Graduate Theological Union

A Profound Surprise: Presenting the History of Jews in Italy

The most surprising discovery for David Rosenberg-Wohl during his research into the life of Jews in Italy for a recent museum exhibit was the ambiguity of Jewish life in the Renaissance-era ghetto.

A joint Graduate Theological Union/UC Berkeley doctoral student in Jewish Studies, Rosenberg-Wohl was given the task of curating “Forging Italian Jewish Identities 1516-1870” for the Museo ItalioAmericano in San Francisco.

David Rosenberg-Wohl, photo by Cheryl BowlanHe dove into academic libraries around the country, interviewed Jewish historical scholars, sought the advice of museum display experts, and contacted photographers, museums, and private collectors. Along the way he absorbed information about the arts, medicine, architecture, and literature in an era when the Mediterranean peninsula moved from 16th century citystates to unification in 1870.

And he borrowed — majolica plates from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, a musical score for madrigal singers from UC Berkeley’s Hargrove Library, silver Torah finials and other objects from the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley — in all, 20 pieces from these islands of Jewish life in the sea of Catholic Italy. It took him nearly a year to assemble the exhibit, which ran from September 2008 to February 2009.

“Much of my work focused on the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” says Rosenberg-Wohl, who was already familiar with this time period due to his doctoral research into the interaction of Jewish and Christian humanist thinkers during the Italian Renaissance.

Organizing the exhibit by cities — Venice, Rome, and Florence — as well as themes such as inclusion and exclusion, Rosenberg-Wohl led viewers through text, image, and object to show how Jews in Italy — many exiles from Moorish Iberia or immigrants from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires — maintained their religious and cultural identities.

“The Jewish presence in Italy was driven by commerce, not religion,” Rosenberg-Wohl says. The Medicis, a powerful trading family, welcomed talented Jews to Florence and Livorno. Except for Livorno, where they were allowed wide-ranging privileges, Jews were segregated into ghettos, an Italian invention, with many restrictions.

But ghettos, Rosenberg-Wohl found, did not entirely define Jewish life.

“Christians initially saw Jews as an impoverished, tattered community.”

Italians often patronized Jewish doctors, Rosenberg-Wohl says. These physicians could read ancient Greek and Arab medical texts preserved by Jewish scholars and conquering Arabs but still unknown to the Christian world. Despite edicts that Jews wear signifying clothing, physicians were on occasion allowed to ignore the requirement so as to discretely enter the homes of Christian patients, indicating, says Rosenberg-Wohl, the permeability of side-by-side cultures.

“Christians initially saw Jews as an impoverished, tattered community — the price non-believers paid for not recognizing Jesus as Lord,” he says. “Then, with trade, economic circumstances improved for all, and that image no longer held. Now Christians came to view all Jews as moneylenders as a way to tolerate their presence. In some places, Jews were required to serve as moneylenders.”

With Rosenberg-Wohl’s research came what he calls a “profound surprise.”

“I wasn’t prepared for a more nuanced interpretation of what it meant to impose a ghetto,” he says. “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the customary way of dealing with Jews was expulsion, forced conversion, or death. The ghetto was a more liberal view at the time, an exercise in co-existence. I see this as a profound lesson in our modern era when the West is viewed as under attack from the East. Hundreds of years ago in Italy there was a multiethnic reality — it is not as modern a notion as we might think.”