The history and culture of the Jews of Italy are largely unknown to most Americans, as they are to most Italians. Even among well-educated American Jews, it’s news that Italy is home to a multi-millennial Jewish history, its own minhag, and many consequential Jewish thinkers, writers, artists, and historical figures. If anything, there is a vague awareness that there is an old ghetto in Venice, and it’s a cool place to visit between pizza and gelato.
I teach Italian language, literature and culture at Muhlenberg College, a small, highly selective liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, USA, with a substantial number of Jewish students (roughly one-third of the student body). We are lucky to have strong Jewish Studies and Italian Studies programs, and several years ago I created an advanced-level course entitled “Jewish Italy” in order to bring together students from these two fields.
Together we read, analyze and discuss texts created by Italian Jews from the Middle Ages to the present day, with the latter half of the class dedicated to the great Jewish-Ialian figures of the 20th century: Svevo, Saba, Levi (Primo and Carlo), Ginzburg, Bassani, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Modigliani, et al. We examine synagogue and ghetto architecture, the musical traditions of Italian liturgy, artwork, the various foodways of Italian Jewry, among other things. Of equal importance is our attention to the present-day experience of contemporary Jewish Italians and the continued development of the Jewish communities of Italy.
The highlight of the course, however, is our collaboration with Pagine Ebraiche International. This collaboration began with a previous iteration of the course when then-editor Rossella Tercatin and I devised a semester-long assignment for the students to write an article about a Jewish-Italian community that would be published in Pagine Ebraiche International.
The idea was to give the readers of PE International a take on Jewish-Italian history from the viewpoint of young American students. This past semester, with covid raging and the college running most courses online, we joined forces again, and, with the invaluable contributions of editor Daniela Gross, who visited our class through Zoom, this year’s students each selected a Jewish-Italian topic of interest to them, researched it, and wrote feature articles which will be published in these pages over the coming months.
Through numerous drafts and revisions, the students developed a nuanced understanding of the great richness, diversity and vitality of Jewish experience, life, and culture in Italy. Topics range from the recuperation of early modern Jewish-Italian music to the U.S.-based marketing of Italy as a destination for Jewish weddings. All of the articles present an examination of a facet of Jewish-Italian experience from the point of view of American college students studying Jewish and Italian culture and history. We are thankful to Daniela Gross for her openness to collaboration and the time and effort she has generously dedicated to the project. And we are grateful for the opportunity to engage with a readership as interested in Jewish Italy as we are. We hope that Pagine Ebraiche International readers will enjoy our pieces.
*Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program, Allentown, PA, US.