Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Ghetto in Rome
By William Wetmore Story (1819–1895)
From ‘Roba di Roma’

BUT first let us take a glimpse of the Ghetto. Its very name—derived from the Talmud Ghet, and signifying segregation and disjunction—is opprobrious; and fitly describes the home of a people cut off from the Christian world, and banned as infamous. Stepping out from the Piazza di Pianto, we plunge at once down a narrow street into the midst of the common class of Jews. The air reeks with the peculiar frowzy smell of old woolen clothes, modified with occasional streaks of strata of garlic; while above all triumphs the foul human odor of a crowded and unclean population. The street is a succession of miserable houses, and every door opens into a dark shop. Each of these is wide open; and within and without, sprawling on the pavement, sitting on benches and stools, standing in the street, blocking up the passages, and leaning out of the upper windows, are swarms of Jews,—fat and lean, handsome and hideous, old and young,—as thick as ants around an ant-hill. The shop doors are draped with old clothes, and second-hand roba of every description. Old military suits of furbished shabbiness, faded silken court dresses of a past century with worn embroidery, napless and forlorn dress-coats with shining seams and flabby skirts, waistcoats of dirty damask, legs of velvet breeches,—in a word, all the cast-off riffraff of centuries that have “fallen from their high estate,” are dangling everywhere overhead. Most of the men are lounging about and leaning against the lintels of the doors, or packed upon benches ranged in front of the shops. The children are rolling round in the din, and playing with cabbage ends and stalks, and engaged in numerous and not over-clean occupations. The greater part of the women, however, are plying the weapon of their tribe, with which they have won a worldwide reputation,—the needle,—and, bent closely over their work, are busy in renewing old garments and hiding rents and holes with its skillful web-work. Everybody is on the lookout for customers; and as you pass down the street, you are subject to a constant fusillade of, “Pst, Pst,” from all sides. The women beckon you, and proffer their wares. At times they even seize the skirts of your coat in their eagerness to tempt you to a bargain. The men come solemnly up, and whisper confidentially in your ear, begging to know what you seek.  1
  Is there anything you can possibly want? If so, do not be abashed by the shabbiness of the shop, but enter, and ask even for the richest thing. You will find it, if you have patience. But once in the trap, the manner of the seller changes: he dallies with you as a spider with a fly, as a cat with a mouse. Nothing is to be seen but folded cloths on regular shelves—all is hidden out of sight. At first, and reluctantly, he produces a common, shabby enough article. “Oh no, that will never do,—too common.” Then gradually he draws forth a better specimen. “Not good enough? why, a prince might be glad to buy it!” Finally, when he has wearied you out, and you turn to go, he understands it is some superb brocade embroidered in gold, some gorgeous portière worked in satin, some rich tapestry with Scripture stories, that you want; and with a sigh he opens a cupboard and draws it forth. A strange combination of inconsistent and opposite feelings has prevented him from exhibiting it before. He is divided between a desire to keep it and a longing to sell it. He wishes, if possible, to eat his cake and have it too; and the poor ass in the fable between the two bundles of hay was not in a worse quandary. At last, the article you seek makes its appearance. It is indeed splendid, but you must not admit it. It may be the dress the Princess d’Este wore centuries ago,—faded, but splendid still; or the lace of Alexander VI. the Borgia; or an ancient altar cloth with sacramental spots; or a throne carpet of one of the popes. Do you really wish to buy it, you must nerve yourself to fight. He begins at the zenith, you at the nadir; and gradually, by dint of extravagant laudation on his part, and corresponding depreciation on yours, you approach each other. But the distance is too great,—the bargain is impossible. You turn and go away. He runs after you when he sees that you are not practicing a feint, and offers it for less; but still the price is too high, and he in turn leaves you. You pass along the street. With a mysterious and confidential air, another of the tribe approaches you. He walks by your side. Was it a gold brocade you wanted? He also has one like that which you have seen, only in better condition. Would your Signoria do him the favor to look at it? You yield to his unctuous persuasion, and enter his shop; but what is your astonishment when, after a delusive show of things you do not want, the identical article for which you have been bargaining is again produced in this new shop, and asserted stoutly, and with a faint pretense of indignation, to be quite another piece! This game is sometimes repeated three or four times. Wherever you enter, your old friend, Monsieur Tonson like, makes its appearance; and you are lucky if you obtain it at least for twice its value, though you only pay a twentieth part of the price originally asked.  2
  All the faces you see in the Ghetto are unmistakably Hebraic, but very few are of the pure type. Generally it is only the disagreeable characteristics that remain: the thick peculiar lips, the narrow eyes set close together, and the nose thin at the junction with the eyebrows, and bulbous at the end. Centuries of degradation have for the most part imbruted the physiognomy, and all of them have a greasy and anointed look. Here and there you will see a beautiful black-eyed child, with a wonderful mass of rich tendril-like curls, rolling about in the dirt; or a patriarchal-looking old Abraham, with a full beard, and the pure Israelite nose hooked over the mustache, and cut up backward in the nostrils. Hagars, too, are sometimes to be seen; and even stately Rebeccas at rarer intervals stride across the narrow street, with a proud, disdainful look, above their station; but old Sarahs abound,—fat, scolding, and repulsive,—who fill to the extreme edge the wide chair on which they sit, while they rest their spuddy hands on their knees, and shake all over like jelly when they laugh. Almost all the faces are however of the short, greasy, bulbous type, and not of the long, thin, hook-nosed class. No impurity of breed and caste has sufficed to eradicate from them the Jewish characteristics.  3
  As it is with the faces, so it is with the names. The pure Hebrew names have in great measure disappeared, or been intermarried with Italian surnames. These surnames are for the most part taken from some Italian city, or borrowed from some stately Italian house, with a pure Jewish prefix; as for instance, Isaac Volterra, Moses Gonzaga, Jacob Ponticorvo. So also their speech is Roman, and their accent thick and Jewish. It is seldom that one hears them speak in their original Hebrew tongue, though they all understand it, and employ it in their religious services.  4
  The place and the people are in perfect keeping. The Ghetto is the high carnival of old clothes, the May-fair of rags. It is the great receptacle into which the common sewers of thievery and robbery empty. If a silver salver, a gold watch, a sparkling jewel, be missed unaccountably, it will surely run down into the Ghetto. Your old umbrella, your cloak that was stolen from the hall, the lace handkerchief with your initials embroidered in one corner, your snuff-box that the Emperor of Russia presented you,—there lurk in secret holes, and turn up again after months or years of seclusion. In this columbarium your lost inanimate friends are buried, but not without resurrection.  5
  Crammed together, layer above layer, like herrings in a barrel, the Jews of Rome are packed into the narrow confines of the Ghetto. Three of the modern palaces of Rome would more than cover the whole Jewish quarter; yet within this restricted space are crowded no less than four thousand persons. Every inch has its occupant; every closet is tenanted. And this seems the more extraordinary in spacious and thinly populated Rome, where houses go a-begging for tenants, and where, in the vast deserted halls and chambers of many a palace, the unbrushed cobwebs of years hang from decaying walls and ceilings. With the utmost economy of room, there is scarcely space enough to secure privacy and individuality; and herded together like a huge family, they live in their sty.  6

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