In honor of Columbus Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of early Jewish life in Columbus’ hometown of Genoa (also called Genova).

Although it is generally presumed that Jews settled in Genoa (Northeast Italy) during the Roman era, the earliest official record of a Jewish presence there is from the early sixth century. Following the conquest of Genoa by the Ostrogoths, King Theodoric affirmed the rights of the Jews who lived in the city and granted permission for repairing the synagogue. The Jews were not, however, allowed to enlarge the synagogue building.

Jewish life in Genoa during the Early Middle Ages was, for the most part, stable. Kingdoms came and went (the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Franks, etc), with little attention paid to  the Jews in contemporary historical records.

The twelfth century, an era of Christian fervor, brought on the Crusades. As occurred in so many other medieval cities, the Genoese sought to limit Jewish settlement and therefore declared a tax upon Jewish settlement, the revenue of which was to go directly to supplying the oil for the lamp on the altar of San Lorenzo Cathedral.

Whether this tax convinced Jews to leave Genoa, or the Jewish departure was due to an unrecorded expulsion, is unknown. But, by the time the famed Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela arrived in Genoa  (c. 1165), he was only able to record a Jewish population of two brothers from North Africa. However, by the mid-13th century, Jews had returned.

Significantly, many Spanish Jews arrived in Genoa in 1492, following their expulsion from Spain (when Columbus left for the “Indies”). The many ships arriving with refugees were permitted to land for repairs and supplies for three days. Permission was repealed in January 1493, however, when plague struck  the town. The further history of the Jews in Genoa during the Middle Ages consisted of a series of expulsions (many of which were never fully enforced) and return.

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