A satirical melody sung in the squares and the markets, a bust in the cloister of a church, an old Hebrew grammar-book written in Tuscan vernacular, a cabalistic scroll - these are among the fragments which Toaff employs to breathe life into the forgotten world of the Florence ghetto, a typical microcosm of the difficult existence of Italian Jews in past centuries. The book features small tales of small men who attempted to escape their destiny of struggle and segregation via wit and sometimes deceit or conversion, in a rocky relationship of attraction and repulsion with the Christian society that encircled them. Today, explains the author, some feel a certain nostalgia for the ghettoes: an anti-Hebrew satire dating from the 18th century, which at the time was reviled by Jews and used to unleash violence upon them, is now treated as a picturesque testimony of Hebrew culture. But it was a world for which we should feel no regret whatsoever.
Ariel Toaff is Professor Emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.