Arrivederci, Roma: Why Italian Jews Are Trading in Fettuccine for Falafel

The number of Italian Jews making aliyah rose significantly this year, but this summer’s Gaza war wasn’t the catalyst. We find out why Italians are increasingly looking for la dolce vita in Israel.

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David di Tivoli, an Italian Jew who recently immigrated to Israel, was visiting relatives in Rome over the recent holidays, when he learned that his cousins were also planning to make the move in the not-so-distant future. So too, it turns out, was an elderly couple – friends of the family who had joined them for the post-Yom Kippur break fast meal.

Di Tivoli wasn’t particularly surprised. After all, in the past year Italian Jews have been flocking to Israel’s shores. The absolute numbers are not huge, since Italy’s Jewish community is rather small – when compared with those elsewhere in Europe, such as France and Britain. But in percentage terms, the increase has been dramatic.

According to Immigrant Absorption Ministry figures, the first eight months of 2014 saw 209 Italian Jews move to Israel. That compares with 162 in all of 2013, and 165 the previous year. In most years, the flow hasn’t exceeded a trickle of several dozen.

Relatively sheltered from the recent rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, Italian Jews had a wake-up call of sorts this summer. During Israel’s latest round of fighting in Gaza, Jewish shops in Rome were vandalized and an Italian trade union issued a call to boycott Jewish-owned businesses in the city.

But that doesn’t explain what’s driving them to Israel in growing numbers this past year, those familiar with the trend concur. Fiammetta Martegani is a 32-year-old Milanese Jew who immigrated two-and-a-half years ago and is now completing a postdoctorate in cinema and comparative literature at Tel Aviv University: “Sure, something happened in the last few months,” she says, “but Italy is still very different in that sense from France and Belgium.”

Supermarket visits in pajamas

Two other factors account for the recent wave of immigration, most newcomers say: the depressed state of the Italian economy, and a growing consensus among Italian Jews that moving to Israel may be the only way for members of this tiny community to maintain their religious identity. “They are not being pushed out of Italy,” says Immigrant Absorption Ministry director general Oded Forer. “They are coming here out of choice.”

Di Tivoli arrived two years ago, together with his three partners in an online Italian-language news and business portal. “We can do our business as easily out of Israel as we can out of Italy,” says the 37-year-old bachelor, who lives in Tel Aviv. While many Italians he knows are searching for greener economic pastures in Israel, Di Tivoli says the draw for him was a more casual lifestyle. “You can dress however you want here – not like Italy, where you have to constantly be thinking about what you’re wearing and about having a nice car,” he says. “Here in Israel, if I want I can even go to the supermarket in my pajamas.”

Like Di Tivoli, many of these new arrivals are discovering they can continue making a living speaking Italian, while working in Israel. In fact, increasingly they are finding their Italian-languages skills in demand, in industries like online casinos and foreign exchange, which have recently experienced a boom locally.

Tharyn Sermoneta. Courtesy photo

Tharyn Sermoneta, who moved to Israel with her boyfriend earlier this year from Rome, quickly found a job at a call center in Herzliya looking for Italian speakers. For that reason, she hasn’t yet found the time to work on her Hebrew skills. “I hope to attend an ulpan sometime soon,” promises the 22-year-old, referring to the Hebrew immersion courses offered to new Jewish immigrants. Asked why she decided to immigrate, Sermoneta says, in very basic English, “I love Israel. I am Jewish.”

According to Vito Anav, chairman of The Organization of Italian Jews in Israel, Italy’s Jewish community numbers about 23,000 today – 12,000 in Rome, 8,000 in Milan, and the rest spread out among a few northern centers, primarily Venice, Livorno and Turin. While most of the Jews in Rome can trace their ancestry in the country back many generations, the Jews of Milan tend to be more recent arrivals, having transplanted themselves from countries such as Iran, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon. Since Israel gained its independence, Anav says, a total of 12,000-13,000 Italian Jews have made aliyah.

First the kids, then the parents

Anav, who moved to Israel in 1979, lives in Jerusalem, which has traditionally served as the center for the community in Israel, based largely around the historic Conegliano Veneto synagogue. Many of the recent arrivals, however, have tended to gravitate toward the coast, primarily cities like Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ra’anana. “One of the really interesting developments of recent years,” says Anav, “is that many teens are moving here on high-school programs, and are later being joined by their parents.”

Silvia Modigliani is a case in point. The 48-year-old single mom immigrated to Israel a year ago to join her two older daughters, who had already made the move three and five years previously. “The final decision was made because my children were here,” she says. “And I have to say, I was happy when they came.”

Modigliani, who grew up in an extremely secular home in Rome, says that in recent years she became more traditional. “I keep Shabbat a little and kashrut,” she says. After she completes her ulpan course in Jerusalem, where she now lives, Modigliani plans to open a jewelry business, similar to the one she ran in Rome.

Anav estimates that over the next few years, anywhere between 350 and 400 Italians Jews will be arriving in Israel annually, until the potential has been exhausted. “Let’s not forget, this isn’t France or Britain, where the pool is almost endless,” says Anav, who traces his family back to the original members of this oldest of Jewish-Diaspora communities.

Like many Italian immigrants, Sharon Nizza first came to Israel as a student, settling in Jerusalem, where she attended the Hebrew University. That was back in 2002. Since then, she’s moved to Tel Aviv, where she found more job opportunities as a tour operator. Indeed, the number of young Italians in Tel Aviv has grown so dramatically in recent years that today, they have their own prayer group at Ichud Shivat Zion synagogue, on Ben Yehuda Street.

Simona di Nepi. Photo by Sally Metsuyanim-Cohen

Simona di Nepi, a Tel Aviv-based museum curator who first arrived in Israel 20 years ago, recalls the days when it was impossible to get decent ice cream in the country. “For sure, it is the Italian influence that has brought all these wonderful gelaterias to Tel Aviv,” she claims, pointing to the succession of homemade ice-cream shops along Ibn Gabirol Street, one of the city’s main drags. “Not to mention how Italian design has become all the craze in Israel in recent years.”

Di Tivoli could have easily operated his online business anywhere in the world, so why did a secular Jew like him prefer Israel to a host of other possible destinations? For Italian Jews considering relocation, he responds, Israel offers the great advantage of proximity: “It takes me three hours by plane to get to Rome. That allows me to visit friends and family six, seven and even eight times a year.”