Friday, January 26, 2007

Decline and renewal in Rome's Jewish ghetto.

As today's New York Times reports, Rome's fabled Jewish ghetto - the very first "ghetto," established in the 1500's - is managing to hold on to its identity as a center of Jewish life even as its Jewish population has declined due to gentrification:

As a boy, in October 1943, Pacifico Disegni watched from his window as two German trucks hauled people away from the ghetto in Rome, a city where Jews have lived for 2,000 years.

Last year, in blessedly more peaceful times, a rich visitor from Boston took in the view from that same window. A magnificent front-row view of the Theater of Marcellus, first planned by Julius Caesar, somehow salves the sting of history.

Mr. Disegni, now 78, said the man produced a blank check and offered to buy the apartment on the spot.

"He said, 'You write how many millions you want,'" Mr. Disegni said.

Mr. Disegni, who is Jewish, refused. But these bookend events at his window cast light on a paradox in the city with the oldest Jewish population in Europe. High real estate prices, not violence or bias, are driving the last Jews from their homes in the old ghetto, which is slowly transforming itself into a trendy enclave for the rich and famous.

Experts say only 200 or 300 Jews remain, in a neighborhood that numbered 9,000 after the deportation of 2,000 during World War II.

But there is a second paradox. Even as the number of Jews living in the ghetto drops to near nothing, Jewish life is thriving.
To read the rest, click here. The bottom line, as NYT reporter writes several paragraphs down in the article, is that even though the Jewish population has dwindled "Jews who live around Rome worship in the ghetto, socialize there, work there, because commercial space is not as pricey as apartments." Reading this story, I thought of the American phenomenon of what I like to call "Potemkin village" ethnic neighborhoods, which retain their character as commercial, cultural and religious centers for the groups that lend them a sense of definition long after all (or nearly all) the people who gave the area its ethnic identity have moved away. You can find neighborhoods like this in most major American cities - examples I've encountered include the historically Italian North End in Boston, Manhattan's Little Italy, Detroit's Greektown and even Chinatown in Washington (which has many more Chinese restaurants and shops than it does Chinese residents). There's a certain kind of artifice in the preservation of these neighborhoods - hence the "Potemkin village" moniker - but I applaud the efforts of the groups that work to maintain them as cultural and social centers even after they've ceased to become ethnic neighborhoods in the truest sense. Reading about how this is apparently happening in Rome, I wonder whether the "Potemkin village" ethnic neighborhood is becoming a global phenomenon. AMDG.


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