Learning Italian and Finding Out About Jews and Food.

I have been trying to learn Italian with a combination of mediocre software, google translate, and following blogs written in Italian and about Italy.  Somehow I keep seeing numerous blog posts somehow related to both Italy and Jews.  Some are very mundane such as ghetto in Rome now a WiFi hotsopt. which is arguably only about Rome’s infrastructure. If I hadn’t started paying attention, I might have missed it when Doc Searls wrote about a finding a restaurant in Rome. The restaurant Sora Margherita is in the ghetto and the dish he mentions, carciofo alla giudia is of course the classic Jewish dish of the Roman ghetto. Be warned the Artichokes are a local purplish variety, only in season during the spring; horror of horrors, some of the restaurants in the ghetto freeze them, to serve year round.


The south of Italy, including Sicily, was ruled by Spain, so the Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. North of Italy Jews had various ups and downs. (I’ll leave most of the history for another time, check the history for yourself, I’m writing casually off the top of my head. ) I heard some podcast where someone talked about spleen sandwiches, Parma streetfood, being a cultural trapping left over from the Jews of Sicily. (I have no idea if spleen can be kosher.)


Now the most obvious link between Jews and Italy (and Spain) is the name of the seventh day of the week, sabato. And, in addition to carciofo, or artichokes, I have heard ceci, or chickpeas, credited to the Jews. On one level it is doubtful but on another the Jews were more likely to maintain communication with other communities, including the arab communities. I recently heard an excellent podcast, from Eye On Italy with Rabbi Barbara Aiello, largely discussing the history of Jews in southern Italy. Among other things, I learned about Anne Sacerdoti, who wrote a book on Jewish Italy. Of course, to understand how the Inquisition would work in Southern Italy, you need to know two things.

  • Almost everybody had to have Jewish ancestry. It does you no good to go after someone if you can’t accuse them of being in the despised group.
  • Culture is food culture. Basically, if your food culture puts ketchup on hot dogs, this lets you go after people who put mustard on hot dogs. For an excellent understanding of this, read “A Drizzle of Honey” an excellent (well actually sort of half-assed but still interesting) study of food culture as evidence in the Inquisition (and cookbook). But of course this just applies to southern Italy.


    Northern Italy still has some Jews, though most of the smaller Jewish communities are gone. I think I read that the Italian Jewish population is about 50,000 and even though there are some prominent Jews, it is quite possible for Italians to never knowingly meet a Jewish person. Here is an account of a tour of the synagogues of Piedmont, led by Anne Sacerdoti. (Technically sacerdoti translates to priest, but apparently it should also translate to Cohen.) There is the famous synagogue in Casale Monferrato as well as many smaller, less well known synagogues. In 2009 the synagogue in Biella was restored.

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