Rome, on the banks of the Tiber River not far from the Mediterranean Sea, is an excellent starting place to explore European Jewish history. Home to a Jewish community of 13,000 that has lived here since the second century B.C., the city offers many Jewish places to explore.
My husband and I traveled from Rome to Barcelona on the Silversea Silver Spirit cruise ship and chose to arrive in the port city of Rome a few days early to visit Jewish sights.
The Portico di Ottavia, the entrance gate to the Jewish ghetto built by the emperor Augustus is a good starting place to explore the Jewish community. We were ushered there by our guide, Daniela Amar, from Milk and Honey Tours, a company that specializes in Jewish tours.
The ghetto, established in 16th century by Pope Paul IV, is not just a place for tourists to visit. It is a gathering place for the Jewish community of Rome. The ghetto is lined with restaurants with outdoor tables, bakeries and residences. Some of the restaurants are kosher. There is also a kosher bakery and butcher shop.
Our guide explained that this area is now one of the most desirable in the city with high property values. The Great Synagogue of Rome is located in the ghetto with its majestic columns and aluminum dome. Built in the early 20th century, the synagogue may be visited but no photos are allowed to be taken once inside of its gates. The synagogue is under continual surveillance since 1982 when it was attacked by terrorists wounding 37 civilians and killing a 10-month old baby. Housed in the lower level of the synagogue is the Jewish Museum of Rome with many precious relics of Roman Jewry.
While in the Jewish ghetto area, we sampled the tasty Jewish pizza and fried artichokes.
Florence, Italy, our next port of call offered a further glimpse into European Jewish history. We met with Rabbi Yoshev Levi in Florence. Levi is the spiritual leader of the Great Synagogue of Florence, built in 1872. The massive structure with its green copper domes can be seen from any part of the city. Its Moorish style frescos allow light to filter through its stained glass windows. The synagogue survived bombs set off by the Nazis fleeing Florence and is one of the finest examples of 19th century Italian architecture. Security is constant with a guard at the door and screening devices in place.
The rabbi said that his biggest challenge in Florence is to form a new generation of Jewish scholars.
"We have more than 1,000 Jewish students every year who come to study in Florence," Levi said. "I create contacts with the students that come to Florence and want to re-create an international community by inviting the students for a Sabbath meal and to participate in our synagogue services and activities."
Services at the synagogue take place on Friday evening and Saturday mornings. Ruth's Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant is a kosher eatery near the synagogue.
The synagogue complex also contains the Jewish museum of Florence. The museum documents the history of the Florentine Jewish community from its birth in 1437 to the establishment of the Ghetto in 1571, its expansion in 1704 and its demolition during the last decade of the 19th century. The museum contains furnishings and Jewish artifacts acquired from two ghetto synagogues along with traditional Jewish symbolic items, photos and maps documenting Jewish life in Florence.
Barcelona, the last city on our Jewish history tour, included a visit to a synagogue (Sinagoga Major) in the old Jewish quarter that was hidden for many years and re-discovered in 1996. It was re-opened as a museum in 2001 and is walking distance from Barcelona's Old City. The synagogue was said to be built in the third or fourth century and expanded in the 13th century. Daily tours are offered and a docent explains the history of the ancient synagogue. Barcelona also has an excellent kosher restaurant, Maccabi Kosher, located on Las Ramblas in the heart of the Old City.
The Jewish community of Barcelona is located on Avenue 24. There are 7,000 registered Jews in Barcelona and four synagogues.
For more information on Jewish tours in Europe, log on to http://www.milkandhoneytours