Altrove/Elsewhere – “Benvenuti, Maccabei!”

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

As the holiday of Hanukkah approaches, our minds turn to pleasant images of warmly flickering candles, steaming latkes, sweet sufganiyot, and spinning dreidels. We may also reflect back on the 2nd-century BCE battles of the Maccabees against the Seleucids for control of Judea, or the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem once the Seleucids had been chased away. However, we may also want to think of Italy, and specifically of Rome, as we remember all that took place “in those days at this time.”

It is in the first book of Maccabees (which was included in the Septuagint, but not in the canonical Hebrew Bible), that we find the first documented evidence of a Jewish presence on the Italian peninsula. In chapter 8 it is stated that Judah Maccabee sent ambassadors to Rome in order to shore up support for the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire:

“And Ioudas selected Eupolemus son of Ioannes of Akkos and Jason son of Eleazaros and sent them to Rome to establish friendship and an alliance and to lift the yoke from them, for they saw the kingdom of the Greeks enslaving Israel in servitude. And they went to Rome, and the distance was very long, and they entered into the council chamber and answered and said, ‘Ioudas, who is also called Makkabaios, and his brothers and the multitude of the Judeans sent us to you to establish with you an alliance and peace and to enroll us as allies and friends of yours.’ And the speech was pleasing to them” (1 Maccabees 8:17-21).**

According to this account, Rome accepted the alliance with the Maccabees and stipulated a pact of collective defense, whereby Judea would come to Rome’s aid if it were attacked, and Rome would defend Judea if it were attacked. Later in the book (chapter 12) the treaty is renewed by Judas’ brother, Jonathan.

Although this is the first textual evidence we have of the arrival of Jews on the Italian peninsula, there may well have already been small Jewish communities in Italy before this ambassadorial mission. We know with certainty that there was a stable Jewish community in Rome by the time of Cicero, who was active in the century following the Maccabean revolt, since he mentions the Jewish-Roman community on a couple of occasions.

So, among the platters of latkes and sufganiyot on our Hanukkah tables, we may also want to add some carciofi alla giudea (Jewish-style artichokes), that deep-fried staple of Jewish-Roman cuisine, as a ricordo of those Jewish ambassadors, whose long voyage to Rome in search of friendship marks the earliest extant evidence of a Jewish presence in Italy. Plus, they’re delicious.

*Daniel Leisawitz is the Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.

**This translation of the Septuagint is from the electronic edition of A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford UP, 2009).