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CHAPTER 5 A Separate Community: Jewish Women in Italy until the 1800s OVERVIEW Early Settlement Jews originally came to Rome as slaves, the result of the first Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. Most were soon ransomed or liberated, and a small number of them remained in that city, eventually settling on the banks of the Tiber River.1 Thus Rome became the oldest Jewish community in Europe. About one hundred years later, after the Roman general Titus destroyed the Holy Temple and burned the city of Jerusalem, Jews were again transported to Rome as prisoners or slaves, adding to the Jewish community. The level of education among Roman-Jewish men benefited from their continuing ties to the land of Israel and the Palestinian centers of learning. By the time those centers closed down, sometime in the fifth century C.E., there was already a strong foundation of Jewish scholarship on the Italian peninsula, concentrated mostly in the port cities of the south. The Writings of Ahimaaz The history of those early communities is, for the most part, unrecorded, and almost no names have come down to us outside of one family history written in 1054 by Ahimaaz ben Paltiel. In a work called The Book of Genealogies, Ahimaaz traced his family back to first-century Jerusalem where they were taken captive and brought by ship to Rome. "They came to Oria," relates Ahimaaz; "they settled there and prospered through 103 104 The JPS Guide to Jewish Women remarkable achievements."2 This document records the history of all of Ahimaaz's large family over several centuries, and includes incidental reports about a few women, including the young girl Cassia. As Ahimaaz's book confirms, the tenth and eleventh centuries saw a marked growth in the population ofJews in southern Italy, as well as in the number of scholars and institutions of learning. Not only were Jews tolerated in those few hundred years traced by Ahimaaz; if his account is to be believed, they prospered and gained positions of political power. Their numbers were not large, but their growth was continuous and they lived in relative security, even during the troublesome years of the Crusades. The Beginning of Diversity During the thirteenth century, most established Jewish communities were found in the southern part of the Italian peninsula, and the Jewish population was relatively homogeneous. Then, beginning in 1348, Jews were expelled from some of the German cities3 and began migrating into northern Italy, settling mostly in towns where they could establish themselves as pawnbrokers. In 1387, a few German Jews requested the permission of the Count of Milan to enter his land for purposes of trade. This privilege, granted and affirmed by means of a written condotta (charter},4 became the mark of legitimacy for native Italian Jews as well as those from Germany. A condotta guaranteed them the right to live in a specific area and engage in loan banking, moneylending, pawnbrokering, and trade. Under the regulation of the reigning duke or noble, Jews opened banks, collected high interest, and shared their profits with the rulers in the form of taxes. Some of the Jews fleeing the fourteenth-century persecutions in Spain also sought asylum in Italy. After the decrees expelling all Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced conversion of Portuguese Jews in 1497, many more, such as the family of Benvenida Abrabanel, found havens in Italian cities.5 By the early 1500s, large numbers ofJews of Spanish and Portuguese origin had expanded the once homogeneous Italian-Jewish population even more. Congregations of Sephardic Jews appeared within almost every community . Eventually the Jewish mix included the original Italianate Jews, Ashkenazim (German Jews), Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews), and Levantine (Middle-Eastern) Jews, all with their own synagogues. The geographic and political divisions of the peninsula itself added to the diversity of experience for Italian Jews. Although there were certainly intervals of oppression throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, large numbers of Italian Jews enjoyed a degree of tolerance . A few even assimilated into the general population. Because a different duke or merchant family ruled each city-state or island, Jews might be welcomed into some areas, given protection (usually under a condotta), A Separate Community 105 and permitted to work and practice their religion in relative peace and safety, while in other areas they were expelled. The Jews of Perugia, Vicenza, Milan, Lucca, and Florence all experienced temporary expulsions in the...


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