I find travel difficult. I am not crazy about flying, to say the least, and I am most happy and comfortable staying close to hearth and home. On the other hand, my husband, Lou, has an astounding amount of boyish curiosity and an unending desire to see new places.
One of his favorite sayings is: “It’s a big world out there.” So, when Lou brought up the idea of ten days in Italy on a kosher bus tour, I thought of a million reasons why a trip to Loch Sheldrake would be a better option. I imagined myself happily cuddled up with a book on our screened-in porch, reading about Jewish life in Rome, Florence and
Venice. But, this time he prevailed upon me. “None of our kids are having babies this
Summer, our mothers are Baruch Hashem holding their own and we are young enough and healthy enough to do it.” What could I say? I booked the trip and we packed our bags only three weeks before our scheduled departure.
Even if I am not too keen on getting to our destinations, I do enjoy planning a trip. But since we arranged this holiday so last minute, my total focus was on finding comfortable shoes and a hat with SPF protection. We kind of glanced at a guidebook on the Shabbat before we left, but decided to leave this trip up to chance.
We left JFK in the midst of a horrible thunderstorm and spent six hours out of an eight and a half hour flight in non-stop turbulence. I took three Dramamine, yet every time the plane rock and rolled, I felt queasy. I told Lou that this would be my last trip anywhere—EVER! After what seemed like an eternity, our plane landed safely in Rome. We met our Israeli tour guide and well-known journalist, Michael Tuchfeld, who schlepped us and the twenty other folks on the tour to the awaiting bus. Hungry, tired, hot and dirty, I certainly was in no mood for the news that our bus was broken and that a new one would arrive—–eventually. Rome is exceedingly hot and humid in August, so Michael cheerfully bought us ice-cold bottles of water. I glared at my husband.
Finally, we got on the road and I believed that I would get a cold shower and a hot meal post haste. The itinerary clearly stated, “day of leisure in Rome.” Apparently, though, Michael had not read our day’s schedule or he had a different interpretation of the word “leisure.”
On the ride into Rome, I began to soften. Even I could not resist the incredible beauty of this ancient city, and the promise of gelato later in the day. I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Coliseum and awe struck by the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica. Our first stop was the Jewish Ghetto. I was shocked to see how small an area had housed Rome’s entire Jewish population (along with Jews from other parts of Italy and Spain) from dusk till dawn for over three centuries. I imagined those who perished there when the Tiber River overflowed, as well as those who were persecuted and starved.
But now, the Ghetto of Rome is fluttering with Jewish life. Kosher restaurants dot the cobbled stone walkways and offer foods reflective of Roman Jewish (this is where the famous fried artichoke is available), Italian and Israeli cuisines. There is a 1500 student yeshiva in the Ghetto, though there are only twenty or so Jewish families remaining. The others sold their residences for astronomical sums and have moved to different neighborhoods. The Ghetto is considered a trendy area with apartments selling for over a million Euros. But, many of Rome’s Jews still come to daven at the shul.
When we walked into the shul building, I could see why Michael pushed us so hard to make it the first thing we visited on our tour. The shul was re-built after a fire in 1904, and only thirty years after the Jews were finally free to live wherever they wanted. They could have erected their house of worship on any available piece of land in Rome. However, they wanted the shul to be a symbol of their survival and a symbol of hope for their children’s futures.
The shul is ornate with frescos on the ceiling and walls, incredible chandeliers and intricate tile work. The newly freed Jews built an edifice that would show the world that not only did they survive—they were flourishing. The shul is used for services on weekdays and Shabbatot. The congregants in the main sanctuary daven Roma style, which is neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. They uphold the traditions that have been unique to Rome for centuries. Downstairs there is a Sephardi shul; a kind of synagogue within a synagogue. This structure was developed in the Ghetto when a Papal edict decreed that each City State could house only one synagogue.
In 1982 there was a terrorist attack outside of the steps of the shul. Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a group of worshippers leaving shul on Simchat Torah. Forty people were wounded and a two-year-old boy was murdered. Since then, the Italian government has provided security for the Ghetto, every day of the year — including Christmas. According to our Ghetto tour guide, David, Italy takes care of and respects its Jewish citizens.
I guess that I had expected to find something quite different in the Ghetto. I thought that it would be more of museum that preserved the memories of those who perished there. Instead what I found is a thriving and unified community numbering around 20,000.
Undoubtedly, the spirits of those brave Roman and Spanish Jews who refused to convert still hover over the streets of the Ghetto. But they live alongside people who send their children to school, eat pizza and daven on those very same streets. Roman Jews are keeping alive a Jewish tradition that dates back over two thousand years to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. When Titus destroyed the Beit Hamikdash in 70CE, he brought back the spoils along with Jewish slaves. The descendants of those slaves have inhabited Rome since that time.
Michael announced that the hour had arrived to daven mincha. We had exactly ten men in our little group of tourists from places like Dallas, Texas; Deerfield Beach, Florida and Brooklyn, NY. As we joined together to pray in this living testament to Jewish survival, my eyes welled with tears. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep or the utter relief to be on solid earth that made me cry. I was at once grateful that Lou had schlepped me out of Teaneck and that we were able to experience this once in a lifetime adventure together.
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