Kenneth Stow. Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. 272 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98022-5; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98025-6.
Reviewed by Anthony M. Orum (Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago)
Published on H-Urban (December, 2001)
The Roman Ghetto
In the social sciences, the concept of "the ghetto" has a long and fascinating history. Louis Wirth, one of the famous team of sociologists at the University of Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century, published a short book, in 1928, on the history of the Jewish ghetto, tracing its origins in Europe and then revealing its presence in Chicago.
Like others of his peers in the Sociology Department at Chicago, he drew heavily on the theoretical inspiration and thinking of Georg Simmel, noting how the occupants of the ghetto became aliens, or strangers, to the larger Christian world. In his review, he drew brief attention to the Roman ghetto of Jews, noting how it would become the model for other Jewish ghettoes later to be formed in Europe and elsewhere.
Kenneth Stow, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, seeks in this work to deepen our understanding about the substance of the Roman ghetto, and to do so both with more nuance and more imaginative use of special documents and resources. His work proves both fascinating and deeply informative.
In 1556, Pope Paul IV issued an edict in Rome that established a separate ghetto for Jews within the city. There were many forces that led to his act, not the least his personal concerns about how the religion of Jews must be made to fit into the larger Christian society. The area that became mandated as the Jewish ghetto remained in place until 1870 and, to this day, there are at least a few historical remnants in the memories of the local Jewish population even though the physical structures are no longer present. There are different histories and details about this ghetto, but what Stow does is to cast new light on it through the deft and clever interpretation of a special set of documents, the rendering of legal opinions by Jewish notaries on matters of conflict and difference among the residents of the ghetto.
Stow not only mines this special resource of information, but he also has commends us to imagine this particular ghetto as a stage for drama and dramaturgical devices. In this, of course, he follows a long and distinguished line of social analysts, from Erving Goffman, the master of looking at life as a social drama, to Victor Turner, the anthropologist upon whom Stow draws most directly for his analysis. Stow insists that the life of the ghetto in the sixteenth century comes alive as a drama through the delicate and intricate renderings of the notaries. They served as the kind of stage managers for the variety of struggles and difficulties encountered by the ghetto's inhabitants. Their scripts, moreover, tell us much about how the culture of the Jews survived the newly mandated and enforced restriction to a specific space in the Holy City. Moreover, the scripts must be understood in their fullest sense--as the deliberations of the manager of the action on the stage, but also as rules and strategies that people themselves followed and believed. Indeed, what so impresses Stow about the nature of these materials is how the various inhabitants actually managed to carry on a life that, from their own perspective, seemingly was free and autonomous, when, to any observer outside the ghetto's walls, it clearly was not.
What we learn then about the ghetto of Rome is how effectively the Jews managed to carry on their lives in ways that upheld Jewish, or halachic, law and, at the same time, conformed to Roman norms and values. Contrary to his wishes, the ghetto that had been created by the Pope did not simply eliminate all traces of Judaism at all, but rather bent Roman law so that it also conformed to the tenets of Jewish tradition. The Roman Jews, or Jewish Romans--either designation is a perfect fit, Stow tells us--managed to retain a whole variety of customs and ways of doing things that were patently Jewish, from the manner of eating food or conducting business with Christians to the manner of considering the nature of adoption and the use of names in identifying the new family member.
There is one special set of notations that is particularly fascinating with regard to the usage of names. A specific individual, Elia, is identified both by his Hebraic name as well as by his Italian name. The notary, who conducted and reported all his business in Italian, uses both names in referring to the individual, revealing, Stow suggests, that Elia could carry two identities at once, his Jewish and his Italian one, the latter more or less making both public and legitimate the former. And though the names were identical to one another, the notary makes a point to use both, suggesting that the ghetto residents carried two identities with them, one the complement to the other. Elia the Jew thus becomes an actor who, on the stage of the Roman ghetto, performs as the Italian resident all the while knowing, himself, that he is, on the inside, a Jew. And for him, as for other ghetto residents, there seems no apparent conflict.
But while the residents of the ghetto accommodated themselves to their new circumstances, living almost as they did not exist in a ghetto, there were also notable ways in which their lives were distinctly and vividly Jewish, though not so much as to call attention to themselves as outsiders. Gender comes in for special treatment by Stow, in particular the ways in which women were able to exercise a degree of autonomy and power that was far different from their counterparts in the Christian world. Though Jewish women were by no means liberated, in the way we speak of today, they nevertheless are to be found in the records of the notaries as carrying on many activities on their own behalf. Jewish women managed many of their own business affairs and did not require the guardianship of men, as the Italian women did.
Stow suggests that the Jews of the Roman ghetto only slowly acculturated to the Christian world around them, evident in the rather long and slow manner in which they adopted certain Christian customs. Indeed, the activities of the Jewish notaries were developed and embellished over a period of time while the the activities of Christian notaries were being questioned in the world outside the ghetto's boundaries.
There is much to command in this work. I approached it as a student of urban areas and cities, but soon came to realize it was more about the meaning of collective identity and personal identity for a group of people who were marginal to the larger social order. Today many of us work with bold and rather rigid categories, of assimilation or of segregation, of ghettoes and of the mainstream. Stow handles these concepts with a great deal of ease, but also recommends that we abandon, at least in this case, our habit of thinking in the form of antinomies. The boundaries between the Roman ghetto and the Christian world were porous, across which both Jews and gentiles could conduct their affairs with some ease. Moreover, the fact that the Jews of Rome could carry on their lives almost oblivious to the broader constraints within which they lived--that, at times, individuals seemed able to experience a sense of justice and freedom in their dealings with one another--suggests the caution that we all must exercise in using such terms rather loosely and relying only on their conventional connotations.
I have few qualms about the scholarship. Of course, one must be suspicious of the contents merely of a set of notes about legal disputes, especially when, as Stow notes, they often only convey what appears to be half of the story. And yet Stow does fill in some of the details, relying at times on writings about the ghettoes of other Italian cities. I also wish the writing could have flowed more easily; at times I felt my understanding was trapped by yet another clause or qualification to some major claim. Yet, on the whole, this is a very informative and useful book. I especially recommend it to those who study the life of the marginalized communities in other cities and states for it suggests that there can be a richness of life to these communities that defies outward appearances--indeed, it commands us to search after the sort of documents and materials that, like those of the Jewish notaries, give us some special insight into what it was/is like to live within the borders of the ghetto.
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Anthony M. Orum. Review of Stow, Kenneth, Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century.
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