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Sephardic Jews Leave Genetic Legacy In Spain - HISTORY

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Author Topic: Sephardic Jews Leave Genetic Legacy In Spain - HISTORY  (Read 6285 times)
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« Reply #45 on: December 08, 2008, 11:19:10 am »

                                       A history of Italy's Jews, corso espresso

Patricia Yollin,
SFChronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

David Rosenberg-Wohl gazed at the double latte he'd ordered in a cafe just north of the UC Berkeley campus.

"Do you realize this cup of coffee comes to us by way of the Jews of Italy?" he asked. "In 1632."

He should know. Rosenberg-Wohl is the curator of an exhibition at the Museo ItaloAmericano in San Francisco titled "Il Ghetto: Forging Italian Jewish Identities 1516-1870."

"I guess I didn't think designing an exhibit would be any different from telling stories. And I like telling stories," said the former lawyer, who is working on a joint doctorate in Jewish studies at Cal and the Graduate Theological Union.

And the story Rosenberg-Wohl tells goes well beyond the ghetto.

"It's a crash course in the history of Jews in Italy," said Paola Bagnatori, managing director of the Museo. "A corso espresso."

The show includes photographs, artifacts and objects such as ceramic plates, spice boxes, manuscripts, a prized musical score and items of religious worship ranging from Torah pointers to Hanukkah lamps.

"It's rare to have an opportunity to learn about a hybrid culture," Rosenberg-Wohl said. "It's particularly relevant for those of us living in a multicultural society."

The exhibition is full of surprises, starting with the word "ghetto" itself.

In 1516, the Jews of Venice were sent to live on the island dumping ground of a copper foundry, or geto, which comes from the Italian gettare, meaning to throw or cast away.

Although linguists and historians don't agree on how the word evolved into "ghetto," it's clear that at some point between 1516 and 1633, it lost the original meaning and instead described an enclosed, segregated Jewish quarter.

In 1589, it surfaced for the first time in an official document produced by a Jewish notary in Rome, who referred to an area where Jews had been segregated as il nostro ghet (our ghetto). The Hebrew word ghet, so similar to geto, means divorce or separation.

"The word resonated with the Jews of Italy, who saw their confinement as a separation from the larger society," said Mary Serventi Steiner, project coordinator for the Museo show. "I thought this was so interesting: The blending of the two cultures can be seen in the word 'ghetto' itself."

The idea for the show was hatched when Steiner suggested a Jewish Italy tour. Bagnatori replied, 'Why not a Jewish Italy exhibit?' "

"We felt that it was a little-known aspect of Italian culture that we wanted to share with the public," Steiner said.

Two years later, there is an exhibition, lecture program, 11 community partners and a tour of Italy scheduled for March.

Sheila Baumgarten, a nonprofit consultant, helped get financial support for the show, which, at more than $50,000, is the most expensive in Museo history; her husband, Professor Murray Baumgarten, provided academic expertise. The images alone came from more than 30 national and international museums and libraries.

"Generally, modern Jewish culture is thought of in terms of its Eastern European roots," Steiner said. "But this exhibit shows another aspect of it: the interaction between Jewish culture and Italian culture, and the impact and influence they had on each other."

The exhibition looks at more than 350 years of Jewish life in Venice, Rome and Florence - with forays into Livorno, Padua and Mantua - leading up to 1870, when Italy was unified.

"Italy was the gateway through which Jewish culture in Europe was established," Rosenberg-Wohl said.

Most people associate "ghetto" with its modern urban context or with the Holocaust carried out by the Nazi regime in Europe during World War II, Rosenberg-Wohl said. Few realize it was born in Venice in the 16th century.

Murray Baumgarten said Venetian society and government came up with the notion of the ghetto in response to a crisis - economic, political and social - brought on by a series of military defeats in 1509 that basically destroyed the Venetian empire. They not only decided the Jews had polluted their Christian society and were rivals to their merchants but also realized they were needed as pawnbrokers and moneylenders.

"Rather than expel them as the Spaniards had done in 1492, the French in 1319 and the English in 1290, they decided to sequester them, limit where they could live and what they could do to make a living," said Baumgarten, head of Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Referring to medieval images of Moses with horns, he said, "The Venetians were referencing a deep feeling that the Jews were a different species," not quite human.

Although the ghetto was supposed to be a way to keep contacts between Jews and Christians strictly regulated, he said, it didn't work out that way.

"Despite the ghetto walls, increasing proximity brought increasing familiarity between Jews and Christians," notes one exhibit. "They traded, argued and had sexual relations."

Rosenberg-Wohl said the formation of the ghetto was a "liberal solution," an alternative to extermination or conversion.

"While we remember the walls, it's equally important to remember the gates," he said.

Il Ghetto: Forging Italian Jewish Identities 1516-1870:

Through Feb. 15. Free. Noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Museo ItaloAmericano, Building C,
Fort Mason Center,
Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street,
San Francisco.
(415) 673-2200,
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Your mind understands what you have been taught; your heart what is true.
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