Work in Progress to “Visit Jewish Italy”

Shortly before the Jewish New Year 5779, the non-profit Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia ("Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage in Italy"), with the financial support of the Cav. Guglielmo De Lévy Jewish Foundation, launched a new web portal for Jewish museums, monuments, and cult buildings in Italy from Antiquity to the present. Available in English and Italian as "Visit Jewish Italy", the website is especially handy for travelers with its mobile-friendly template and indexes of Jewish sites by location and type (such as cemetery, synagogue, Kashrut services, and museums). Scrolling down, the user can interact with the site by browsing destinations or listings of a specific feature. The template is rich in images and interactive maps which lead to short descriptions of each site with address, visiting hours, and contact information. 

As a test run, we selected, at random, the location of "Marsala" in Sicily, where Jews are likely to have settled in Roman times and where a documented Jewish presence is known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries before the expulsion of Jews from Southern Italy in 1492. The landing page for Marsala is dominated by several images of the historic Jewish quarter. Clicking on the "Discover" button, we arrive at a page with a Google map of the area. A small button marked "Preview" brings up a summary of the preceding page, but clicking on an unlabeled image at far left opens up a much more detailed itinerary of Jewish Marsala, locating a synagogue, cemetery, and mikveh, as well as city museum collections, the Flemish Tapestry Museum and “Baglio Anselmi” Archaeological Museum, which exhibit Jewish-themed items. This kind of information is what we were really after, but we only came across it by accident, clicking on a picture that turned out to be a hyperlink. It would be helpful to re-tool this feature so that people know where to look and how to arrive at these nicely-detailed guides. 

Our next stop is Rome, with far more listings in all the categories. At this point, we understand that by clicking on the picture, we will get the guide. In the example of Rome, however, in light of its sizable Jewish community of today and clear evidence of very ancient origins, it is a hard to figure out what makes the FBCEI list as a "Jewish" cultural good. Some of the modern synagogues are listed, like the Great Temple and Di Castro Oratory, but not all of the Jewish centers of worship and community in Rome (because they are not historic enough, or belong to specific movements within Judaism on a global scale, like Chabad Lubavitch and Reform?). The archaeological remains of the Jewish catacombs of Vigna Randanini and Villa Torlonia and Synagogue at Ostia Antica are listed, but not state and church museums which hold artifacts from these ancient Jewish sites and others (a short list would include the Vatican Museums, the Capitoline Museums, and National Museum of Rome). The absence of museums is not because they are not directly overseen by the Rome's Jewish community, for the Arch of Titus is listed on the site, and it is not even a Jewish monument, as intended, though it has come to symbolize to some the modern Jewish State. Given the difficulty and expense of visiting Jewish catacombs, that do not yet have public opening hours, this oversight should be corrected, with the addition as well of the locations of various Hebrew and other Jewish manuscripts and documentation in Rome collections and archives, also essential testimonies to Rome's Jews (maybe, too, specifying which Jewish treasures are in the Vatican's possession - quite a list).

There are other sites we would like to see included in the geographical listings - Tivoli, for instance, also Bari, Taranto, Lavello, Fondi, Nocera - even if the location of many of their Jewish buildings and cemeteries is not certain, there is the certainty that they were there, and local museums preserve some traces (for if Agrigento is included for this reason, then why not also Comiso?). To many, we must seem overly critical, and nit-picking like this is perhaps demanding too much. Yet a web portal is in essence an interactive and fluid means of communication, that should be periodically updated and fine-tuned to reach as wide a public as possible. "Visit Jewish Italy" is on a quest for perfection in this affair - freely defining itself as a "work in progress", and lively public engagement and constructive feedback will be the most important measures of its success.

- Jessica Dello Russo