One of my more interesting heritage visits was to the city of Naples and its Western Sephardic community. Sephardic exiles moved there in 1492, however, when Spain took control in 1510 the poor were expelled, followed by the wealthy in 1541. Jews began to settle there again in the early 19th century, particularly when Mayer Amschel Rothschild sent his son Carl there in 1830 to open up a new branch of the family bank. He promptly established a congregation, one which followed the Italian rite.
While the first modern-day Jewish inhabitants of Naples were Italian and Ashkenaz, over time, Sephardic Jews again moved to the growing port city from places like Livorno, especially after Italian unification in 1861. Eventually the community adopted the Sephardic rite. The latter 1800s/early 1900s then saw the immigration of Jews from the declining Ottoman Empire, particularly from Salonica (similar to the history of London’s Holland Park Synagogue). During WWII, as the Nazis made their way south through Italy, many of these Salonican Jews fled back to Greece. Sadly, they were murdered there by the Nazis, while the Jews of Naples were spared thanks to local government opposition.
Like many other Italian Jewish communities, the one in Naples is quite small today. Still, they have a beautiful synagogue, located at the end of Via Cappella Vecchia. It was constructed in 1864 with funding from Carl von Rothschild. Its first rabbi was a young Benjamin Artom, who afterwards served as the Haham of London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue! The synagogue was beautifully restored in 1992 thanks to the Cultural Heritage Ministry.
I’m grateful to community members Massimo Lovane and Ciro Moses for showing me around the synagogue and sharing its history with me. Ciro generously prepared a delicious lunch for me in the synagogue kitchen, complete with local giardiniera.
Ironically enough, kosher food made another unexpected appearance during my trip. Just outside of Naples stands Mount Vesuvius, which famously erupted in the year 79 CE, killing everyone remaining in the city of Pompeii below. The site, buried in ash, has been slowly excavated for centuries, and visitors can now walk through this incredibly well preserved Roman city. A jar of garum, a popular Roman condiment made of fermented fish, was found in the remains, with the word ‘pure’ written upon it. Some historians believe this was a label alerting customers that the contents were kosher! This has been taken as evidence of a Jewish presence at Pompeii.
Indeed, there is other evidence to support this claim. A mosaic depicting a Biblical scene, ‘The Judgement of Solomon’, was found in a villa in Pompeii. It is now housed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, which contains Pompeii’s remarkable artefacts. Furthermore, it was discovered that some ancient resident, a Jew perhaps, had quickly scribbled the words “Sodom and Gomorra” upon the walls of another home in Pompeii! The fiery destruction of Pompeii must have evoked for him the Biblical description of God’s wrath upon those cities.
Incredibly, a contemporary author believed there was another Jewish link. The Sibylline Oracles, written shortly after the eruption in 79 CE, connected Pompeii’s destruction with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, claiming the eruption was a form of divine retribution, “the wrath of the heavenly God”!
In short, Jews and the vicinity of Vesuvius share a story which spans over two thousand years. While Naples might not be one of Italy’s top destinations, its Jewish story and Pompeii make it well worth a visit, especially when coupled with a few days along the stunning Amalfi coast.