Italy has had a Jewish presence since the second century B.C.E. This means, among other things, that there Jews here before Christianity even existed – in Italy or anywhere else. Yet in this overwhelmingly Catholic country where other religions are often seen as “foreigner,” at times they make you feel like you’re not Italian.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always about Anti-Semitism. Most of the times, actually, it’s not done intentionally. It happened to me when the teacher of the public kindergarden my daughter attends has asked me why she is not enrolled in the Catholic religion class.
According to the Italian law, all public schools must offer classes in Catholic religion, although they are not mandatory. I explained the teacher that I don’t want my daughter to follow such classes because we’re Jewish. “Are you sure, madam? It’s just about telling the children that Jesus is their friends,” she replied in a clumsy effort to make me change my mind. For a moment I was tempted to tell her that “Jesus is not my friend.” But of course I understood what was going on: the teacher had no idea what Judaism was. What made the whole thing even more surreal, is that the school is just a block away from one of Milan’s major synagogues and that my daughter is not the only Jewish kid in her class.
Yet, there was nothing shocking in the teacher’s ignorance: the neighborhood has a solid Jewish presence – but it’s mostly secular Jews, and since they’re not easily “spotted,” most Catholics are completely unaware of their existence.
I kindly explained to her that “Judaism is a different religion.” She seemed taken aback. Then she conceded “Oh, I was unaware of the problem” and so the story ended.
*Anna Momigliano is an Italian journalist currently based in Milan.