When in Rome, remember its persecuted Jews

What was supposed the be a holiday reinforced in this writer that Jews need a secure homeland— every inch of history shows us that.

November 15, 2018 11:17

I’d wanted to go to Italy for years. Decades. I made it clear to my husband that we’d be going for our 20th anniversary or there might not be a 21st. Threat delivered, babysitting grandparents booked, we bought our tickets.

The trip was magnificent, but I quickly discovered that traveling as a Jew— especially an Orthodox one —comes with baggage, both literal and figurative.

Since our first few days would be spent on the Amalfi Coast and the one kosher restaurant on the isle of Capri isn’t open “off peak”, we packed our suitcase with cheese, deli, tuna, crackers, etc and consulted with a kashrut expert about what we could purchase there. He kindly suggested we take pictures of products we weren’t sure about and send them via WhatsApp for his yay or nay.

Amalfi is stunning; all breathtaking views, challenging roads, and village charm. If there’s a more beautiful place in the world, I don’t know about it. There we were “anonymously Jewish,” baseball cap instead of kippa, praying on the balcony instead of in shul. Though we pined for pizza and gelato, we just relaxed with laidback locals and endless cappuccinos, beer, and crisps.

Rome was the opposite.

After driving through the loud and busy city — no wide open skies here — we arrived at the Jewish “ghetto” and were surprised to find it closed to cars and guarded by security and 24/7 police presence.

In contrast to Amalfi, where we didn’t once feel concerned for our safety, the ghetto brought unwelcome fear and threat. I wanted out. I said as much on Twitter: “So the Jewish area of Rome, the “ghetto” is closed and has security... Pretty sick that Jews have to live like this. Not feeling great about it. Don’t appreciate it. Prefer going hungry in Sorrento over feeling threatened in Rome.”

And I meant it. I felt …vulnerable. Exposed. The street lined with kosher restaurants one after the other made me think of sitting ducks all corralled nicely into the ghetto for easy targets.

Though I admit the lure of hot food — pasta! —brought me out of my brooding and we enjoyed our meal of kosher Italian delicacies.

With real food in my belly, I relaxed, as we walked through the magnificent piazzas, strolling hand in hand to see the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

The next day, we visited the Great Synagogue, which houses a museum and artifacts from the oldest diaspora community in the world — the Jews of Rome are older than Romans themselves.

We waited our turn as metal detectors and a guard checked each visitor, wondering at the need for such heavy security. It seems a PLO bombing in 1982, which murdered a toddler and left dozens injured, had prompted these precautions.

In the museum, we viewed the history of the Jews of Italy. Painful words and rare artifacts testified to a community that had endured two millennia of persecutions and betrayals.

We learned that the world’s first ghetto was in Venice. We read about exiles, pogroms, taxes and persecutions. As the masters were painting their chapels, and sculpting their masterpieces, my people were looted, labelled, tolerated.

I grew quiet and angry. My husband asked me if I was okay. I said “No,” and pointed to a write-up of how the Jews of Rome had been told to gather 50 kilos of gold to pay off the Nazis. They did so. And were sent to Auschwitz all the same. Of the 1,200 sent, 16 came back.

I vented on Twitter: “Jews don’t see world history the way others do. Too hard to separate the Jewish experience of so many things seemingly unconnected, but all too connected to our history.”

And it’s true. Rome’s glory came at Jerusalem’s demise. The Arch of Titus depicts it well, the bas relief which shows the exiled Jewish slaves and Romans carting off the Temple treasures. Even the Colosseum is not safe for those seeking to simply take in ancient human engineering. A large sign declares that the building was financed by the spoils of “Vespasian’s Jewish campaign”… What a euphemism for the destruction of the Temple that had stood for 500 years, the exile and enslavement of thousands, the starvation of thousands more, and the looting of a nation’s wealth.

Standing there with tears in my eyes, I was overwhelmed by what I can only describe as fierce Zionism, a burning acknowledgement that wherever we may roam, Jews need a secure homeland— a safe place to return. Every inch of history shows us that.


Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist

November 15, 2018 11:17

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