June 20, 2010

Interfaith Italian Experience

Posted in Italy at 2:26 am by chavalah

Yours truly in front of the Arch of Titus

A month ago today, I was boarding a plane, flying 9 hours across the Atlantic, and starting a long trek to the south of Italy, where my grandfather’s family lives. We stayed for five nights amongst various cousins who lived in towns lining the seas and nestled within lush valleys. It was beautiful, peaceful, surreal. As Dido says, in the song that has basically become my theme for the trip: Try to remember that I was happy here / Before I knew that I could get on the plane and fly away / From the road where the cars never stop going through the night / To real life where I can’t watch sunset / And take my time…

Rome was beautiful, too, but bustling like Silver Spring. Certainly not the only way it was different from tiny Monticelli.

The first church I saw in Italy was the remains of a medieval one (think 1100, not 1500,) which was located up the road from my cousin, Cristina’s, house. My dad, sister and I stepped carefully among the fallen rocks and overgrown grass and peered at the remainders of a red fresco. It was the only fallen church I saw.

In Battipaglia, we stepped into a new church, but still as ornate as any of its distant relatives. I stood silently, feeling like an anthropologist staring at the murmuring congregants. Cristina crossed herself and we went back onto the road.

But those didn’t unsettle me as much as the crucifixes. I mean that they were everywhere, not just churches and gift shops. We routinely entered cafes, clothing stores, eateries, with images of Jesus or Mary adorning a special place on the wall. It unsettled me in part because it reminded me of Israel—with a mezuzah on every door. Shouting out Jewish state the way that Campania seemed to shout out Catholic one.

I started to wonder at all if any Jews lived in the south, in these small towns . My new Jewish guide gives me some idea. It says that in Naples, the capital of this region, some 200 Jews, the descendants of those deported in the Holocaust, now call the south home. Compared to about 15,000 in Rome.

When we left the south for Rome, we were surrounded almost immediately by more streets, more buildings, more people and more diversity. We found Jewish traces in the earliest parts of civilization—lining the Roman forum with the Arch of Titus. We learned that the Jews started settling in Italy as merchants to ancient Rome, and where forced into the ghetto during medieval times. The Great Synagogue (now also The Museo Ebraico,) was there one refuge where they could be themselves.

Entering the main sanctuary, after days of touring vast, marble churches, felt like coming home. Lined with accessory Judaica, even a chuppah set up for a wedding later that afternoon, it had that lived-in feel. My parents and I sat in the pews and gazed in wonder at the ceiling. It was beautiful, wondrous, meant to inspire, like the Catholic churches, with its artwork. The only difference was a square dome, rather than a round one, to signify that it was ours and not theirs. I write so easily as though I am “ours.”

The tour guide surprised my mother when he said that all of Rome’s Jews were Orthodox. But this article, published by JTA only a few days ago, goes into more detail about the complex differences in Jewish observance in Italy. Definitely worth a read.

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