This is my summary of the article, "The Early Settlement of the Jews in Southern Italy" by Adolf Neubauer. It appeared in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul., 1892), pp. 606-625 and was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Neubauer (1831-1907) was born in Hungary and became sublibrarian at the Bodleian Library and reader in Rabbinical Hebrew at Oxford University. The text is well footnoted. Many of the notes and quoted passages in the text, itself, are in Hebrew and the author assumes a knowledge of that language on the part of the reader. Numbered, bracketed notes [like this, in italics] in the summary are mine and not in the original text. They are meant to provide a bit more explanation than that found in the original text. I have placed them at the end of respective paragraphs.
[1. The Maccabees were a Jewish rebel army who took control of parts of the land of Israel, which had been a client state of the Seleucid Empire. They ruled from 164 BC to 63 BC, reasserting the Jewish religion and expanding the boundaries of Israel.]
[2. The Mithridatic Wars were a series of wars between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus, one of the successor states of the empire of Alexander the Great.]
[3. Belisarius: Byzantine general instrumental in Justinian's attempt to reconquer the Western Roman Empire.]Thus, "from the decrees of Gregory the Great, Pope Honorius, and many Councils, we may conclude that Jews were spread over the whole of Italy, including Sicily, as early as the sixth century and later on." Neubauer refers to Rabbi Tam of Ramerupt  who cited as an old saying, "Out of Bari shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Otranto."  Both Bari and Otranto were important in Jewish leaning as early as the eighth century.
[4. That situation has changed somewhat since the writing of this article (1892). As noted elsewhere in this encyclopedia, catacombs were discovered in 1908 and 1931. They have, however, to my knowledge not been excavated.]
[5. Venosa is east of Naples, just outside of the Campania region near the town of Potenza in the region of Basilicata. The Jewish catacombs there were discovered in 1853. The Jewish community in Venosa is well-known and there is ample documentation.]
[6. Tam of Ramerupt lived in the 1100s and was one of the greatest commentators on the Talmud.]There follows an account of Rabbi Shephatyah's (of Otranto) saving of five congregations from forced conversion under the rule of Byzantine emperor Basil II. The rabbi is said to have healed the emperor's daughter of insanity and thus brought an end to the persecution of Jews in Otranto. The date of Basil's persecutions is given in a chronicle compiled in the eleventh century as 4628 A.M. [anno mundi/year of the world=868 AD). That chronicle, "important for the Jewish settlement in Southern Italy," is in the Cathedral Library of Toledo. There follow some pages of tales from the chronicle on the wanderings of various Jews to Italy after the destruction of the Temple.
[7. A play on a passage in the Book of Isaiah, substituting "Bari" and "Otranto" for "Zion" and "Jerusalem."]
Thus Bari and Otranto possessed learned rabbis, certainly as early as 870, and most likely before that time. The saying of R. Jacob Tam is thus justified. Many of these rabbis might have been the ancestors of those killed by the Arabs at Oria, in the Province of Otranto, in 925.The author mentions some minor Midrashic treatises composed in Southern Italy around the year 900. Mention of the Jewish War under Titus:
[8. Oria is in southern Italy, in the heel of the "boot" of Italy. It was the birthplace of the medieval scholar Shabbethai Donnolo (913-982), one of the first Jewish writers on medicine. The town was a well-known center of Jewish scholarship in medieval Italy. It was sacked and destroyed in 925 by Arab raiders.]
Titus placed governors in the towns which made peace with him, and left them in the land of Judah. The number of prisoners which Titus carried away was 90,000; of those who fell in Jerusalem by sword and hunger, together with those who were spared and returned, was 108,000; of those given to his father and settled at Rome was 1,500; those who settled at Taranto, Otranto and other towns in Puglia, was 5,000. Vespasian gave to his son Titus Africa and Spain, where 30,000 Jews settled in Carthage and in his capital Sevilla on the river Baetis.And, finally, Neubauer says, "Thus we reach the eleventh century, where we find, if not a great school, at least learned men in Sicily, Siponte, probably also at Salerno, Trani, and more especially at Rome, where the Talmudic Lexicon by Nathan, still in use, was finished about 1100."
[9. Titus was the Roman emperor from the years 79-81. Before that, he was the military commander responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70.]
[10. Nathan: reference to Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (1035-1106), lexicographer and liturgical poet.]
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What is Sephardic? What is Ladino?2. (added April 2021)
This is NOT complicated*
I wrote the Afterword afterward, but maybe you should read it now.
It's down at the bottom.
What makes a group of people call themselves a group? You might say, well, it's what they feel they have in common —language, religion (or lack thereof), political views, history (that is, the time they have spent together
viewing themselves as a group, their hopes, dreams, how they live and die, their tragedies and their miracles.
So if we ask "What is their soul? is 'soul' a fair term? Yes, but it's weighted down with the religious meaning of
a part of the individual that lives on after we die. How about 'spirit'? Is that better? Not really. "The spirit of a
people" is not nearly as strong. Let's stay with "soul".
Sephardic refers to a 'brand' of Judaism (as Roman Catholic does to a 'brand' of Christianity). Ladino is the language that Sephardics speak. Let's start with the language first because that is NOT complicated. [Still kidding!] . In 1999 in Italy they passed Law n. 482 of that year
"...to safeguard the culture and languages of the Albanian, Catalonian, German, Greek, Slovenian and Croatian populations as well as of those who speak French, Franco-Provencal, Friulian, Ladino, Occitanian and Sardinian."
Other parts of the law provide for instruction in schools, at least partially, in minority languages." That is impressive and fair. It mentions "those who speak... Ladino...". That is NOT the Ladino I am going to talk about! That law refers to the fourth official language of Switzerland, varieties of which are also spoken in parts of northern Italy. I know a native speaker of that Ladino. He is from Chur, Switzerland, and he calls it "Romansch" when he is speaking Ladino or German, but when he is speaking in Italian, he calls it "Ladino". The Germans call it Dolomitenladinisch.The official name for it in English is Rheto-Romance, Romansh or Rhaetian, but we don't speak it, so what do we know!? See? That wasn't so bad!
I am talking about the Ladino alluded to in this image (right), the language of Sephardic Jews. Following the account in the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh, the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, including the Torah), Abraham was the first Patriarch, to whom God revealed the tenets of the Jewish faith. It's simple: Adam (the first man)---> Noah---> Abraham. Abraham lived around 2000 B.C. His son Jacob (alive in c.1850 BC) wrestled with an angel and was renamed "Israel". The name "Israel" may mean "God rules." Jakob had 12 sons; "the 12 tribes of Israel" are named for those sons.
The unification of Israel took place around 1000 B.C. Before that you had the migration of Jacob to Egypt, 400 years in Egypt, the Exodus out of Egypt under Moses, and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Our "biblical" Israel, the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, was short, both in quick succession around 900 B.C. It came about after the Jews had wandered through the desert for 40 years from Egypt to reach the Promised Land, Canaan, which the Lord had promised to them once they polished off the Canaanites, who were living there. It became Judea. Then it all went downhill. Ten tribes in the north were sent off in the 700s BC to somewhere in Asia by Sargon II, the Assyrian king. These are the so-called "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (all but Judah and Benjamin). (The others? There is no end of stories about them. Make up your own.) If you want more detail, read Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (you'll fall asleep somewhere in Leviticus.) Fast forward a bit to Alexander the Great, the prototypal builder of empires. He died in 323 BC. His vast empire fell apart quickly into successor states, one of which was the Seleucid Empire. Within that area were Jewish rebels called the Maccabees, warriors who took control of Judea, the southern part of what once was ruled by David and Solomon and ruled it as an independent kingdom from 110 to 63 BCE.** They even had diplomats posted elsewhere —in Rome, for example. They were defeated by the Romans at the siege of Masada (73 BC) when the Maccabee forces fell on their swords rather than surrender.*** Romans finally conquered all of Palestine (70 BC), making it part of the Roman province of Syria. Jews were then expelled to be refugees and slaves all over Europe and the Mediterranean. That was the beginning of the Diaspora (scattering, dispersal). At that point Jews spoke Aramaic (the modern version is called 'Syriac'). Hebrew was used only in religious services.)
** As the article above this one says, it's possible (but unlikely) that Maccabee diplomats in Rome spoke Aramaic among themselves. It's also possible that they held religious services in Hebrew. That would be "pre-Diaspora" Jews in Italy. It's all fascinating, but all very speculative. Fun to think about, though.What happened to the language of the Jews once they left their homeland? The best-known example is the language of eastern and northern European Jewry called Yiddish. It has become a language of literature as well as the backbone of much American comedy. Everyone knows some Yiddish, and not just from Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies. If you have seen the 1964 musical or the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, that is from the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Solomon J. Rabinowitz [1859- 1916], called the Jewish 'Mark Twain.' They say Mark Twain went to meet him once, held out his hand and said, "They tell me I'm the American Sholem Aleichem. My pleasure, sir!") The pen-name is a common Yiddish greeting meaning "Peace be with you." It is much different from the language of the Sephardics, who went south and west across the Mediterranean to what is now Spain.
The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature by Ilan Stavans contains fiction, memoirs,
essays, and poetry from twenty-eight writers spanning more than 150 years. Included by Emma
Lazarus (a Sephardic Jew) is her poem, The New Colossus (1883) -"Give me your tired, your
poor, your huddled masses...") Pub. : Schocken; (2005) Don't worry. It's all in English.
ISBN-10 ; 0805242287; ISBN-13 : 978-0805242287
The name 'Sephardic' most likely comes from a Biblical location, but later, when Jews said 'Sepharad' they meant Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sefarád means "Spain" in modern Hebrew. In English, you may hear "Judeo-Spanish", but it is "Ladino" to Jews around the world. It's a Romance language, much of it from Old Spanish and other old Romance dialects spoken on the Iberian Peninsula when the Muslims ruled most of it as Andalusia (the 700s to 1200s). Ladino has been enriched by Ottoman Turkish and Semitic from Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic in the fields of religion and law. It is influenced by languages of the Balkans, such as Greek, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian. (The Sephardics were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Wicked Queen Isabella (!) as the "Reconquest" took hold (i.e. Christians taking the peninsula back from the Muslims). She gave them three choices: (1) convert to Christianity, (2) be burnt alive at the stake, (3) leave. They spread back to the east, many to Italy. Speakers of Ladino, Sephardics, get short-changed as the "other" Jews. Of course, Sephardics may think of speakers of Yiddish, "Ashkenazi" Jews, as the "others". (That term is from Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Japhet, son of Noah. I have heard they don't always get along, even though they are all Jews. Maybe it's a kind of "I am more of a Jew than you are," but I'm not qualified to referee "holier-than-thou" arm-wrestling.
Back to the questions, What is Sephardic? What is Ladino? A religion, a language, respectively. Do Sephardics speak Ladino with one another? Some do, some don't. (Typically, they also speak the language of the country they live in.) Do Sephardics write in Ladino? Maybe personal letters, diaries, etc. but it was never the vehicle for literature that Yiddish was. Are there "secular" Sephardics? Of course. There was never a Sholem Aleichem in Ladino, or, if so, that person really had some great stories! Back to the original question, soul. The soul of a people that have been through what the Jews have is all around them. This soul-puzzle is a crystal snow globe with water (the soul), and snow flakes are the bits of human lives, always moving. They never settle and that is how it should be.
I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. My Jewish friends were all Ashkenazi. I had never heard the term "Sephardic" (and I'll bet many of my friends hadn't, either). That has changed somewhat. There are many programs in "Sephardic studies." These are some available resources:
SHOFAR Summer 20001 Vol.19, No.4
Implying that there are two kinds of Judaism -- Ashkenazi and Sephardic -- was an oversimplification. I apologize. I discussed "Spanish" Jews (Sephardic) with some mention of "northern" Jews (those that have given us Yiddish), both terms referring to what happened after the Diaspora, after they left home. They went in different directions. So, it's location or direction? No. There are as many kinds of Jews as there are directions! Asking, What is a Jew? is like asking, What is a tree? If it helps to think of pre-Diaspora Judaism as the original roots of the tree, ok, and maybe you can include some of the trunk (if you can find it in this image). Then comes the Diaspora and the rest of the tree. My two were pretty good-sized branches, but what about the rest of the tree? It's still growing with more big branches, the small ones, the leaves. (Certainly a few squirrels, but that's a theological problem I may deal with some other time. Or maybe not.) Thus, there are Mizrahi Jews, roughly applied to descendants of Jews from the Middle East, and also Maghrebi Jews who in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. There are Jewish communities in the Caucasus, Central Asia and India, and even Mountain Jews ("Kavkazim") from Dagestan, not to mention Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As long ago as Biblical times, there were cultural and linguistic differences between Jewish communities within Ancient Israel and Judea. Even in that small area you had long-term isolation. Think of what happens in a thousand years of diaspora that covered continents. So it's no longer a matter of religion (though clearly it once was). It may be that many Jews today see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religion. What's more important, the cart or the horse?
***And a word about Masada. Herod the Great's fortified complex (image) at Masada was a winter retreat and insurance against a feared rebellion of his Jewish subjects or an attack from Rome. Luxurious palaces, barracks, storerooms, bathhouses, and water cisterns sat on a plateau 400m above the Dead Sea and desert floor. Roman historian Flavius Josephus' account is that the men killed their wives and children, then each other, until the last survivor killed himself . That symbolism of heroism and "death before slavery" was an icons of the new nation state of Israel in 1948.. "Masada shall not fall again." Modern archaeology has some doubt. A few say the story is a total fabrication, but most criticism says archaeologists needed to raise money for excavations, so they hyped the story to sell books. Others question what the icon symbolizes: "You stand alone on a hill to fight your enemies and then commit suicide? This is the 'Masada complex'? This is the model for Israel?" (from Yadin Roman, the editor of Eretz magazine, author of a book on the Masada excavation.
LASTWORD -- Can it get more complicated? Yes.
In 1906, Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley (1861 – 1931) the British librarian and head of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford from 1919 until a couple of months before his death, published The Aramaic Papyri (also known as the Elephantine Papyri) of the Fifth Century B.C. During his time as Bodley's Librarian, he was regarded as one of the leading Semitic scholars of the time. In 1923 he published a revision of his 1906 work, incorporating critical results of other scholars; his original text was largely unaltered. His book on the papyri is still the benchmark for discussion on the topic of the Elephantine Papyri. These are documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine island (in Egypt, on the Nile near Aswan), a trove of hundreds of papyri in hieratic and demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Koine Greek, Latin and Coptic. The documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives, and are invaluable in such disciplines such as epistolography, law, society, religion, language and onomastics. The original manuscripts are from the 5th century BCE. Digs started in the late 1800s. Cowley's 1906 book was the first scholarly product . (Cowley, Arthur, The Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., 1923, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.)
Salient comments from Cowley include:
"[The papyri] show clear evidence of the existence in c. 400 BCE of a polytheistic sect of Jews, who seem to have had no knowledge of a written Torah or the narratives described therein... So far as we learn from these texts Moses might never have existed, there might have been no bondage in Egypt, no exodus, no monarchy, no prophets. There is no mention of other tribes and no claim to any heritage in the land of Judah. Among the numerous names of colonists, [the names] Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, so common in later times, never occur, nor any other name derived from their past history as recorded in the Pentateuch and early literature. It is almost incredible, but it is true."
— Arthur Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. p. xxiii.
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This is the English summary of a longer article that appeared in Materia giudaica, Rivista dell’associazione italiana per lo studio del giudaismo XI/1-2 (2006)
3. The Historical Site of the Jewish Quarter of Naples in X-XVI Centuries
by Giancarlo Lacerenza
The current Naples synagogue, near Piazza dei MartiriFrom the age of ancient Rome to the Expulsion of 1541, a Jewish community flourished in Naples. This essay attempts to trace the development and the true extent of its urban space. A close re-examination of maps and documents lets us correct many traditional views about the areas where Jews lived in Naples. From recent excavations along the southern city walls, we can learn something new about the Monterone area. It might have been inhabited by Jews throughout the centuries − both before and after Belisarius’ sack of Naples in 536. It also seems that after the Byzantine conquest of the town, the Jews moved for a while to the Vicus Iudaeorum, on the opposite side of the city walls. There is no evidence, however, of an extended settlement there, as has been maintained. At the end of the Byzantine Duchy, the Jews seem to have lived at Monterone again, near Patrizzana, under the ducal palace and the monastery of St. Marcellinus and Peter, where they had a synagogue, probably inherited from the Late Roman or Gothic period. During the High Middle Ages, perhaps under Norman rule, a new Jewish quarter was established in the east, in the Forcella region. In the same period, however, a new synagogue or scola was established at Patrizzano, close to the church of St. Renato, often referred to later to as St. Donato. From there, the Jewish quarter spread to the lower Portanova area, where in 1295 a synagogue − probably the Church of Santa Caterina Spinacorona, which still exists − was converted by a group of neophyti into a Christian holy site. In the Aragonese period that followed, there was an extensive Jewish quarter in Portanova, the Giudecca grande, and a Giudechella [smaller]. Another Giudechella became necessary when, in 1492, hundreds of exiles from Spain and Sicily reached Naples, where they settled for decades.
synagogue photo by Fulvio De Marinis
The Center for Jewish Studies in Naples is headed by Prof. Lacerenza, the author of the above article, and is at
Palazzo Corigliano, 5th floor (remember, the ground floor is zero!) Piazza S. Domenico Maggiore 12, 80134 Naples. Their website is here.
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The Ascarelli Family in Naples
This is the original interview in Italian.
by Francesco Palmieri 29 August, 2021.
This is from an interview with Roberta Ascarelli, professor of German literature and contemporay Hebrew
literature at the University of Siena.* She was also the president of the Italian Institute of German studies from 2015 to 2019. [I have added explanatory comments in brackets with an * where I think they might help, jm.]
*[Siena —in English sometimes spelled Sienna— is a city in Tuscany. The city has historic links to commercial and banking activities. It was a major banking center until the 13th and 14th centuries. Siena is home to the oldest bank in the world. It has run continuously since 1472. The historic center of Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.][The author's interview starts here.]
Roberta AscarelliSometimes this unpredictable centrifuge we call History takes things apart and puts them back together — just give it enough time — races, languages, men, women, lands and seas, with results both successful and improbable. You'll be amazed at the story of Roberta Ascarelli. Maybe it's because she is a descendant of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, the tireless collectors of fables. Or maybe because it's difficult to imagine a real love for Germany by a Jewish family after the last war. The family had a title of nobility bestowed on them in Spain in 1275 with a heraldic (or cabalistic) crest that shows a lion, a tower, and the moon. That crest is on a ring that professor Ascarelli still wears. Or maybe it's bizarre to think of these distant and odd family threads coming together in Naples, where the memory of the Ascarelli family is still revered. Take the sport of soccer. Roberta's uncle Giorgio founded the Naples team in 1926 and was its first president.
Q —From the Black Forest, from German to Neapolitan, from the poetry of Goethe to the Psalms, from Spain to eastern Europe, and a foremost scholar of the heretic Jew, Jacob Frank. How do you blend this great diversity?
A —I remember the first question from our Yiddish teacher in Paris 25 years ago: Where did you immigrate from? That's a typical question in the Jewish world. I said: I'm not the daughter of emigrants, but of travelers. I feel like I'm in a tale about travel from a definite place on the map to another indefinite place, told through a series of fairy tales that make up a kind of family myth.
Q — How does it start?
A — In the 1880s with Miss Wilhelmine Grimm. She and her mother left for a trip to Baden-Baden to educate themselves and get some experience. She met a young American, a wealthy descendant of those who sailed to America on the Mayflower, so they said, but they didn't feel much like working for a living. Then lightning struck the two, Wilhelmine Grimm and the young American, and they got married and stayed in Baden-Baden, a good place for things to fall to pieces, or find love and wealth. Unfortunately, Wilhelmine was quickly widowed. She decided to move to Rome.
Q — Why Rome?
A — Maybe because tales of rebirth have to do with Rome. Here she, now the widow Stratford Yves, kept the company of queen Margherita. Her daughter, Blanche, grew up around the royal court and met a dashing
Neapolitan officer, Ettore Borgström, a widely traveled and passionate man. They fell in love.
Q — Borgström was not a typical Neapolitan surname?
A — It's complex family stuff. His great-grandparents came to Italy in the 1800s and the Bourbons took a liking to them because they were, well, picturesque. They stayed in Naples. One of their great-grand- children, Luigi, was an officer in the navy and married a princess. They had a child, Hector, who eventually married Blanche. She was a strong-willed woman. They say she dressed as a man, a soldier, to follow her husband in battle in WWI. Unfortunately, she died young, in 1921. The last of her five children was my mother, Beatrice.
Q — What was she like?
A — From the female side, she got a great love for the German world: the language, music, poetry. Not only that — in WWII she met a German officer on Capri and they got engaged, and on Capri, right after the war, she met my father, Dario Ascarelli, who had been locked up during the war because he was a Jew. He was probably the first Jew she ever met.
Q — How did the catastrophe that has just ended weigh on them?
A — Beatrice and Dario? They thought they would fix history's mistakes.
Q — So who were the Ascarellis?
A — A dynasty of merchants prominent in Spain until the expulsion of the Jews. Many went to Rome because the pope offered some hope. There was no pressure to force them to convert. Later, in the 1700s, after the ghetto was set up, they had the benefit of being on the outside, providing a cushion for the pope. They were a family of merchants, yet in the 1500s produced a poet, Debora Ascarelli. Towards the end of the 1800s, they listened to Rotschild* and moved to Naples.
*[That spelling is correct. The spelling and pronunciation as "Rothchild" in many languages is historically incorrect.]
Q — When? How? Was there a Jewish community in Naples?
A — Formally, Naples was forbidden to Jews. In reality, various documents show they were always tolerated.
Q — What did the Ascarellis do in Naples?
A — They kept on with their business in fabrics, set up some textile factories, and went into financing home
furnishings. There were doing so well, they decided to strengthen their ties with the city. They built a shelter for
the poor, did general philanthropy, and set up the section of town called the Ascarelli Quarter.
Q — Was it Giorgio's idea [her grandfather Alfredo's brother] to start the Naples soccer team?
A — Yes, and he built the stadium and called it "Vesuvius". The people just called "the Ascarelli stadium"* until the Fascists changed it to "Partenope". They also founded the Naples Rowing club.
*[That stadium was destroyed by air-raids in WWII.]
Q — At this point your family seems to be Neapolitan in every respect.
A — Yes. Deeply Neapolitanized Jews who were a civic point of reference for the city. Even the racial laws didn't rattle them that much, but my family did suffer from them. But my father told me that whenever he passed Federals* on the street, they always said 'hello' to him first. Episodes of antisemitism were very rare.
*[Fascist-appointed government officials in Italian states (regions). They were at the top of the state hierarchy].
Q — Was there any unpleasantness?
A — One day, my grandfather, Alfredo, was at the tennis club, and a man made a nasty comment about Jews.
Q —What did he do?
A —The next day he bought the club.
Q — What was your grandfather like?
A — Alfredo was a bit wild as a kid. They found him an intellectual wife, Maria Malvano, who came from a line of diplomats and Jewish bankers in Turin. Her father, Giacomo, was the secretary general for foreign affairs. Giacomo met Theodor Herzl* one time, who was on a visit to the king, and Herzl tried to convince Giacomo of the importance of Zionism. Giacomo told him, "Really, I'm doing very well right where I am. Maria and Alfredo were from two different Jewish worlds. They spoke French to each other. And Neapolitan.
*[Herzl was the father of modern political Zionism. He formed the Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state.]
Q— How did such a bourgeois family handle the tragedy of World War Two?
A— You can imagine. My father had already been kicked out of school. Then in the 1940s, he and his brother were put in a work camp in Tora Presenzano. They were not kids cut out for such a hard life. Their lives might have ended right there when the Germans arrived. But when the [Italian] Fascists abandoned the camp, they left the gates open and everyone fled. My father and uncle and some others hid out in the castle that belonged to the Falco family, whom they knew well. It took a lot of guts to let them stay there. Gaetano Falco is, in fact, one of the "Righteous among the Nations".*
*["Righteous Among the Nations" ("Yad Vashem" in Hebrew) is an honorific used by the State of Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives for altruistic reasons during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. The best known example
to the general public was Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) through the 1993 film, Schindler's List.]
Q— Did your parents' marriage work out?
A— No. They got the second divorce ever granted in Naples. At home it was just a meeting of two bits of silence. My mother was a Germanophile. My father a socialist. After the war he became the city's Council Clerk, elected from a list of candidates just on the basis of his name, Ascarelli. When my mother moved to Rome, taking me and my sister with her, I didn't like it. I decided that when I could, I would just go to Germany. Thanks to my mother I learned about Goethe, listened to Haydn and Mozart. I got my high school diploma and found a job with BMW in Munich. But I was from Naples, so no one would rent me a room. My mother made me come back home and I went to the university. My thesis was on Goethe. I began to like an academic career. It gave me a chance to put our family history back together. I traveled. I taught at Harvard, Toronto, Rochester, Vienna. Traveling once again became part of my history.
Q— Your studies have largely been dedicated to German Jewry.
A— I did that in ways that weren't mainstream, or at least without emphasizing the two classic paths: Jewish diversity and trying to fit in. I concentrated on points where Jews have taken specific paths by adapting to the world of others.
Q— Can you put that is some historical context?
A— Yes. At the end of the Austrian century [WWI], Jews are a model for being strong and separate, bearers of
a great literary and philosophical culture. That doesn't fit in at all with the idea of Jewish diversity or with a
Christian striving for approval. Then there is the direction that wants to be modern, according to a certain dynamic, which comes from the heresy of Jacob Frank, which I spent years studying. That is a passionate story and is fundamental in the relationship between Jews and Christians, in which Jews try, in a sense, to be part of Christianity without denying their own origins. The "Frankists" took part in Western revolutions: the French one, the struggles in Germany and Poland, and the Italian struggles to become a single nation. They moved the Jewish world from prayer to action through mysticism. Those who converted, as in Poland, often became part of the nobility, causing a great deal of antisemitism. They are secret Jews, revolutionaries, nobility — above all, Bohemians managed to take over the monopolies of empire and get very rich. They represent a world that has much to do with revolutionary and progressive movements. At its base, there is something messianic about coming to power through revolution. Aristocratic and democratic.
Q— How might this show up in contemporary politics?
A— Christian ascendance in central Europe was integral, but that of Judaism shows us the importance of the diversity you find along the way. Studying now helps us see the perspectives of another Europe, not one of approval at all costs, which I don't think really works, but one of respect for national identities and religions of every kind. I'm working to that end, together with a few universities, with AYNT, the Association for Jewish-German Studies, which I founded. We'll have to get away from that sticky-sweet idea of a central Europe of humanists along the model of Erasmus of Rotterdam, and value the powerful demands of diversity, progress, and development that we find in a great many Jewish voices. We can surely use that in the present.
Q— [The author's closing comment]
In the unpredictable centrifuge of collective History, as well as personal histories, we shall only appreciate what
people have done with their lives.
[Personal note from jm, the translator. This all reminds me of my wife Luciana's university experience in Naples. She loved the German language and literature and wrote her university thesis (in German!) on Heinrich Heine the Jewish poet (1797-1856, born in Düsseldorf). There is no poem in the German language better known than his The Lorelei written in 1824 (melody in 1837 by Friedrich Silcher. The opening stanzas are:
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, / dass ich so traurig bin;
ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten, / das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt, / und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
der Gipfel des Berges funkelt / im Abendsonnenschein.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation catches it beautifully, as usual.
I know not whence it rises, / This thought so full of woe;
But a tale of times departed / Haunts me, and will not go.
The air is cool, and it darkens, / And calmly flows the Rhine,
The mountain-peaks are sparkling / In the sunny evening-shine.
The ironic stupidity of the Nazis was that after they took over Germany, you couldn't say that the poem everyone knew from childhood was by Heinrich Heine, the Jew, anymore than you could say that the General Theory of Relativity, one of the grandest pieces of science ever written was by another Jew, Albert Einstein. "The Lorelei" was then by the increasingly popular poet under the Nazis, "Anonymous".