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.