Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Sunday Hop -- The Jewish Community in downtown Naples

(Alexander Popivker at Centro Chabad di Napoli)

The Sunday Hop:  The first written evidence of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. comes from an anonymous Jewish author who told about the catastrophe one year later in a passage of the Libri Sibillini.  His verse predates Martial’s (in 88 A.D.) and Pliny the Younger's (in 106 A.D.).

The Jewish community existed in the Campania region perhaps as far back as when the Greek colonies established themselves here.  Certainly, they began to settle throughout the Mediterranean after Alexander the Great took Judaea.  Historians give the date of 70 B.C. as a time when Jews came in larger numbers to Italy as slaves after the fall of Jerusalem.  But inscriptions found during archeological excavations in the Campania region show that their communities were likely large and varied.  

The port town of Pozzuoli had a Jewish community that contributed to commercial activity as well as the manufacturing of purple, fabric, and glass.  Inscriptions have also surfaced in the towns of Nola, Bacoli, and notably Capua, where an Alfius Iuda is mentioned as having been part of the Council of Elders and a rabbi.

Our best information about the Jewish community comes from the impressively preserved archeological finds in Pompeii.  Inscriptions have been found naming Youdaikou a producer and merchant of wine who was wealthy enough to own his own slaves.  Coss Libum was a manager of one of the most important hotels in the city.  Iesus wrote graffiti along a wall comparing a gladiator to a little fish.  Most interesting is the etched word ‘cherem’, which scholars say is the first Pompeian evidence of a bilingual Hebrew-Greek (in Latin letters) inscription and also may point to the place where Jews assembled on special occasions.

Last December, I set out to find today’s Jewish Community in Naples.  I visited Alexander Popivker and his wife Sarah Nurit who live in the center of the city with their four children.  They own a kosher catering business.  Alexander was kind enough to let me interview him, so I turn over this post to his words:

How long have you lived in Naples and where are you from?

We came to Naples over five years ago.  My family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States twenty years ago.  I have also lived in Israel when I went there to reconnect with my Jewish heritage.  Sarah is from the north of Italy, Udine.

What brought you to set up the Centro Chabad di Napoli?

It is our belief that the teaching of Chabad Chassidut that we discovered is the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is the Torah.  That means that these teachings can and should be integrated worldwide, which according to our teachings will commence the messianic age.

What branch of Judaism do you practice?  Could you describe some of its fundamental aspects?

Chabad Chassidut teaches of the unity of all things in One G-d.  This is of course a common theme of Judaism, however Chassidut Chabad has a complete system of representing it on all levels from universal to personal.  This kind of world perception leads to a true love of all creations, which our movement is known for.  Being open, tolerant and always ready to help in material and spiritual, alike.

How big is the Jewish community here in Naples?

Before the Spanish Inquisition the community of Naples was tremendous accounting for about 30% of the local population.  However, with the continued demise of the Roman roads to the south and the Spanish threat, local Jews either emigrated or assimilated.  It is very common to meet people who remember their Jewish ancestry, but not much else.  Presently in the whole region there may be approximately 200 Jews.

When are your services and who can participate?

There is a weekly Saturday morning prayer at the local Synagogue.  Other than that, we are happy to host guests for Shabbat & Holiday meals as well as provide lodging at our Guest House.  We assist with tourist information and keep an open home to all those that may be interested in Judaism or just interested in trying some kosher food.

Would you like us to know anything else?

There is a favorite quote of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that I would like to share, "I don't believe in ideas, I believe in ideas that change people."

You can find Alexander's website here:

Recommended Reading:  The Jews in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and in the Cities of Campania Felix by Carlo Giordano and Isidoro Kahn

Said to be one of the most important writer's of the twentieth century, Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and Reawakening describe the northern Italian author's capture by Italians during WWII, their deportation of him to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his return home.

Also -- for a look at the best of Jewish 19th century heritage, you can visit the Villa Pignatelli along the Riviera di Chiaia, built by Ferdinand Acton in 1826 and bought in 1841 by the financier Carl Mayer von Rothschild.  The gardens outside as well as the museum provide quiet reprieve from the frenetic pace of Naples city life.

And with that, I bid everyone -- Shalom!


Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

I had no idea the Jewish population was that large in the Naples area prior to the Inquisition. Thank you for a very interesting interview!

Barbara said...

Thanks for writing.

It's my understanding that Jewish communities flourished here from ancient times to the Inquisition. But scholarship tends to be slim, so this is a wide open field of potential study.