“A fascinating story of the Jews’ unique resilience and strength living in Rome without interruption for twenty-two centuries.” —Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome
“An absolutely new approach. Investigating an unusual relationship—the one between Jews and Catholics that in Rome could develop uninterruptedly over almost two thousand years—Intimate Strangers frames it anthropologically while revealing notable knowledge about the life of Jews in Rome and their mutual relationships with the Catholic world. This is a well-written, well-documented, and well-argued book.” —Gabriela Yael Franzone, coordinator of the Department of Heritage and Culture of the Jewish Community of Rome
“An engaging and sometimes surprising exploration of the intriguing history of Rome.”—Mark Kurlansky, author of thirty-five books, including Cod, Salt, and The Importance of Not Being Ernest
“Most involving. There is always fascinating new material on the next page.”—Judith Roumani, author of Jews in Southern Tuscany during the Holocaust: Ambiguous Refuge
“A fascinating and readable history that’s essential for those interested in Jewish or Italian history.” —Library Journal
With engaging stories that illuminate the history of Jews and Jewish-Catholic relations in Rome, INTIMATE STRANGERS: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome by Fredric Brandfon (The Jewish Publication Society, May 1, 2023) investigates the unusual relationship between these two vibrant Roman communities as it has developed from the first century CE to the present. Written in a very easy-to-read way, interweaving story upon story, INTIMATE STRANGERS takes us on a compelling sweep of two thousand years of history through the present successes and dilemmas of Roman Jews in postwar Europe.
The Jewish community of Rome is the oldest Jewish community in Europe, and one with the longest continuous history, having avoided interruptions, expulsions, and annihilations since the year 139 BCE. For most of that time, Jewish Romans have lived in close contact with the world’s largest continuously functioning international organization: the Roman Catholic Church. Given the church’s origins in Judaism, Jews and Catholics have spent two thousand years negotiating a necessary and paradoxical relationship.
As Brandfon explains in the introduction, the book “begins with a question: How do you describe two venerable peoples, Jews and Catholics, who have lived side-by-side as Romans since the first century, in anger, adversity, and intermittent admiration? I call them ‘Intimate Strangers.’ 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.”
“When I first read Intimate Strangers, I was immediately drawn into this remarkable saga, and knew it was one that should be brought to the wider world,” explains Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, Director of The Jewish Publication Society. “Although it is the story of one community spanning two millennia; it speaks to Jews and Christians everywhere.”
Fredric Brandfon, a former professor of history of religions and near eastern archaeology, innovatively frames these relations through an anthropological lens: how the idea and language of family have shaped the self-understanding of both Roman Jews and Catholics. The familial relations are lopsided, the powerful family member often persecuting the weaker one; the church ghettoized the Jews of Rome longer than any other community in Europe. Yet respect and support are also part of the family dynamic—for instance, church members and institutions protected Rome’s Jews during the Nazi occupation—and so the relationship continues.
“Intimate Strangers tells a great story,” Brandfon says. “If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice,’ then the story of Jews and Catholics in Rome can be found along that arc. Twenty centuries of living in Rome often saw an acrimonious and antagonistic relationship between Jews and Catholics— but not all the time. In Intimate Strangers, I followed that arc of justice. I did not flinch from the bad times, but I celebrated the good. Whether the story has a moral or not is left ambiguous, up to individual readers to decide.”
Brandfon begins by examining the Arch of Titus and the Jewish Catacombs as touchstones, painting a picture of a Jewish community remaining Jewish over centuries. Papal processions and the humiliating races at Carnival time exemplify Jewish interactions with the predominant Catholic powers in medieval and Renaissance Rome. The Roman ghetto, the forcible conversion of Jews, emancipation from the ghetto in light of Italian nationalism, the horrors of fascism and the Nazi occupation in Rome, the Second Vatican Council proclamation absolving Jews of murdering Christ, and the celebration of Israel’s birth at the Arch of Titus are interwoven with Jewish stories of daily life through the centuries.
INTIMATE STRANGERS is a must read for anyone interested in history, religion, and specifically Judaism and Catholicism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Fredric Brandfon is former chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Stockton University in New Jersey and founded the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He has published numerous articles on Roman and Italian Jewish history.