Italian Jewish Networks from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

Bridging Europe and the Mediterranean

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Francesca Bregoli, Carlotta Ferrar degli Uberti, Guri Schwarz
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     219 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This highly stimulating collection of essays, edited by Francesca Bregoli, Carlotta Ferrara degli Uberti, and Guri Schwartz, unravels different Italian Jewish networks that emerged and evolved over long stretches of time from the 17th until the 20th centuries, within the larger Mediterranean and European framework. All the while, each article focuses on specific case studies and a limited timeframe. Italian Jewish Networks from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century: Bridging Europe and the Mediterranean makes momentous strides in scholarship orientated on this broad topic. Some time ago, the domain of scholarship saw a shift in attention away from Heinrich Graetz’s “Court Jew,” a 19th century reconstruction of “the modern Jew.” After a first reconsideration by Salo Baron in the 1930s (A Social and Religious History of the Jews), scholars like Francesca Trivellato, Bregoli, and Viviana Bonazzoli published detailed studies on specific Italian Jewish studies on specific families in the cities of Livorno and Ancona, and within the wider Adriatic and Mediterranean area. Indeed, over the last decades, the study of early modern and modern Italian Jewry has evolved in extremely interesting ways. Lois C. Dubin and David Sorkin (1997, 1999, sqq.) created a major breakthrough with their definition of the “Port Jew” and “Port Jewry” They shifted attention towards the sea and port cities, and pointed to the classification of “social type” of early modern Sephardic merchants who were acculturated, lived in voluntary communities, and were characterized by features of emancipation, enlightenment, and modernity (Sorkin, “The Port Jew: Notes Toward a Social Type”, Journal of Jewish Studies, Cambridge University, 1999) and (Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste, Stanford University Press, 1999) . Thus, these Jews could be seen as the forerunners of modern Jewry, those incorporated in the late 18th century East-European movement, which the 19th century dubbed Haskalah. Dubin’s and Sorkin’s studies, their premises, findings, and conclusions have been widely acclaimed, and inspired testing and further work into wider periods and new regions. See in particular the volume David Cesarini edited in 2012: Port Jews: Concepts, Cases and Questions. As Cesarini writes here, it aims at a ‘“sharpening of the heuristic tools’ of the concept of ‘“port Jew” as a “social type”’ (3). Dubin’s and Sorkin’s principles have been, however, greatly nuanced—most recently by Benjamin Ravid in his article on “The Sephardic Jewish Merchants of Venice, Port Jews, and the Road to Modernity,” in a festschrift for Jane S. Gerber (From Catalonia to the Caribbean: The Sephardic Orbit from Medieval to Modern TimesBrill, 2018). As a matter of fact, Dubin herself—in her “Introduction: Port Jews in the Atlantic World” (Jewish History, 20, 2, 2006)—called for further study of Port Jews’s travels and commercial as well as cultural networks rather than just their process of becoming rooted in specific towns as “acculturated and useful agents … on the road to legal equality” (117). 

Taking into consideration the impact that the concept of Port Jews has had on Jewish history scholarship during the last two decades, it is a relief that Italian Jewish Networks has no ambition to write itself into that conceptual framework, nor does it attempt to define types of Jews, or a single type of Jewry. Instead, this text focuses on the activity of Italian Jews within their specific networks. The essays illuminate the functioning of those networks in their particular geographical outlines and periods, concentrating on the networks’s features and perspectives: economic, institutional, cultural, and familial ties which were knit across Europe, the Mediterranean, and even the Atlantic. Through sundry histories—overarching an often-shared history of isolation, persecution, and diaspora—the transregional and transnational character of the networks at stake are emphasized. Livorno is, as a “crossroads of interactions, and Jewish solidarity networks across the ages” (2), central to the volume’s illustration of the passage of early modern transregional ties to modern transnational relations. As the editors state in their introduction, the aim of the volume is both a “reassessment” of these networks’s history, and a pinning down of the shifts in the “transition from the ancien régime to the ‘age of emancipation,’ the period of racial persecution, and into the post-war years” (22). They detect “a geographic shift from ‘south’ to ‘north’ when it comes to the zones of interaction and the diasporic nodes (both ideal and actual) that connected Jews living in Italy with their coreligionists abroad” (22). The essays discover how older structures of trade-networks did not suddenly disappear, but continued to play a role of importance. As Matthias B. Lehmann shows in his contribution, the historiographical idea of a shift from networks of reciprocity in the ancien régime to solidarity networks in modern times is not valid in the case of “Livorno and Pan-Jewish Networks of Beneficence in the Eighteenth Century.” The author thus comes to a reconsideration of the concept and functioning of social and religious cum economic “networks.” Still, considering the Livornese orbit, in a stimulating article Matt Goldish takes up Isaiah Sonne’s 1961 study of Livorno-based rabbi Abraham Rovigo. He reconsiders the rabbi’s friendships and ties as a vigorous intellectual and religious network of solidarity in “Rabbi Abraham Rovigo’s Home as a Center for Traveling Scholars.” Highly interesting is Clémence Boulouque’s reassessment of Elia Benamozegh’s network through his “Printing Presses: Livornese Crossroads and the New Margins of Italian Jewish History,” which direct us toward the Judeo-Arabic regions from North Africa to Bagdad. Alyssa Reiman illustrates how close Livorno was to North Africa through study of the political, economic, and social ties the Moreno family knit between Livorno and Tunisia during the 19th century in “Claiming Livorno: Citizenship, Commerce, and Culture in the Italian Jewish Diaspora.”

The four remaining essays treat Italian Jewry from the late 19th century through the 1950s. Cristiana Facchini offers a long awaited overview and analysis of the “Wissenschaft des Judentums and the Study of Religion in Italy (1890s-1930s)” by focusing on the different rabbis and scholars who took part in this movement. The latter is commonly seen as an important phase within the modernization process of Judaism, and according to the author, during this time in Italy it was going through its third phase. The reader will be conscious of the importance of this period within the perspective of transition toward Fascist regimes, not only in Italy but throughout Europe. In her contribution on “Italian Jewry and European Jewish Philantropic Organizations in 1938-1939,” Tulia Catalan analyzes Jewish responses to the year of enactment of racial laws against Jews in Italy, and the first year of their persecution, by studying the reactions of the British Joint Foreign Committee (JFC) and the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)—in hindsight, a bewildering situation. Catalan’s findings are based on research in the archives of the AIU, and those of the Board of Jewish Deputies in London, housing the JFC’s documents. What happened after the War with Jews who survived and went to Italy? Arturo Marzano addresses this question by looking at “Jewish DPs in Post-War Italy: The Role of Italian Jewry in a Multilateral Encounter (1945-1948),” with the central topic of the interaction between displaced persons and Italian Jews, both individuals as well as institutions. The volume closes with an original article by Marcella Simoni, who sheds light on “Young Italian Jews in Israel, and Back: Voices from a Generation (1945-1953).” 

In sum, Italian Jewish Networks offers new perspectives and materials, innovative research, and novel analyses that allow for further reassessment of complex and—geographically and chronologically—widely cast histories.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evelien Chayes is a postdoctoral research fellow in Romance Literature and Languages at Radboud University.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francesca Bregoli is Associate Professor of History and Joseph and Oro Halegua Chair in Greek and Sephardic Jewish Studies at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, USA. She is the author of Mediterranean Enlightenment: Livornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform (2014).

Carlotta Ferrara degli Uberti is Lecturer in Italian History at University College London, UK. Previous publications include Making Italian Jews: Family, Gender, Religion and the Nation, 1861-1918 (Palgrave, 2017).  

Guri Schwarz is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Genova, Italy. He is Editor in Chief of Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Previous publications include After Mussolini: Jewish Life and Jewish Memories in Post-Fascist Italy (2012)


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