Synagogues Without Jews: See photos "... Going back to the Italian peninsula of two thousand years ago permits a focus on the Jewish people there and how their past intertwined with that of Italy. The Italian peninsula is the one European region where Jews have resided without interruption since the 2nd century B.C.E. Julius Caesar granted them various exemptions to allow them religious autonomy. Many of the 6500 Jewish prisoners that had been sent to Rome from Judea as slaves, eventually attained their freedom and settled in Rome. Of the thirteen synagogues known to exist in ancient Rome, the ruins of one of them---from the 1st and 4th centuries CE---has been excavated in the city's ancient port at Ostia.
Catacomb inscriptions and frescoes in Rome and its outskirts suggest that some of the pagan Roman population took an interest in Judaism. But that changed as Hellenistic elements crept into early Christian beliefs, practices and iconography. Toleration for the Jews ended in the late 4th century C.E., with the adoption of Christianity as the empire's official religion. The Roman 'arena' disintegrated during more than 1,400 years, as control of the peninsula's regions shifted among foreign powers, local nobles and the papacy.
During the late Middle Ages, 13th and 14th centuries C.E., the Jewish population, concentrated in the southern regions, suffered from a range of decrees. A few protected them while others bound them to intolerable circumstances. Forced conversions caused half of the nearly 15,000 Jews in the south to abandon their religion. Entire communities were annihilated and many synagogues were converted to churches.
By the turn of the 14th century, Jews were allowed to engage in banking, since the Church forbade money lending by Christians. Three hundred small Jewish communities sprouted, up and down the peninsula. As a result, the two centuries of the Renaissance were marked by many Jewish contributions to intellectual, artistic and scientific endeavors, amidst a fury of cultural activity.
But this did not last long. Jews were expelled from several cities amid anti-Jewish propaganda. Spain, then reigning in Sardinia and Sicily, included them in the expulsion edicts of March 1492, and the Jews relocated to central and Northern cities of the peninsula---welcome there for their banking experience. New kehillot grew and matured, but not for long.
The Counter-Reformation created an atmosphere that encouraged the pope's harshness against the Jews, confining them to ghettos, restricting their economic activity and burning books of the Talmud. By the 16th to the mid 17th century, the ghetto was an established institution for nearly 30,000 Jews, 7000 of them crammed into the ghetto in Rome. Cosmopolitan intellectual life was limited, but the study of Talmud and mystic Kabbalah flourished. Napoleon's conquest liberated the ghetto (1796-1798) but the 1815 French retreat allowed restoration of the old repressive order.
With the goal of ridding the peninsula of oppressive regimes, the Risorgimento liberation movement (1750-1870) proclaimed freedom and equality for Jews. Pope Pius IX ordered the abolition of ghettos in Rome and other Papal States during the 1848 revolution. Italy and Italian Jewry were liberated with the annexation of Rome to a united Italy in October 1870. New careers now accessible in the cities emptied many rural Jewish communities during the decades before World War I as the Jews eagerly integrated into the larger society.
As Mussolini's Fascist Government became closer to Nazi Germany in 1936, so Italian Fascism turned to overt anti-Semitism. Italy's surrender in September 1943 left the south in the hands of the Allies, but the Nazis controlled central and Northern Italy, where they viciously applied the "Final Solution." Fewer then 30,000 Jews in post-war Italy found themselves struggling to rebuild communities diminished by deportation, conversion and emigration.
Local Italian populations had little interest in destroying the synagogues and the Germans had had little time to wreak the kind of damage they did in other parts of Europe. Therefore, many Italian synagogues remained intact. Most of Italy's standing synagogues are in a reasonable state of repair, including some that are in towns without Jews. A few vacant synagogues have recently been restored with funding by both municipal and Jewish interests. The majority of extant synagogues as in the older synagogues in Italy are in the Sephardic pattern, with bipolar arrangement of facing benches, or with a central bimah. Some follow the Ashkenazic layout, placing Ark and bimah together, at the east.
Italy's 35,000 Jews live mostly in Rome and Milan, with smaller numbers in Turin, Florence and Livorno. Some 23 other cities and towns are home to the remainder." [February 2009]