- Acculturation & Its Discontents: The Italian Jewish Experience Between Exclusion and Inclusion
Acculturation has been defined by Wictionary as "a process in which members of one cultural group adopt the beliefs and behaviors of another group." Although acculturation is usually in the direction of a minority group adopting habits and language patterns of the dominant group, it can be reciprocal—that is, the dominant group also adopts patterns typical of the minority group. The subtitle of this book locates the cultural background in question as that of the Italian peninsula.
This book gathers the proceedings of the conference "Acculturation and Its Discontents: The Jews of Italy from Early Modern to Modern Times," held at the University of California, Los Angeles, in April 2003. The introduction by one of its editors, David Myers, offers a useful outline of the nine contributions on the community "that stands at the center of our volume: the Jews of Italy" (p. 3). Myers points out the rich diversity—ethnic, regional, culinary and religious—of the Jewish experience in Italy, whose diverse presence basically corresponds to the regional variety of the Italian territory, consequently calling attention to the problematics of outlining a single Italian Jewish history. In fact, the essays listed in the table of contents identify research topics that deal with several places, times, and peoples: Venice, Rome, or Trieste—the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, late eighteenth and twentieth centuries—Avraham Portaleone and Giorgio Bassani.
Acculturation and its Discontents seems to fit in the trend of those more and less recent publications that aim to outline the history of Jews in Italy as unique and different, but at the same time rooted in Italy's cultural tradition, including works by Stanislao Pugliese, Andrew Canepa, Lynn Gunzberg, H. [End Page 185] Stuart Hughes, Sergio Parussa, Cecil Roth, and Alexander Stille. This scholarship has dealt with Jewish identity and how Italian Jewry defines itself in relation to the Italian historical situation. This relatively new book, published in 2008, is welcomed for its thoroughness, academic and bibliographic accuracy, precise documentation, originality, and new discoveries within the Jewish Italian tradition. Again, David Myers is quite assertive when he declares that "the challenge of this volume is to extract the conceptual gain from the premise of historical coherence without ignoring the diversity and tensions in the Italian Jewish experience" (p. 4). Furthermore, the nine chapters of this book seek to show the dialectical rapport between "commonality" and "divergence" in Italian Jewish life, as well as between Italian Jews and their non-Jewish Italian environment.
Three of the essays in the book focus on the Renaissance as a crucial time for the Jewish minority group to directly experience both exclusion and inclusion in the surrounding society that was open and hostile. These experiences therefore determined a cultural exchange that was quite multidirectional in early Modern Italy, "moving back and forth between Jewish and Christian communities" (p. 5). In a way, the creation of the Venetian Ghetto and the publication of the Talmud, both in the year 1516, belong to this key period in which Jews started to think about their "collective identity" (p. 6). Concepts such as acculturation and assimilation are first felt in the Renaissance as essential means "indispensable to Jewish survival" (p. 7). The "discontents" of this acculturation process have to be retrieved from all the obstacles that impeded Jews from passing unrestricted into Italian society. Hence the very first essay by Benjamin Ravid, "How 'Other' Really Was the Jewish Other? The Evidence from Venice," enlightens by elaborating on the legal restrictions on Jews adopted by the city of Venice, restrictions that in spite of their intent seemed not to have prevented the social, cultural, and economical exchange between Venetian Jews and non-Jews. Don Harran's essay, "Between Exclusion and Inclusion: Jews as Portrayed in Italian Music from the Late Fifteenth to the Early Seventeenth Centuries" (from which the very subtitle of the volume borrows its key words), studies the...