The Italian Jewish community was formed from different groups of Jews that arrived on the Italian Peninsula at different times. Some Jews lived in Rome before 70 A.D., and more Palestinian Jews arrived in southern Italy in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. They later moved north and formed the roots of Ashkenazi Jewry. Throughout their history, Ashkenazi Jews were eminent rabbinical and Talmudic scholars.
Beginning in 1492 with Fernando and Isabel's expulsion edict, and spurred on by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, many Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula migrated to Italy. They settled mostly in Rome and in the northern cities, where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews mingled and married freely. During the 1800s, they were joined by Jews from the Ottomon Empire. For most of their history, Italian Jews enjoyed relative tolerance. But this "Golden Age" was not to last. The word "ghetto" is Italian in origin; Italian Jews were confined to Jewish-only neighborhoods and made to listen to anti-Jewish sermons in their own synagogues, and eventually about fifteen percent were killed by the Nazis. The population of Italian Jews today is only about 40,000.
RESEARCHING YOUR ITALIAN JEWISH ANCESTRY
When under Napoleonic rule, civil registration laws in Italy required all Jews in Italy to stop using patronymic surnames and to adopt fixed surnames instead. Many took the names of the towns or cities in which they lived. For that reason, you can often trace your ancestors to their town of origin using their surname. Be careful, though-many towns in Italy have the same names, or very similar names. Also, even though we think of Italy as one nation, it did not achieve unification until 1870. The borders of the country were still changing as late as 1918. Because of similar town names and changing boundaries, it is essential to consult a detailed map or geographical dictionary for Italy.
Once you know for certain where in Italy your ancestors lived, you must determine whether or not there is still a Jewish community in that town. If so, write to them to find out if the local records for Jews are currently kept in the synagogue or in the town archives. If there is no longer a Jewish community in the town where your ancestors lived, find the nearest Jewish community and contact them. They may have current stewardship over the records, or they may be able to tell you who does.
Aside from resources specific to Jewish Italian ancestors, there are also many good resources for Italian research that you should consult. See www.italianancestry.com or www.italianroots.org for ideas. You should also be prepared to deal with the challenge of old Italian handwriting and documents. Use this handwriting tutorial or this tutorial on Latin and Italian abbreviations.