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Alex Dashefsky

Synagogue In Rome
photo by Alex Dashefsky

photo by Alex Dashefsky

Alex Dashefsky: From Israel to Rome: A New Perspective After Taking Dr. Chatterley's Course on the History of Antisemitism

Alex Dashefsky, November 21 , 2013

[Alex Dashevsky, a student at the University of Manitoba who was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last summer has written about his experience coming from Israel to the former Jewish ghetto in Rome, where there is still a small Jewish community]


Bearing the burden of transition, I stepped off the plane into Italy. After six weeks in Israel - the epicentre of Jewish life - travelling to Italy proved to be a shock to the system. I was removed from my cultural hub only to find myself in another atmosphere entirely, although maintaining similar nuances of religiosity. Churches displaced synagogues, while white collars replaced the black suits and hats I grew accustomed to over the past month and a half. I had unfortunately settled into an insular mindset. The world I lived in was solely a Jewish one, and I became disconnected from the realities of Judaism’s proportions in the world. I was truly overwhelmed by the aggressive presence of Catholicism that dominated the country.


This trip to Europe was not my first, yet was my first since taking History of Antisemitism and the Holocaust at the University of Manitoba with Dr. Catherine Chatterley. The course was able to provide fresh perspectives on the historical Judaic presence in Europe. Armed with these outlooks, I was determined to explore the sites that depict this history, specifically in Rome. I viewed Christianity, especially Catholicism, in a new and somewhat critical light. I was now able to identify the strong connections engrained within the history of Christianity; torn from the cloth of Judaism.


Jewish persecution in Europe is a phenomenon that predates Hitler. Especially in cities such as Rome, which has shared close ties with Jewish life since antiquity, antisemitism was alive, stemming from the deicide charge. Antisemitism is a function of the Christian imagination, incubated through the spread of the religion, and ultimately becoming a ubiquitous way of thinking leading into modern times. Many Hitlerian methods were extrapolated from previous subjections to Jews. In 1555, Jews were segregated in the Rione Sant’Angelo in Italy’s capital. This segregation came after a charter was implemented by the pope of that time. Much like during World War II, the 2000 Jews living in the city paid for the expenses of the ghetto. Christian families owned properties, while Jews were forced to pay rent for their housing. Life largely remained this way until the late 19th century when ghetto-life was mostly demolished. In 1943, Nazi soldiers gathered the Jews in a square near the old ghetto and demanded 110 pounds of gold before the day was out. Both Jews and non-Jews alike worked together to meet this demand. Despite this, Jews in this community were gathered and sent to camps in the time following.


Today, the area where the ghetto stood is still occupied by a small Jewish community. My experience walking through the preserved area was a strange one. My expectations were high, as I craved the comforts of my culture that had become habit in Israel. While visiting, I felt as though the atmosphere was falsely preserved, a ploy to appeal to Jewish tourists who happen to be passing by. It was a Friday afternoon, where for the past few weeks Fridays had been time of action in my life, surrounded by frantic preparations for the upcoming Shabbat. This familiar experience was juxtaposed by empty streets, withering posters of Jewish events that had passed, and a lone Israeli flag that was seemingly displaced in a sea of overbearing Christianity. I entered a Jewish café only to be served by a woman wearing a large crucifixion; something I was not expecting yet by which I was not entirely surprised. A few stones remained on the walls of a building nearby bearing a Meorah and Magen David where a small group gathered, discussing the lack of their authenticity. I then walked to see the synagogue, hopeful to see a spark of active Jewish life. The synagogue itself is a masterpiece, standing tall and radiating a Mediterranean vibe; however, no one but the guards were around as Shabbat approached. It was at this moment I finally appreciated the command that antisemitism held over Europe. The Christian mindset suffocated Judaism to the point of near distinction in Continental Europe over the past 2000 years. What is left is a relic; a commercialized bastardization of Jewish culture in an attempt to memorialize what has been lost through the power of hatred.


My appreciation for the knowledge and perspectives given to me by Dr. Chatterley is endless. Removing biases and studying the progression of antisemetic history has allowed me to view prejudice from a new vantage point. Studying the ruins of the Jewish life that was, only intensifies my beliefs towards the importance of Jewish life today. Israel and the diaspora need to stand together as two pillars serving to support the burden of the antisemetic history that we bear, and most importantly, to support our future together as a unified people.

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