Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 108, entry 2003, Encyc. Judaica added Dec. 2022

iddish & Pizza

There is such an exotic abundance of languages on the buses in Naples these days that you feel as if you have wandered into a workshop run by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, those busy beavers of bible translation who tell us, for example, that there are 8 languages spoken in Sri Lanka, 8 in the Ukraine, 9 in Tunisia, 82 in Ethiopia, and 470 in Nigeria.

I hear some of them, I'm sure, on the buses, depending on the time of day. In the mornings there are loads of immigrant woman from Sri Lanka and the Ukraine on their way to work as maids and cooks (termed COLF in Italian, for "collaboratrici familiari"—family helpers). Later in the day, young African men toting huge sports bags jammed with sundry leather goods such as purses and belts are seen making their way to the bustling pedestrian malls downtown to peddle their wares.

Interestingly, of the 33 languages listed for Italy, I generally hear only two of those on the busses: one is standard Italian; the other is Neapolitan dialect. (Remember: linguists joke that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army.) There is even a language I had never heard of, much less actually heard:

Judeo-Italian. A tiny number speak it fluently; perhaps 4,000 occasionally use elements of it in their speech (1/10th of Italy's 40,000 Jews). Linguistic affiliation: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Italo-Romance. More commonly spoken two generations ago. Used in Passover song. Jewish. Nearly extinct.

see "What is a rare Jewish Language --added Nov.2021
I don't think anyone in the small (around 300-400) Naples Jewish community speaks it, but I'll have to ask Aldo, a friend of ours. He is in his 90's and a few years ago became the second oldest university graduate in the history of the Italian state. He was a young man when the Fascists were in power and, because he was a Jew, was denied entrance to a university. He bided his time and years later, at the age of 80, wrote his university dissertation on The Influence of Napoleon on the Liberation of European Jewry. He says he had difficulty even finding a so-called "graduate advisor" for his thesis; that is, some professor who knew enough about the subject to judge what he wrote. They did a short spot on him on national television, where they showed him getting his degree. He sported an elegant blue suit and an enormous smile.

Aldo speaks only Italian, and it is my impression that almost no Italian Jews speak Yiddish. Once, an elderly Jewish gentleman from New York whom I met in Naples asked if there was a synagogue in Naples. Indeed, there was, and I took him down there. He spoke no Italian, but he did speak Yiddish, a disappearing language even among American Jews. He managed to communicate in Yiddish at the Naples synagogue with a single elderly gentleman, a resident of Naples but originally from Eastern Europe. They spoke while the younger generation of Neapolitan Jewry stood around and listened, absolutely transfixed as they listened to the historic language of the Diaspora.

Of border-line relevance in the paper some time ago was a human interest story. There was a photo, taken in Portland, Oregon of a young man and woman —"street people"—  sitting on their bags on the sidewalk. One of them was holding up a sign that says: "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money." The caption above the photo said: "The Homeless. New frontiers in advertising". The paragraph below said, simply, that the kids were paid only in pizza and soft-drinks, and that this seemed to be a new record in aggressive advertising. Reading between the lines, they meant, I think, "a new low in advertising". The reason it was featured in a Neapolitan paper, no doubt, had to do with the pizza. Neapolitans are always concerned that the rest of the world is doing something wrong, clumsy, and unorthodox —with an outright potential for true evil— with the real Neapolitan product.* (My wife's comment upon eating a Taco Pizza in Honolulu pretty much sums it up: "This is pretty good, but they should call it something else. It's not pizza.")

*speaking of which, see this item on Haggis pizza! If you're a vegetarian, don't.

I even ran into a young Japanese cook in Naples a few weeks ago. He didn't speak a word of Italian, but his sponsors in Kagoshima, Japan, had sent him to Naples with an interpreter (!) to learn how to make real pizza and bring home the bacon (not an authentic topping, by the way) to Japan where he will strut his stuff in a genuine Neapolitan pizza place in Kagoshima. That city and Naples have one of these strange "sister city" deals going. There is also a street named "via Kagoshima" in Naples (click here). There may very well be young Neapolitan cooks running around Kagoshima at this very moment with their interpreters, learning how to make sushi and fugu, the infamous poisonous puffer or blowfish of the family Tetraodontidae, class Osteichthyes, and order Tetraodontiformes, the body of which contains a toxin 1250 times more powerful than cyanide, one serving of which costs $200, and even a slightly imperfect preparation of which will kill you in no time flat. There is, by the way, at least one Japanese restaurant in Naples, and that does not reassure me.

What the paper didn't explain, and what the proprietor of my local morning coffee bar wanted to know, was the name of the restaurant, "Pizza Schmizza". I explained that it was a chain of restaurants in the US state of Oregon. But what was "schimizza"?

"Maybe it's Neapolitan Yiddish," I said.

That did no good, since, as I have said, not even Neapolitan Jews speak or know anything about Yiddish. Neapolitan Jews are Sephardic
that is, originally from Spain not Ashkenazi Jews (who are from Eastern Europe and have given us Yiddish).
If you don't know what Sephardic is, see this link. Everything you everything you ever wanted know. More, I hope.
"OK, then it's a Yiddish example of what is called, depending on the context,  'echo-word reduplication,' 'linguistic doubling,' 'rhyming reduplication' and, at linguistics department beer-parties, 'phonesthemic doubling'. Some examples in English are drinky-winky, harum-scarum, helter-skelter, higgledy-piggledy, and in so-called Cockney Rhyming Slang, 'loaf' for 'head' (since 'loaf of bread' rhymes with 'head'). Yiddish uses the sound 'schm—' as the PSDA (Phonesthemic Secret Double Agent) for humorous effect."


Farther afield —leaving pizza and schmizza behind, but still in the baffling Neapolitan-Yiddish crossover department— is the Neapolitan song, Oj, Marì! (complete text, here). Italian-American singers are required to sing it wrong (!) in order not to cause giggles since the Neapolitan oy sounds exactly like the Yiddish expression of despair, oy (as in Oy, vey.) If you sing Oj, Marì! to a bunch of people (say, in New York) who are familiar with Yiddish, they'll start laughing and saying things like "Oy, Mary. Why don't you marry a nice Jewish boy?" Thus, singers such as Dean Martin had to sing, Uè, Marì! That expression, (sounds like English way) is, indeed, Neapolitan, but it means "HEY!" whereas the original oj (sounds like O-E) is the vocative O! in Neapolitan —vocative as in O Lord! and, in this case, O Mary! But instead of saying O Mary!, with Uè, Marì! you're saying "Hey! Mary! or even worse, something like "Yo! Mary!" It gets even more confusing since Yo is dyslexic Yiddish for Oy.

I need a drinky-winky.

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The Encyclopaedia Judaica
is a 22-volume English-language encyclopedia of the Jewish people, Judaism, and Israel. It covers diverse areas of the Jewish world and civilization, including Jewish history of all eras, culture, holidays, language, scripture, and religious teachings. As of 2010, it had been published in two editions accompanied by a few revisions. This is their timeline of Jewish History in Naples:

  • The first Jewish settlement there probably dates to the beginning of the first century C.E. [Common Era, i.e. AD], if not before. Josephus (Antiquities, XVII, 23–25, and Wars, II, 101–05) reports that during Augustus’ rule there was already a Jewish community at Puteoli (Dicaearchia) [modern Pozzuoli], near Napoli. Puteoli was the most important mercantile harbor of Roman Italy in that period. Some sepulchral inscriptions in Latin dated to a later period indeed attest a Jewish presence in the area.
  • By the fourth century C.E., the community of Naples was of considerable size and economically important. A Jewish burial ground was excavated in 1908 in Corso Malta. The tombs date from the end of the 4th century to the middle of the 5th century C.E. Three of the inscriptions are in Latin, one in Greek. It is interesting that one of the inscriptions in Latin is followed by an inscription in Hebrew. All the inscriptions are decorated with the menorah. The etrog as well as the Holy Ark decorate two of the inscriptions. In 536, according to the Byzantine historian Procopius  the Jewish population helped the Goths, although unsuccessfully, to defend the city when it was besieged by the Byzantines.
  • Eleventh- and twelfth-century documents show that the Naples community had a synagogue and a school. Jews enjoyed the right to own real estate and to dispose of it as they wished. Benjamin of Tudela, who visited the town in c. 1159, found 500 Jews living there. From 1288, under Charles II, anti-Jewish disorders incited by Dominican preachers occurred; they reached their height in 1290 when serious outrages were committed and a synagogue was converted into a church. However, in 1330, Robert of Anjou invited Jews from the Balearic Islands to settle in Naples and in the rest of his kingdom, promising them protection against annoyance and the same taxation rights as those enjoyed by Christians. From 1442, under the rule of Aragon, conditions for the Jews in Naples and its surroundings were favorable, and attracted Jews from various parts of Europe.
  •  At the end of 1492, and the beginning of 1493, a large influx of refugees from Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain found temporary asylum in Naples. The Spanish refugees, undernourished and sick, probably introduced the pestilence in 1492 that struck down 20,000 persons in Naples alone.
  • Among the Spanish refugees who landed in Naples in 1492 was Don Isaac Abrabanel, who became fiscal adviser to King Ferdinand I and Alfonso II. In 1495, the Kingdom of Naples was conquered by the Spanish and, in 1496, a decree for the expulsion of the Jews was issued, although it was not implemented. The expulsion of the Jews was definitively ordered in 1510 and finally carried out: exception was made for 200 wealthy Jewish families who undertook to pay an annual tax of 300 ducats to the crown.
  • In 1515, the New Christians were also expelled from the kingdom. The 200 wealthy families, who had been joined by others in 1520, had increased to 600 within the following decade. Although a new decree of expulsion was issued in 1533, permission was granted to the Jews in November 1535 to reside in Naples for a further ten years against the payment of 10,000 ducats. However, the agreement was not respected by Emperor Charles V and, in 1541, he ordered the total expulsion of the Jews; this coincided with the establishment of a Christian loan bank (Monte di Pietá) in Naples.
  • It was not until 1735, when the kingdom passed to the Bourbons, that Jews were readmitted into Naples and the vicinity by an edict signed by Charles IV on February 3, 1740. However, following pressure by Jesuits and the Church, the few Jews who had accepted the invitation were again expelled (September 18, 1746).
  • In 1822, at the suggestion of Metternich, the Austrian premier, Solomon de Rothschild had his brother, Karl Mayer von Rothschild of Frankfurt on the Main, settled in Naples as court banker of the Bourbons. There Rothschild did much to help the ruling dynasty economically, and he pushed for a liberalization of the government. Rothschild resided in Villa Acton-Pignatelli in Via Chiaia. Rothschild’s task came to an end in 1860 when Garibaldi conquered Naples. By then a small Jewish community had developed around Rothschild. Religious services began to be held in Naples in 1831, but a synagogue was not opened until June 1864. The synagogue located in the Palazzo Sessa was inaugurated in 1864 thanks to the influence of Baron Rothschild. In the entrance there are two marble statues; one in honor of the community president Dario Ascarelli who bought the premises for the synagogue in 1910 and the other which marks the deportation of Neapolitan Jews during World War II. Restoration was carried out in 1992.
[Ariel Toaff /
Samuele Rocca (2nd ed.)

  • In 1931, there were 998 Jews in the community of Naples, whose authority extended to all southern Italy. Persecutions during World War II had minor consequences as the Allied landing led to a speedy liberation of southern Italy.  Nevertheless, 11 Jews were taken to extermination camps from Naples and others were killed elsewhere.
  • From 1943 to 1945, Naples was the biggest harbor that served the Allies in the Mediterranean. Thus various Jewish units from Palestine served in the area as well as Jewish chaplains from the U.S. Army. Both assisted the local Jewish  community. After the war, the U.S. Navy held regular services for American Jewish sailors in Naples.
  • At war’s end (1945) 534 Jews remained in the community. In 1969, there were 450 Jews in Naples. In the early 21st century the community numbered approximately 200.
Samuele Rocca (2nd ed.)
Hebrew Printing

  • A Hebrew press was established in Naples not later than 1485 and, in the next decade nearly 20 books were published, making the city one of the most important cradles of Hebrew incunabula. Naples was then a center of general book printing and the book trade, and wealthy members of the Jewish community including immigrants from Spain and Portugal, financed the publishing of Hebrew books.
  • The first Jewish printer there was the German Joseph b. Jacob Gunzenhausen,  followed in 1490 by Joshua Solomon Soncino. A third printer was Isaac b. Judah ibn Katorzo (of Calatayud in Spain). The first book published (in 1487) was Psalms with David Kim?i’s commentary, followed by Proverbs with a commentary by Immanuel of Rome (n.d.), and the rest of the Hagiographa in 1488. A Pentateuch (with Rashi), the Five Scrolls, and the Antiochus Scroll appeared in 1491.
  • The first printed edition of Abraham ibn Ezra’s Pentateuch commentary came out in 1488; Na?manides’ Pentateuch commentary was printed in 1490 by Katorzo; and that of Ba?ya b. Asher in 1492. The grand first edition of the entire Mishnah (with Maimonides’ commentary) was published in 1492.
  • Halakhic works included Jacob Landau's Agur, the first Hebrew work with approbations (Haskamot) and the second printed in the lifetime of the author (who was one of Gunzenhausen’s typesetters); the first edition of the Kol Bo and Kim?i’s Sefer ha-Shorashim was published by Gunzenhausen in 1490, and by Soncino (and Katorzo?) in 1491. Ba?ya b. Joseph ibn Paquda’s "Duties of the Heart" (?ovot ha-Levavot) appeared in 1489, and Na?manides’ Sha’ar ha-Gemul in 1490. Of particular interest are Pere? Trabot’s Makre Dardekei (1488), a 14th-century Hebrew glossary with Italian, Arabic, and also French, Provençal, and German translations; Kalonymus b. Kalonymus’ satirical Even Bo?an (1489); a Hebrew grammar, Peta? Devarai (1492); a five-volume Hebrew translation of Avicenna’s medical canon Ha-Kanon ha-Gadol printed for the first and only time. The fourth edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia was published by an anonymous Jewish printer in Naples in 1477.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008

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