Brenda Lee Bohen
Brenda Lee Bohen

The Story of Rome’s Jewish Quarter (former Ghetto) Goes Virtual

Micaela Pavoncello, Founder of Jewish Roma, taking children on a ‘virtual journey’ of the Ghetto inside the Jewish Museum of Rome
Photo: Brenda Lee Bohen
Micaela Pavoncello, Founder of Jewish Roma, taking children on a ‘virtual journey’ of the Ghetto inside the Jewish Museum of Rome Photo: Brenda Lee Bohen

The Jewish community of Rome recognizes their Synagogues, including their surrounding neighborhoods, as being critically important to its people, says Micaela Pavoncello, Art Historian and Founder of Jewish Roma.

The oldest Jewish community in Europe, which has such a rich set of traditions, with remarkably historic faith-based sites, has manifested a vibrant religious life which is neither Ashkenazi or Sephardi. And, all these layers of history can now be visited ‘virtually’ with a Roman Jew.

Twenty years later, Pavoncello continues to educate English speaking tourists about the fascinating and less known history of her ancestors- the Jews of Rome. While she is well known for her ‘on-site’ historic guided walking tours of the Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, she is also a physical presence ‘on-line,’ bringing her personal insights to the zoom platform.

Pavoncello’s virtual presentations are entertaining, engaging and educational. Her virtual visits are focused on what it’s like being a Roman Jew. Her pragmatic insights on how to see Rome’s Ancient Jewish past can be seen in relation to the present and allows her viewers to experience pivotal milestones in Jewish history critical to understanding Rome’s non-sectarian Judaism.

Now in the era of post COVID-19, Pavoncello offers safe yet intimate ways to reach out to Jewish families in her interactive “show and tell” virtual zoom tours, “enabling children of all ages to ask questions. One highlighted query concerns how, in a matter of a few days, all the city’s Jews, thousands of Jews, were crammed into a scant seven acres within Quattro Capi, the Portico d’Ottavia, the Piazza Guidia, and Piazza delle Cinque Scole, and the Tiber River.

Virtually walking along the Ghettos narrow streets, Pavoncello’s powerful narrative (presentation ) allows her audience to learn about the Jewish Ghetto from 1555 to 1870.

Pavoncello demonstrates how Jews often built upward; one floor above the other, quickly assembled, toppling over in the night. The Jews of Rome were very poor, the community was limited to rag-picking.

Her personal insights as a Roman Jew focus on how a small Roman Jewish community resisted with resilience to the Catholic Church.

When the ghetto was built by the Pope’s architect in 1555-1556, the churches inside the ghetto enclosure were gradually abandoned, but those adjacent to the ghetto were used for compulsory sermons. Jews were forced to attend services every Shabbat, says Pavoncello.

There was also propaganda, such as can be found in the Church of San Gregorio at Quatro Capi (today, Piazza Jerusalem) which bears a Biblical inscription (Isaiah 65, 2-3) “I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts; A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face,” — a prophecy of divine fury intended to be directed at Jews, says Pavoncello.

Today’s Jewish presence seeks a different kind of leadership in post COVID-19 world: one more family oriented, one that is committed to reaching out virtually to all Jewish homes during a time where traveling internationally is still challenging.

Pavoncello’s virtual story is about how we, as Jews, continue to serve G-d without the Bet Hamkidash and its service. It’s an incredible virtual journey, fabulously and accurately narrated by a Roman Jew whose ancestors came to Rome at the time of the Maccabim even before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.


About the Author
Brenda is a Latina and a proud Veteran of the United States Army Reserves. She holds dual citizenship in both the United States and Italy. She is a trained historic preservationist who tirelessly advocates the scholarship and history of the Jews of Rome. She has her certification in Jewish leadership and continues advanced studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Brenda is also a licensed and accredited tour guide at the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Vatican Museums.