Last Friday which was the Friday during Hanukkah, we happened to be in the Ghetto around 4 pm and a new candle on the Menorah had just been lit. Since it was Shabat, all the cafes and stores were closed and the street felt a little eerie in the gloom of a late afternoon in the Christmas season. I was surprised to find out (from Rick Steve’s guide to Rome) that the word ghetto is derived from the italian word gettare: to cast and was first used in Venice in the 1600s to describe the area where the Jews lived near a copper foundry. The Jews in Rome date back to the 2nd cent BC and their arrival in Rome predates the influxes of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. According to some reports, there were around 50,000 Jews in Rome during Imperial times and they were mostly assimilated into Roman life until the Middle Ages. Subsequent antisemitic treatment was shamefully condoned, if not instigated, by the Popes and the Jewish population was crammed into the Ghetto, a small strip across the river from Trastevere prone to flooding. Thankfully, times have changed and the Ghetto is now a thriving area with a very beautiful synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore as well as Jewish schools, art galleries, shops and trendy restaurants.
There are now around 18,000 Jewish people in Rome and despite the catholic culture, every year during Hanukkah which falls around the Christmas season, a Menorah about 20 feet tall is lit in Piazza Barberini as well as a smaller one in Piazza Bologna. Another celebration of light, one candle is lit on each day of Hanukkah representing the 8 days during which the oil lamp continued to burn (despite there being only enough consecrated olive oil for one day) during re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC.
Because the festival commemorates the burning of an oil lamp, fried foods are a traditional part of the celebration and the restaurants in the Ghetto have no shortage of these. According to Joyce Goldstein in her book ‘Cucina Ebraica: Flavours of the Italian Jewish Kitchen’, latkes are not an Italian tradition. Hanukkah foods here include fried chicken, deep-fried curly endive called ‘torzelli’, squash fritters and ‘fritto misto’, a mixture of fried stuff. Unfortunately, the signature dish of Roman Jewish food ‘carciofi alla giudia’ or fried artichokes cannot be made now as they require a variety of artichoke only available in the spring. Now that was a surprise to me as the market is full of artichokes at the moment and I didn’t realise that there were different varieties.