Monday, May 1, 2023

Q&A with Fredric Brandfon




Fredric Brandfon is the author of the new book Intimate Strangers: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome. He is the former chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Stockton University in New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write this history of Jews and Catholics in Rome?


A: Many different things inspired me. As I say in the book, I was given a tour of the Vatican by a Jewish guide who somewhat offhandedly pointed out the spot near a fireplace where her grandparents were given shelter from the Nazis. “That’s where my grandparents slept during the War.”


Then and there I, as a Jew, knew there was a story to tell about Jews and Catholics in Rome that few people were aware of. Their 2,000-year history is not always a feel-good story. There were terrible persecutions, public humiliations, and a 300-year-long ghettoization.


But even during those times, Jews and Catholics were business partners, they drank together, gambled together, and sang at weddings and picnics. Catholics saved 4,000 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, and there was a beloved Jewish mayor of Rome. Good times and good works are history too, and I wanted to get that story told.


Q: The book covers many centuries of history--how did you research it, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I spent a lot of time in libraries and read as much as I could. I also travelled numerous times to Rome to meet both Jews and Catholics. I was fortunate to make friends with Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome; several of the staff at the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Archive in Rome; and several Church officials.


And because nothing in the past had to happen, writing history is always unpredictable and surprising. I was surprised to find that Jews and Catholics gambled heavily right after a Pope died and bet on who would be the successor.


I was surprised to find that the Roman Emperor Titus, who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, had a Jewish mistress, Berenice, and that 200 years later Hitler’s ally Mussolini, who promulgated the antisemitic Racial Laws, also had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti.

I was surprised to find that the Pope who established the Ghetto was despised by Catholics, who, upon his death, toppled and beheaded his statue and then put it on trial in the Campo Di Fiore. And I was surprised to learn that the first time the word “pizza” was ever written down it was written in Hebrew, in 14th century Rome. I had so much fun writing the book because I was constantly surprised.


Q: You write, “The oxymoron that is the title of this book encapsulates a contradictory relationship through which, despite real difficulties, two very different communities have managed to live together, uninterrupted, for almost two thousand years.” Can you say more about that, and about how the book's title was chosen?


A: The Roman Jewish community lived literally next door to the largest international organization in the world, a Church that was founded by Jews on Jewish principles and which had deified a Jew, but which proclaimed that it had superseded Judaism as a path to salvation. But the Jews were not going anywhere. They were in Rome first.


You could call it a love-hate relationship between the two communities, but I have chosen to call it a “family,” sometimes dysfunctional sometimes not. When a depraved Catholic Churchman raped several Catholic teenage girls, he turned to a Jewish woman to raise the illegitimate children (as Catholics). When a Jewish man found himself impotent on his wedding night, he turned to a Catholic magician to cure him so he could go home and “buy the honeypot.”


The theme of my book is that Jews and Catholics, who were forbidden to marry each other, still treated each other as family for good and ill. The title echoes the phrase used by Kenneth Stow, a marvelous scholar who said Jews and Catholics lived in Rome in the 16th century in a “tense intimacy.” Another historian, Thomas Cohen, said Jews were “intimate outsiders” in Rome.


Q: What do you see looking ahead for this relationship?


A: Historians do not predict the future. It is not part of our job description. I do not think anyone can accurately predict the future, and certainly I can’t.


However, given the changed attitude of the Church after the Second Vatican Council that rejected the libel that Jews of all generations are responsible for the death of Jesus, I can hope for a good future. And given the present configuration of leadership in the Vatican and in the Roman Jewish community that hope is founded on real people with generous intentions. I am optimistic.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I love Italy. So I continue to study things Italian, but also things Jewish. I am working on two projects which will intersect in surprising ways.


First, I am researching Italian Holocaust memorials. Memorials only appear to be set in stone. Actually, they change over time. The earliest Shoah memorials in Italy were abstract art that included no names of pictures. So people began bringing their own photos of loved ones and poems to place nearby and the memorial was altered.


Indeed, the oldest and largest war memorial in Italy concerning Jews, albeit not the Holocaust, is the Arch of Titus, which began in 81 CE as a memorial to Titus and his vanquishing the Jews. It has ended up now as a memorial to his transience and a declaration of the ultimate Jewish victory over him.


The second project is about Italian professional football, soccer, which is great fun to watch but which is also riddled with antisemitism. I am investigating that.


Both projects are based on the uncomfortable fact that in the last century, Italy was Fascist and supported the Nazis, until it switched sides and became an Ally. That ambiguity makes for a good story, and it governs both the memorials and the football antisemitism.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want people to know how much fun it was to write the book. I hope that comes across to a reader. Whether I was reading Renaissance Jewish love poetry addressed to a nun (another surprise) or the heart-wrenching stories of Jewish children kidnapped by Catholic authorities in the service of forced conversion, I was always fascinated.


My book is full of stories. I loved reading about them from other historians and I loved telling them in a new way in Intimate Strangers. I wanted to share that enjoyment with readers. I hope I have.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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