A New Museum Explores 2,000 Years of Jewish Life in Italy

There are complete chambers, simulating the Jewish catacombs in Rome, their walls adorned with frescoes of menorahs, other religious symbols and Hebrew lettering. “The Jewish catacombs in Rome were a treasure trove for our knowledge of Jews in the Imperial Age, about 40,000 people,” said Ms. Della Seta.

The display is thematic as well as chronological. The dispersal of Jews throughout the Italian peninsula, the relationship between Jews and Christians, the contribution of Jewish scholarship and science to the broader civilization. Video monitors are strategically placed featuring experts — historians, archaeologists and rabbis — explaining their choice of artifacts or historical events.

What comes across throughout the two-floor exhibition is the breadth and tenacity of Jewish life over the millenniums. The Italian peninsula witnessed serial conquerors — Romans, Goths, Byzantines Longobards and Muslims — who are all gone. Yet the one continuous presence has been the Jews, clinging to their identity and civilization in the face of severe challenges to their survival. There are about 30,000 Jews living in Italy today, the majority in Rome and Milan, according to the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization.

The mission of the museum, said Dario Disegni, chairman of MEIS, is to foster dialogue, understanding and coexistence. “The MEIS tells the story of a minority, which was integrated in the Italian society and, at the same time, was able to maintain its identity, both cultural and religious, without being assimilated. It is really a model, a point of reference for the Italian and, more generally, Western societies of today.”

It is a message, at a time when Italy and other European countries are being tested by a new wave of immigration and rising intolerance, that might give MEIS a broader resonance and purpose than that usually associated with a history museum.

Harry D. Wall writes frequently, and produces films, about Jewish culture and heritage around the world.

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