Theater of Acculturation

The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century

Kenneth R. Stow

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: Jewish Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 272 pp., 20 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Published with: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
  • Contents

Generations of tourists visiting Rome have ventured into the small section between the Tiber River and the Capitoline Hill whose narrow, dark streets lead to the charming Fountain of the Tortoises, the brooding mass of the Palazzo Cenci, and some of the best restaurants in the city. This was the site of the Ghetto, within whose walls the Jews of Rome were compelled to live from 1555 until 1870. Kenneth Stow, leading authority on Italian Jews, probes Jewish life in Rome in the early years of the Ghetto.

Jews had been residents of Rome since before the days of Julius Caesar, but the 16th century brought great challenges to their identity and survival in the form of Ghettoization. Intended to expedite conversion and cultural dissolution, the Ghetto in fact had an opposite effect. The Jews of Rome developed a subculture, or microculture, that ensured continuity. In particular, they developed a remarkably effective legal network of rabbinic notaries, who drew public documents such as contracts, took testimony, and arranged for disputes to go to arbitration. The ability to settle disputes relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other internal matters gave Jews the illusion that they, rather than the papal vicar, were running their own affairs.

Stow applies his concept of "social theater" to illuminate the role-playing that Jews adopted as a means of survival within the dominant Christian environment. He also touches briefly on Jewish culture in post-Emancipation Rome, elsewhere in Europe, and in America, and points the way toward a comparison with the acculturational strategies of other minorities, especially African Americans.
Kenneth Stow is professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa and was the 1996 Kennedy Professor in the Renaissance at Smith College. His numerous publications include Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe and the two-volume The Jews in Rome.
Introduction: The Jews of Rome and the Rhythms of Roman Jewish Life
The Jew in a Traumatized Society
What Is in a Name? or, The Matrices of Acculturation
Social Reconciliation, from Within and Without

"This is an illuminating and compelling story, told with insight and subtlety. It is highly recommended for students of religion, history, cultural studies, and a host of other disciplines."
-Religious Studies Review