Venice felt like a wonderland, where every corner held a new surprise and a hidden gem waiting to be found. Lucky for me, later in the afternoon, we had the pleasure of visiting the iconic Guggenheim Museum located in Peggy Guggenheim’s former home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal. We walked into a striking sculpture garden that set the perfect tone for our visit. Our guide, Julie, a seasoned presenter with over five years of experience, warmly welcomed us and shared her deep knowledge and passion for the museum’s exhibits.


View of the luscious garden


The museum presents Peggy’s personal collection featuring masterpieces that she obtained through her past experiences collecting art in Paris and New York where she achieved her goal of buying a picture everyday. The collection holds 3 main movements including Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism. At the heart of Cubism lies a profound challenge to traditional notions of perspective and representation. Unlike earlier artistic styles that aimed to create a single, unified perspective, Cubism boldly embraced the concept of depicting subjects from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque pioneered this approach, breaking down objects into basic elements such as cubes, cones, and cylinders which can be witnessed in the image below.


Cubism: The Poet by Pablo Picasso


Futurism, a dynamic and influential art movement, represented a dramatic departure from the artistic traditions of the past. One of the central parts of Futurism was its enthusiastic embrace of movement, which stood in stark contrast to the static and traditional styles that had dominated Italian art for centuries. Futurist artists sought to convey the sense of constant motion and change that characterized the modern era. Artists like Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini experimented with techniques depicting multiple moments in time within a single artwork. While at first glance I only noticed the sporadic splashes of color, Giacomo Balla was busy turning his artwork into a turbocharge speedometer with his masterpiece “Abstract Speed + Sound.”


Futurism: Abstract Speed + Sound by Giacomo Balla


On the other hand, Surrealism represents free expression of the mind without control of reason. It emerged as a fascinating and thought-provoking art movement that delved into the depths of the human psyche, exploring the realms of dreams, subconscious thoughts, and the irrational aspects of the mind. Led by figures such as André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst, Surrealist artists sought tap into the of creativity and imagination that lies beyond conscious control. Surrealism represents a radical departure from the constraints of rationality embracing the boundless possibilities of the human mind. Peggy showcased her appreciation of modern art and her support for artists who were pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.


Surrealism: Birth of Liquid Desires by Salvador Dalí

The onset of World War II, a devastating marker in history, cultivated a major disturbance in Peggy’s lifework as she was constantly on the run from Nazi forces due to her jewish heritage. During her flee from Paris to New York, Guggenheim hid various art pieces to protect them from being seized or destroyed during the war. She lived in the United States until 1949 when she settled in Venice, Italy. Venice held such a special allure for Guggenheim that she spent her remaining life there which accumulated to 30 years. Peggy Guggenheim played a crucial role in supporting Jewish artists who faced persecution and displacement due to the war and the rise of anti-Semitic policies. She offered financial support to Jewish artists who were struggling to survive and assisted them in securing necessary travel documents to flee Nazi-occupied territories. Peggy Guggenheim will always be remembered as a trailblazing art collector, visionary patron, and unwavering champion of artistic expression whose legacy continues to inspire and shape the cultural landscape of the modern art world. Guggenheim opened doors for Jewishness to be celebrated and recognized, creating an enduring impact on the global artistic community. Leaving the museum felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend, yet we left with hearts full of inspiration and a newfound appreciation for the magical world of art that Peggy Guggenheim had so lovingly curated.


The breathtaking view outside of Peggy’s home that I’m sure constantly rekindled her love for Venice


The sun was beginning to set and colored the sky with striking colors of yellow and orange. It was now time to head off to our final group dinner that was located right in front of the water. As the night went on I realized how much I will definitely miss the authentic Italian food that was always served with great conversation. Every meal was not just about the delicious food ( I wanted to ask the chef for recipes various times) but also about the lively conversations that accompanied it, offering intriguing insights that expanded my knowledge especially in the immense history behind Jewish Italian culture. Despite the chilly breeze that came throughout the evening, there was a comforting warmth in the shared moments of laughter, learning, and gratitude for experiencing the abundant beauty of Italy together.


A yummy plate from our final dinner in Italy


Farewell Poem


with its winding canals and artistic treasures

had indeed cast its spell on me.




Italian, Spring 2024 Courses

Spring 2024 Courses, Italian

Italian Courses Spring 2024

Recent Publications

“Who’s Afraid of Italo Svevo? Routes of European Modernism between Trieste and Virginia Woolf’s London”

Modern Language Quarterly (2024) 85 (1): 29–52.
The Triestine author Italo Svevo spent a considerable amount of time in London and its environs between 1901 and 1926. His experiences there influenced his modernist writing, including Zeno’s Conscience, his most famous novel. Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press was the first to publish Svevo’s work in English. His story “The Hoax” marked their first translation from Italian and his short story collection The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl and Other Stories their second, helping shape the press’s international modernist program. Despite residing in the same quickly changing city in the same period and despite their literary connections, Svevo and Virginia Woolf have rarely been compared. They have been difficult to envision together in part because their gender, backgrounds, and nationalities separate them. By exploring Woolf’s and Svevo’s shared modernist networks, including London’s influence and Hogarth Press, this article reveals Svevo’s significance as an author who has not easily fit Anglophone paradigms of modernist fiction and whose associations with Woolf contribute to the growing challenges to nation-based literary histories.


My works, “Italian Ghetto Stories: A Transnational Literary History” (2023), “The Emergence of Austro-Italian Studies” (2023), “For a Jewish Italian Literary History: From Italo Svevo to Igiaba Scego” (2022), and “Superman in Italy: The Power of Refugee Artists” (2022) are described below.

Forum Italicum published a special issue “Critical Issues in Transnational Italian Studies” (Summer 2023), edited by Serena Bassi, Loredana Polezzi, and Giulia Riccò. The issue’s wide range of scholarship provides a series of views on where Italian studies is, is headed, and should head. It includes my articleItalian Ghetto Stories: A Transnational Literary History” that examines Italian ghetto stories, which are distinguished by confusions of time, continuities, tourism, reflections on collective identities, and movements in and out, in order to outline one potential literary history. In contrast to German-language and Anglophone literary ghettos, Italian ones are generally absent as a critical category from literary debates, though they appear in works by Leon Modena, Israel Zangwill, Rainer Maria Rilke, Umberto Saba, Giorgio Bassani, Elsa Morante, Caryl Phillips, and Igiaba Scego, among others. A transnational approach can bring together works that have not been considered collectively because of disciplinary formations. Italian ghetto fictions expose the disheartening continuities of prejudice and, relatedly, have generally not been considered together because of restrictive ideas about the nation as an organizing principle.

With Salvatore Pappalardo, I co-wrote “The Emergence of Austro-Italian Studies,” for a special issue (New Directions in Austrian Studies: Empire & Post-Colonialism), edited by Tim Corbett, of the Journal of Austrian Studies. (Summer 2023): 63-73. The article charts the emergence of Austro-Italian Literary Studies with a focus on the complexities that such a categorization entails. Austro-Italian Literary Studies owes much to the disciplinary expansions of Habsburg and Austrian Studies, fields that build upon the multicultural, polyglot, and multiethnic heritage of Central Europe. This short article (which could have been infinitely expanded) addresses Habsburg Italian modernism, Austro-Italian postmodernism, and other works of literature as well as the developments in Literary Studies that make Austro-Italian intersections important sites for explorations of identity. Salvatore Pappalardo and I have both worked on Austro-Italian questions, especially in terms of Trieste, since graduate school. This issue of the Journal of Austrian Studies, as the next one will, brings together a range of pieces about the field of Austrian Studies. Our article, as so many in the issue, show the present expansion of “Austrian Studies,” which also builds on a long history of transnational, intercultural, and multilingual contexts and study.

In a recent (September 2022) issue of Italian Culturethe official publication of the American Association for Italian Studies and edited by Lorenzo Fabbri and Ramsey McGlazer — I published “For a Jewish Italian Literary History: From Italo Svevo to Igiaba Scego” 40 (2): 31–53. This article, as my one on Italian ghetto fiction, relates to my current book project on the Jewishness of Italian literature by outlining part of the project.  I argue that recognizing Jewishness as a crucial part of modern Italian literary history offers one path for discussing the current and historical diversity of Italian culture. The first section discusses key twentieth-century Italian authors — Giorgio Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, and Italo Svevo — not to assess how Jewish they are, but to illuminate the Jewishness of modern Italian literature, which prompts a reconsideration of the construction of Italian identity. The second section, “Jewish, Black, and Italian: The Archival Fictions of Helena Janeczeck, Claudio Magris, and Igiaba Scego,” scrutinizes how these three authors interrogate Italy’s role in the persecution of Jews, racial violence, and colonialism, drawing on historical documents that show the gaps in dominant discourses and asking readers to reflect on how historical narratives have been constructed. Being more cognizant of Jewish Italians, their backgrounds, and their representations in literature contributes to the growing analyses of Italy’s diversity, adding to examinations of Italian literature that focus on belonging, borders, migration, and colonialism.

Edited by Helen Solterer and Vincent Joos, Migrants shaping Europe, Past and Present: Multilingual Literatures, Arts, and Cultures (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines the sustained contribution of migrants to Europe’s literatures, social cultures, and arts over centuries. My chapter, “Superman in Italy: The Power of Refugee Artists” (96–130), investigates an Italian collection of refugee stories from 2018, Anche Superman era un rifugiato: Storie vere di coraggio per un mondo migliore (co-edited by Igiaba Scego and UNHCR) to analyze key elements that Italian literature brings to discourses about migration literature, including questions about who is included in this category and the connections between texts and authors across time. Arguing for the importance of including untranslated works in debates about migration literature, the chapter puts Anche Superman era un rifugiato in conversation with two well-known collections, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (2018) and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns (2019) in order to trace how Italy is positioned in these three migration literature anthologies. Italy decenters ideas of one-directional migratory movement, because its history, geography, and politics highlight the complexity of describing migratory movement and the issues with assuming all countries follow similar models in terms of migration and its representations. The chapter ends with a discussion on how Anche Superman era un rifugiato reveals the connections between colonialism, migration, racism, and antisemitism in Italian history and criticism.

Migrants Shaping Europe was the subject of a recent New Books Network podcast. The volume has five sections: 1) A premodern cultural history, 11) Migrating in Spanish, III) Migrating in Italian, IV) Migrating in French, and V) Arts of Migration. My section, Migrating in Italian, includes chapters by Akash Kumar and Tenley Bick. In Chapter 4, Akash Kumar analyzes Sicily in the poetry of Ibn Hamdîs and Morocco in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in part to decolonize the way that these medieval authors are too often separated and interpreted via the lens of nationalism and nineteenth-century disciplinary formations. In Chapter 6, Tenley Bick examines the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino’s 2008 work, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (Gateway to Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe), located on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than Sicily. Bick reveals how the artwork’s placement, materials, and modifications, including interventions by other artists, reveal not only the complex, varied, and often conflicting reactions of Italians today to migration from Africa, but also the connections of these varied reactions in terms of Italian colonization and decolonization. All three chapters in this section discuss works in terms of openness, and interpret Italy as a space that has always been a crossroads and created art that represents its hybridity

Svevo and World Literature

Fall 2023 I will be teaching “Svevo and World Literature,” a seminar meeting once a week on Tuesdays 12-2:30 p.m.

New 1/2 credit class!


COMPARATIVE ITALIAN STUDIES? – Call for papers for AAIS panel

The field of comparative literary studies is often centered on English-language perspectives. In the United States, Italian has tended to remain somewhat peripheral for Comparative Literature. But with Italian Studies’ increased investment in comparative frameworks and the growing popular attention to contemporary Italian authors in English translation, both Italian’s role in comparative literature and comparative approaches in Italian studies appear to be shifting. What particular challenges and opportunities does comparative work in Italian Studies present? These connected panels, taking place virtually and in Bologna, will offer a series of case studies of comparative works that include broader reflections on the field. Please send a short abstract and brief bio to the co-organizers by January 31st, specifying if you plan to participate virtually or in Bologna.

Co-Organizer: Ramsey McGlazer, University of California, Berkeley,

Co-Organizer: Saskia Ziolkowski, Duke University,

Online: May 13-14-15, 2022
In-person: Bologna, May 29-June 1, 2022

Jewish Italy and its Literatures: The Most Ancient Minority

390S Italian / History / Jewish Studies / International Comparative Studies / Romance Studies



Jews in Italy are often referred to as “the most ancient minority,” because of their continuous presence in Italy, from pre-Christian times to today. This course examines the wealth of art, culture, and especially literature that they have produced and inspired. We will discuss a range of works, from antiquity to modern day Italy, to analyze Jewish Italy and its representations and historical contexts, focusing particularly on Rome, Venice, Turin, Trieste, and Ferrara. We will scrutinize representations of the ghetto, Jewish learning, antisemitism, family life, memory, and the Holocaust in figures such as William Shakespeare, Leon Modena, James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba, Natalia Ginzburg, Igiaba Scego, Primo Levi, and Alexander Stille, among others. In the last portion of the course, students will build on their readings to develop final projects that will determine in part our shared readings for class discussion.



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