Papal Souveniers

Looking for “A Bargain at St. Peter’s”? — The Jerusalem Post profiles Rome’s papal souvenir sellers — a family business spanning generations and generations . . . and with a history not known to many:

Di Veroli is one of approximately 105 vendors, all of whom are licensed to sell souvenirs at stands in front of Rome’s most important monuments – and all of whom, except for one, are Jewish. Other ambulant vendors, like Di Porto, carry trays of trinkets but are not licensed to set up stalls. All of these vendors, too, except for one, are Jewish. Like other Italian Jews, some of the vendors are observant, though many are not. Most passersby and many Italians would never know that Di Veroli is Jewish and many would likely assume that he, like the majority of Italians, is a Catholic.

“All the vendors know one another. We come from the same community. We have grown up together and we help one another out with the business,” says Di Veroli. Nearly half of Italy’s 30,000 Jews live in Rome but, despite its size, the community is extremely cohesive. Many of the vendors are related. Like their fellow Roman Jews, the souvenir vendors see one another at synagogue, at weddings and Jewish community events. Their children attend the same schools and their families live in the same neighborhoods.

As it turns out, Jewish participation in the Catholic souvenier business has its origins in a policy decision of Pope Paul VI and the often-lamentable history of Jewish-Christian relations:

. . . Jewish life in Rome underwent a radical change in 1555 when Pope Paul IV, responding to the threat of Protestantism by cracking down on all forms of heresy, rescinded all privileges enjoyed by the Jews and established a ghetto to isolate them from the Christian population. Jews were forbidden to own shops or property outside the ghetto and were not allowed to practice most professions.

Having little choice in the ghetto, many Roman Jews made their living as ambulant vendors, selling used clothing, fabric and scrap metal. According to Marina Caffiero, a history professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University, Jewish vendors would also go door to door, buying and selling sacred objects and religious relics.

Even though Roman Jews were not allowed to own shops or property, they were allowed to leave the ghetto and walk about the city for the purpose of commerce, with a special pass granted by the papal authorities. Rome’s Jewish community was of great importance to the Papacy.

“The Papal state wanted to keep tight control over the Jewish population, but at the same time the Church needed the Jews, both for economic and theological purposes,” Caffiero explained. “The street sellers provided competition to the Catholic businesses, which had formed monopolies. Theologically, the Jews [were believed to have] witnessed the death of Christ and they represented a group to convert to Catholicism.”

With Italian Unification in 1870, the Roman ghetto was abolished and the Jews were made equal citizens.

Fascinating story, no?

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