Since It Is Absurd

Since It Is Absurd


Since I was a freshman in college, studying with a teacher who won the Rome Prize in the 1960s, I have been in love with Italy, idealizing every part of it. Italians are patient, kind, fun, warm. Vespas, espresso, gelato will always be shiny, rich, beautiful. Tuscany is hilly, Umbria is craggy, Sicily is sunny; Italian food is simple, pure, perfect.

Three days ago, I read a history of the Jews in Rome written in the 1850s by the German scholar Ferdinand Gregorovius which completely discombobulated me. After finishing this slim volume—in one horrible sitting—I was in a state of shock. For 22 centuries, since the first migration from Rome to Jerusalem around 150 BCE, the Jews of Italy have been taken advantage of, humiliated, disgraced, reviled, spat upon, imprisoned, and murdered. There has not been a single century in which they have simply been left alone.

There are, in fact, only two periods longer than 50 years during which Jews were endured: the first during the reign of Julius Caesar, when the Jews wept at his funeral, knowing full well that it would be a long time before such religious freedom, tolerance, and inclusion would ever return; and now, since the racial laws of Mussolini were abolished after WWII.


In other words, anti-semitism in Italy is like an odious wave, coming and going every few decades. No other country wins the prize for simple, consistent hatred like Italy. The Germans didn’t even know what Jews were when the first Romans were making Hebrews—instead of horses—run Palio races.

So I’ve fallen out of love with Italy. And now I am finally looking at it without my rose-colored glasses.

I told all of this to my friend Ursula, a German banker working in Rome, who has helped me raise funds through her contacts in the Jewish community to hire an orchestra to perform my final project at the Academy in May—the piece concerning the music of the Jewish community of Rome. Ursula, who is much less pissed off than I am, agreed that indeed, I have every right to be angry, but that I should temper it and create a piece that examines the issue from a so-called elevated plane. I agree, as I am not completely convinced by vicious angry pieces like Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, which seems too obvious, or at least too limited a response.

In any case, I am angry in a way that can’t be pushed to the back burner, and I wish to call the piece Cum Nimis Absurdum, after the 1555 Papal bull, “Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by God to eternal slavery…” which truly fucked the Jews, placing them in the Rome ghetto (now a fashionable area with superb restaurants) for the next three hundred years. This was followed by sixty years of not-so-bad, followed by Mussolini, followed by now: a time where being Jewish in Italy is tolerated, although being Israeli is extremely unpopular. The Jewish community here in Rome is insular, protective, and suspicious. I can imagine why: Who knows when their country, the country their families have lived in for 22 centuries, will change its mind once again.

No wonder my parents refuse to set foot in Europe any longer.

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14 thoughts on “Since It Is Absurd

  1. William Osborne

    I can understand your anger and alienation, especially since you just read Ferdinand Gregorovius’ book. I am not sure, however, if Italy is really more anti-Semitic than a number of other European countries. Here in Germany, an election is coming up, and as always, some of the politicians are exploiting xenophobia to gain votes. For weeks, the papers have been full of articles about “criminal foreigners.” A law is also being proposed that would make insulting Germany or Germans a punishable offense.

    When I first arrived in Munich 28 years ago, I was utterly taken aback by the openly expressed anti-Semitism. Munich was the birthplace of the Third Reich, and openly embraced Hitler stronger than any other city in Germany or Austria. Munich became known as “The Capital City of the Fascist Movement.”

    We moved to Germany because my wife won the first trombone position in the Munich Philharmonic by playing behind a screen and defeating 33 male candidates. The orchestra didn’t know she was a woman, so we ended up facing

    astounding problems.

    During the Third Reich the Munich Philharmonic was known as “The Orchestra of the Fascist Movement”. It stamped its music with an insignia containing those words circumscribing an eagle holding a swastika in its talons. After the war, the words were blotted out, but the swastikas were never removed. Since the insignia was on a number of important works, including Buckner Symphonies, tone poems by Strauss, and waltzes used for the yearly Philharmonic Ball, the swastikas appeared several times a year.

    In the summer of 1991, after Abbie had played in the orchestra for 11 years, I wrote to the cultural ministry and asked them to have the swastikas removed. The orchestra denied there were any on the music. Since I knew their less than honest habits pretty well, I had already made dozens of photo copies which I then sent to the entire cultural ministry along with a second letter. After that, they blotted out the swastikas.

    This is all by way of explaining why I do not fully agree with your assessment that, “No other country wins the prize for simple, consistent hatred like Italy. The Germans didn’t even know what Jews were when the first Romans were making Hebrews—instead of horses—run Palio races.”

    Well, until about 800 AD, many, if not most Germans didn’t even know what Christians were, much less Hebrews. Interestingly, many Germans were finally Christianized by Irish missionaries, which was one of the few bastions of “civilization” during the dark ages.

    Perhaps it would be a comfort for you to watch Ettore Scola’s film ”A Speical Day.” In a very gentle way, it’s a reminder that we cannot judge people collectively, regardless of how deep our pain and anger.

    William Osborne

  2. david toub

    I was in Rome for the first time in November for a conference and when the conference was over, my wife and I went to the site of the former ghetto and took a tour, including the Tempio Maggiore. The history is indeed sad, but while antisemitism was clearly present during Fascist rule (even though many early fascists were Italian Jews who backed Mussolini), there is an interesting paradox in that unlike most European countries where 70%, 80% or more of the Jewish population was wiped out, no more than 30% of Italy’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust. That’s not to say that Italy was a safe haven; it certainly wasn’t. But overall, the Italians were never known to be particularly antisemitic. Indeed, my two Catholic Italian friends were the ones who gave me detailed information about where to eat in the Ghetto while there, all from memory.

    What was responsible for the ghettoes in Rome, Venice (the site of the first ghetto, incidentally) and other Italian cities wasn’t the Italian people, but the papacy. Many popes were very bad for the Jews, and the purpose of the ghetto in Rome (which was worse than the one in Venice) wasn’t to exterminate the Jews, but rather to keep them away from Rome’s Catholics. The popes didn’t want different religious viewpoints to ”contaminate“ native Catholics.

    So I’ve found the history of the Jews in Rome to be of great interest, in part because of this paradox. A country with people who were clearly nowhere near as antisemitic as the people in other European nations still managed to hand over nearly one-third of its Jews to the Nazis, mostly on a single day. A country where it confined its Jews to a very very small portion of the city on the banks of an overflowing river, yet has nothing but warm relations with the community today. I am saddened that you have some negative feelings towards the Italians in general, since I’m not at all convinced as a member of the tribe that there is any significant antisemitism there, or that the average Italian under fascist rule, or papal rule for that matter, was antisemitic.

    On a musical note, Dallapiccola’s wife was an Italian Jew, and was one reason why he left the country during Fascist rule. Same with Enrico Fermi.

  3. marknowakowski

    Not only is certain history troubling, it is certainly troubling when we get our history wrong.

    Anti-Semitism is a terrible stain on the history of Europe. To make blanket statements which drop the blame on entities such as the Roman Catholic Church, or Italy as a whole, however, is just as short-sighted and ignorant as Anti-Semitism itself.

    It is true that in 1516, Jews in Venice were forced into the first “ghetto.” It is also true, however, that this move was made by the town’s ruling Council, and not the Church. We must remember that Venice was a progressive city for its time, and not one known to always tow the Roman line.

    In idea of religious “cross-contamination” — as ugly as it sounds to us today — can be compared with our own view of Communism in the 1950’s. There was a time where the “unity of Christendom” was the motto of Europe, akin to our modern (and often fanatical) espousal of democracy. Has America not sinned in the name of democracy? How have fairly have we dealt with the little Communist nation 90 miles off of our shore? It is convenient to judge ancient history from our “enlightened” modern perspective while simultaneously sanctioning modern barbarisms of our own.

    There were certainly rats and anti-semites in the Church, but hypocrisy is not a Roman phenomenon. We can just as easily point to the Jews who sold out their own people to the Nazis. History is brutal.

    The Germans slaughtered my ancestors during the second world war. A Polish doctor friend of mine recently attended a German party where drunk doctors began to sing about how “All Poles are pigs.” Despite this, and despite a recent and astoundingly brutal history, I do not judge modern Germans for the sins of their grandparents.

    I would challenge you to name for me a single country in the world which has not suffered its own battles with some widespread form of racism or prejudice. The Italians are not alone in having a nasty blemish on their history.

  4. robteehan

    William, your “astounding problems” article is gripping, shocking, and extremely topical – I urge everyone to have a look. I think it illustrates well the point that cultural prejudices can run deeper than we can imagine here in our comparatively young culture.

  5. david toub

    Mark, that might have been true of Venice, but not for Rome. Not trying to make generalizations; if you reread my comment, it is an explicit reaction to what I sensed was a broad generalization about Italians in the original post. Italy overall never had a significant tradition of antisemitism except when it came to specific popes (not all of them, but a good number of them) who were religiously intolerant and did indeed decree that Jews should reside in what was the crappiest part of Rome. The gates were locked at night, and a selection of Jews had to go to a church across the street from what is now the Tempio Maggiore and hear why they should renounce their faith. I’ve been there and seen the historical plaques commemorating what happened. And all of this was before the rise of fascism.

    I also don’t think one should rationalize this as ”well, all countries have had their share of racism.“ India, for example, has absolutely no tradition of antisemitism. None. Zero. Nada. There has been, for sure, religious and sectarian violence between Muslims and Hindus from time to time, but never against Jews. Same with China—Shanghai under Japanese occupation during WWII was actually a haven for Jewish refugees from Europe, and had a longstanding Baghdadi Jewish community and later a Russian Jewish community that flourished until the war. None of the survivors of that era have ever indicated any antisemitism If anything, as bad as the conditions were for Jews in their sector of Shanghai, it was as bad if not worse for Chinese overall.

    Please also note that while there was definitely antisemitism during WWII, particularly towards the end of Fascist rule in Italy, 70% of the Italian Jewish population survived the war, which is in stark contrast to the 25% or lower susvival rates from many other European countries under Axis domination. In other words, it was really bad, but better perhaps than living in Eastern Europe at that time.

    So again, the topic of Italian Jewish history is not very simple. There are a lot of paradoxes, but I don’t agree that the Jewish community in Rome today lives in fear. That’s not the sense I got at all from being there three months ago. The biggest problem is the economy there, and that hits everyone equally. Given that the Roman Jewish community is the oldest in Europe, dating back probably two centurys before the birth of Christ, and predating both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communites in Europe, I don’t think it’s in danger of vanishing.

  6. marknowakowski

    David, I wasn’t talking about countries free of anti-semitism, but simply stating that every culture has had its battles with some form of long-term prejudice and hatred. Even where countries have remained rather racially isolated, some excuse for hate and separatism is usually found. Also, when you generalize about the Church and her Popes, you’re still generalizing: remember that secular authorities well-free of Church influence (like the ruling council of Venice) still found excuses for anti-semitism. Let’s not use one prejudice to label another.

  7. david toub

    additional comment
    Mark, Venice may be a special case in terms of its ghetto, and I know that conditions there were superior to the Rome ghetto. And sure, secular antisemitism of course existed. But I’m not generalizing about the papacy but stating matters of historical fact. Several popes (again, not all, as I made clear) did indeed compel the Jews to live in ghettos such as in Rome. You’re also missing my larger point, that one shouldn’t maintain that Italy has a worse history of antisemitism than other EU countries. Indeed, I’ve argued that it was actually neither consistent nor pervasive antisemitism.

  8. philmusic

    “..Who knows when their country, the country their families have lived in for 22 centuries, will change its mind once again..”

    Folks, we can quibble all we want about the various points and timelines or about who is more anti-emitic. the fact is-today;

    Jews feel unsafe everywhere!

    Phil Fried

  9. philmusic

    Folks, we can quibble all we want about the various points and timelines or about who is more “anti-semitic”


    Phil Fried

  10. Dean Rosenthal

    Safe and Sound
    Don’t generalize, please, it just makes you look paranoid at best. When my grandparents fled Europe for Connecticut, they took with them the vision of the future – we live history the way we project ourselves, Phil.

    America’s a great way to focus in on the positive – for all of us, not just the people of the book, whatever that means.

    Really, you don’t speak for me, and I feel strongly about this. My family just survived the war, and definitely not to reinforce your experience of generalizing my experience, you know?

  11. philmusic

    “..Don’t generalize, please, . ..”

    Ok I get it now-I was talking about the post, the Jewish community is Rome,

    Of course nothing like that could happen here.

    Yet, my family still lives in Greenwich village and they were in some danger, as I remember, some time back. Luckily no one I knew was killed.

    Phil Fried

  12. philmusic

    “..Don’t generalize, please, . ..”

    Ok I get it now-I was talking about the post, the Jewish community in Rome, I did not mean to generalize Dean. I only speak for myself.

    Phil Fried


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