June 25, 2017

Winter/Spring 2017 TV: (The Leftovers, The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, The Expanse)

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:06 pm by chavalah

So much Christian content in my tv lately. Enough to make me wanna buy a subscription to The Jewish Channel. 😛

I’m a month later than last year in making this post, though the Game of Thrones schedule has changed, too, so I guess that’s my excuse. 😛

As is custom, HBO dominates most of my tv habits. Starting in February and ending earlier this month, I routinely watched their Sunday night 9 pm programming. And I have a little bit of a quibble. The male-centric stories–The Young Pope and The Leftovers revolve around dudes with god complexes, and are generally lauded as prestige television. The female-centric Big Little Lies is seen more like fluff. I’m not gonna leave that statement there without examining it more fully, but as a gut instinct it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Mixing my metaphors here. 😛

The Young Pope

I’ll start with my least favorite. Ultimately, I don’t think this show did much for me. I loved the chance to see Italy, insofar as it was presented, as the primary backdrop, I appreciated the chance to showcase non-US or UK actors like Silvio Orlando who played a compelling Cardinal, and I was particularly intrigued by Diane Keaton’s unusual turn as the taciturn Sister Mary.

Some people liked creator/director Paulo Sorrentino’s surreal style, but I found it to be a little grating. The premise seems to be somewhat twofold–a spoiled little boy is elected Pope, throws big tantrums and makes everybody’s lives hell because his parents abandoned him and now he has the power for global payback. Then, after a remarkably racist episode set in Africa, where he schools a fictitious, unnamed country in the merits of compassion and justice, he slowly takes his own lessons to heart. Having finally “grown up,” the series ends on an ambiguous note of–did he see his folks in the crowd while delivering a homily in Venice? (And did he survive said experience??)

It’s an annoying, egotistical conceit. Jude Law can’t just be playing a random dude with abandonment issues–he has to be THE POPE. The women in Big Little Lies are dealing with similarly big life issues like adultery, spousal abuse and rape, but none of them get to be High Priestess of Avalon. Which I suppose is also a remark on the lack of women in the highest echelons of most religions, but still–their problems aren’t seen as any bigger than the problems of any normal human.

Perhaps the episode that held the most promise for me was the penultimate one, where we follow Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) to New York where he’s arrived to apprehend a pedophile priest. We meet the priest, who of course was abused himself as a child, and also an obese sickly woman whom Gutierrez is counseling. They had the promise of being compelling characters but we spent so little time with them, and Sorrentino made so much out of melodramatic music and vague flashbacks that they ultimately felt more like caricatures.

As a Jew, I admit that the saints and miracle-workers that populated this story just aren’t my bag, baby, so maybe it’s a subjective disconnect. I found this show to be disjointed and underwhelming in theme. Holding out hope that maybe HBO will pick up another Italian project in the future–well, there’s “season two” of this, The New Pope, but I’m not sure I’ll watch. Meh.

Big Little Lies

Based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, there’s no doubt that this story is a little bit fluffy. Or maybe it’s a matter of perspective; I haven’t read the book myself, but my mother found it to be relatively beach ready after getting through the harrowing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

I think that a lot of this has to do with format and setting. The format is very plot based; we start with a murder, so the question of “whodunnit?” (also “who’s the victim?”) looms large over the narrative. It’s a puzzle to be solved, which sometimes eclipses the natural progression of the character arcs. A last minute shocker reveal about two seeming strangers with an shared past proves very convenient. Also, the story takes place in a rich suburb of Monterey, and despite any real world issues, we’re constantly reminded of the privilege and frivolity that pervades these peoples’ lives. Plus, there is so much gossip and backstabbing that after awhile, I really wanted to put somebody’s eye out.

The ending is also a little pat, with all of the main characters, some of them enemies, coming together to say goodbye to the murder investigation with a picnic on the beach. Didn’t really feel deserved.

I was intrigued with how they handled the spousal abuse storyline. I’m used to the one-dimensional Lifetime approach, where an innocent woman is duped by a sadistic man who shows his true colors when it’s too late. Here, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård have built a more complicated set of rituals and denials around what’s happening. Meanwhile the therapist calls bullshit, so the show isn’t excusing said abuse. It just feels more real–all the way down to how it affects their seemingly oblivious kids.

Shailene Woodley gives a tense and masterful performance as the vulnerable single mother and rape victim of the story, to the point that I could barely recognize her in scenes with her antagonist, Laura Dern (who also played Woodley’s own doting mother in The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about some dissociation! :P) And speaking of Woodley, her Divergent co-star Zoë Kravitz, also gets to play with a more complicated role as Reese Witherspoon’s sorta rival.

Oh, Reese. 😛 From the trailers I was afraid that her character would be the Regina George of the bunch, but actually she’s far more layered. Jealous and possessive, Type A driven, definitely flawed–and depressed about her college-aged daughter moving physically and emotionally away from her. I liked the idea that her marriage is on the rocks because she and her husband have different sexual needs and general drives, and I was disappointed when the show introduced the affair subplot. Alas.

Still, I found this to be an enjoyable miniseries. And more refreshing than male gods–we focus on the lives of female humans. 😛 I’d like more of this, please.

The Leftovers

Loosely based on the Tom Perrotta novel, The Leftovers is probably the most thoughtful, best realized show on this list (and I say this while deeply disliking aspects! :P) But in touching how abandonment and loss of faith touch a particular set of people, it’s quite powerful.

I’ve written in some depth about season one and season two, though I’ll have to rehash some bits in order to come to terms with the final season.

Quick recap: 2% of the world’s population disappears and the show revolves, sorta, around the 98% of leftovers trying to make sense of it all. I say “sorta” because in season two, I came to terms with the fact that this isn’t a maxmist story about how everyone deals, but rather a very minimalist one about a how a small sliver of familiar middle class white Christian folks deal with it. (Departure is a very flimsy cover for “Rapture.”) On the plus side, I do love delving deep into a few characters. So this season I made my peace with the Kevin=messiah mishegas, because at least his surreal journeys to the afterlife were funny, and I liked how the Australian character, Grace (Lindsay Duncan) related to that hoe down.

I’m still disappointed in all of the dropped threads–like the tense relationship between Jill (Margaret Qualley) and Laurie (Amy Brennerman), the mother who abandoned her in season one. Last season was unique for bringing in a fully realized African American family, the Murphys, but this season they were incredibly sidelined. And more generally, I dislike how the drama on this show is always pushed TO THE MAX, like how Kevin, Sr. (Scott Glenn) can’t even ask a random guy for directions without said guy setting himself on fire.

The inciting incident of this season, set seven years after “The Departure,” is that Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) promises that a great Noah-like flood will come, and only Messiah Kevin (Justin Theroux) can save them. The cast ends up in Australia because Nora, Kevin’s girlfriend (Carrie Coon) wants to expose a fraud where some scientists are claiming they can send survivors to where the Departed went. Equally as likely, she wants to hitch a ride to her Departed children.

So I’ve made my peace with the Christian elements, but then this year they go off and appropriate different religious observances. In “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” Kevin, Sr. hops around Australia recording aboriginal songs because he’s sure they will stop the flood. We get very little insight into the cultures of these real tribes. Then, in “It’s a Matt Matt, Matt World,” the show uses some Yom Kippur liturgy to bolster Matt’s character arc. Don’t get me wrong; he’s one of the more complicated characters on the show (egotistical yet vulnerable. Plus he gets a goodbye scene with his sister, Nora, in the finale that I’m desperate to have reproduced on Game of Thrones before the White Walkers kill the remaining Stark children /wibble). But obviously that liturgy is meant for a very different, very somber, very community-oriented purpose than Matt’s personal tsuris.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that Nora is my favorite character, and so the final scene is a real winner for me. One thing that I think The Leftovers does exceedingly well is dole out character-enlightening monologues. Nora’s final monologue, all about the need for and fragility of human connections, gave me major Mockingjay finale vibes. Also, her description of “the Departed” land made me desperate to reread Station Eleven. I think it’s still on my dad’s nightstand. 😛

So I dunno, if the destination and many parts of the journey are an indication, then this is the best show on here. I’m definitely glad that I stuck with it; was an interesting, if bumpy, ride.


Admittedly, I’m a sucker for taglines like this.

The Expanse

Shockingly enough, I turned away from HBO for a brief period of time–and to the SyFy Channel! 😮 I hadn’t really watched them since they were the SciFi Channel! 😛

OK, so I tried this show last year and gave up halfway through season one. I didn’t find it to be that compelling, and I think the reason for that was because of the framing story–a noir detective search for a missing girl. The girl, Julie, (Florence Faivre) wasn’t a character in her own right, but rather a spark to set off the plot. Basically: a few hundred years into the future, humans on Earth and Mars are locked in combat, and our fellows living in the asteroid belt are caught in the middle. But there’s a sudden new, scary weapon of mass destruction (discovered at the end of the Julie arc), and most of our main characters, a Firefly-like crew of diverse folks, have to speak truth to power.

But in season two the plot is in motion, and I could focus on the consequences and the other characters. We are introduced to Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) who has a rather age-worn character arc of being a militant who has to reassess her values when she finds out that her planet’s government isn’t as noble as she’d like to believe. But at least it’s her arc; she isn’t just part of someone else’s.

I also really liked the budding romance between Jim (Steven Strait) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), even when I shouldn’t have because Jim’s in the midst of the standard “good boy exposed to bad situations, losing his moral compass” bit. But the end of season two ends on a far more ethically ambiguous note for both of them.

One of the reasons I wanted to watch the show in the first place was because of Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a shrewd Earth diplomat. She seems like a far more complicated character this year, so yay. And finally, I’m a sucker for a geeky, botanist dad (Terry Chen) trying to save his young daughter. Goes without saying that this show already has a refreshingly diverse cast.

Ultimately I’m not sure that the characters transcend the roles assigned to them by the needs of the plot, but I love the themes of this show. How much does allegiance to home planet (or Belt) define you? Where is the line between right and wrong? We might be stepping into very Game of Thrones territory here, where the consequences of war far outstrip the players.

This is based on an ongoing series of science fiction books by James S.A. Corey; one of several options that I’m quibbling about starting. Time to get out my hashtag–#SoMuchToRead! Am I a bad book nerd if I just let the television show tell the story to me? :/ Alas. It’ll be back on air sometime in 2018.

January 19, 2017

2016: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy at 4:59 pm by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy


I have some memories in the last year of sitting on the DC metro and skimming through my Twiter feed, seeing fascinating Jewish-Italian interest headlines crop up and thinking I should store them away for this feature. Except that I never did, instead preferring to do all of my compiling in the future. Thanks a lot, past self. 😛

But I feel pretty confident, after perusing JTA and Tablet Magazine, that I have the important stuff. Turns out that 2016 was an important year in Venetian Jewish history–it marked the 500th anniversary of the first Jewish ghetto! See a link to a feature about that down below, as well as some commemorative activities, including a staging of “The Merchant of Venice” with a cameo by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a judge!

Other fascinating historical and cultural pieces cropped up, too, to complement the usual and less savory amount of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, Italian earthquake aftermath, and a continuing obsession with Hitler. Surely Mein Kampf entering the public domain didn’t help much with that one. 😛 But we also have stories about Italian museums showcasing the history of long-gone Jewish communities. A 13th century Torah scroll was repaired and returned to a synagogue in the northern town of Biella; it’s now thought to be the oldest scroll still in use. Speaking of the Torah, Tablet ran a fascinating article about a uniquely Italian focus on Jewish women in ritual life.

I included other personal essays from people with Jewish and Italian heritage, as well as information on famous novelist Elena Ferrante’s possible links to that community. Please feel free to add any other stories in the comments. So, without furtho ado!

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October 11, 2016

Elena Ferrante and the Meaning of Apologies this Yom Kippur

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:49 am by chavalah

One of few people who actually likes the Neapolitan covers. :P

One of few people who actually likes the Neapolitan covers. 😛

Before I start, a quick note of remembrance for the recent Jerusalem shooting victims, Levana Malichi and Yosef Kirme. May their memories be for a blessing.

Yom Kippur starts this evening, and in preparation I listened to the Unorthodox apologies podcast. They covered a lot of great ground, including how to make a good apology, and Georgetown’s efforts to reach out to the descendants of those they’ve wronged. But what caught my attention most was a barely expressed argument between two hosts of differing political views, about the nature of public shaming. Liel Leibowitz, who is basically the right of center voice of the show, posited the question whether public apologies meant anything anymore in this hypersensitive “politically correct” environment.

I wrote in my last post that I was concerned about some members of the Left using the idea of “identity politics” (NOT “political correctness,” which I’ll get to in a jiffy) to quiet or even shame voices of dissent about complex issues. But I’m more concerned about some members of the Right misusing the phrase “politically correct” so that they can play the victim card instead of holding themselves accountable to other people. Because one of the things we should all apologize for, imho, is not always treating others with respect, and that’s exactly what “political correctness” actually means.

This past week, the sensational news has revolved around a leaked recording of the Republican presidential candidate making statements about sexually assaulting women. He “apologized” for his past behavior, but those of us who have gone through the Days of Awe should understand that his apology isn’t genuine. Instead of focusing on his wrongdoing, he’s trying to shift negative attention to others.

Later, during the latest Presidential debate, he tried to dismiss his actions by saying “they’re just words” and words can’t harm us. I’ve heard this excuse from other people as well, and it seems like a poor way to try and sidestep the higher integrity of just treating people with respect. As a Jew, a reader and a writer, I know that words have power. The more society normalizes making hateful comments about people based on gender, race, religion, sexuality and etc, the more we live in a world without empathy. And then what’s the point of giving a fuck how we treat each other, physically or mentally? Maybe we Jews don’t need to worry about Yom Kippur, or the Book of Life.

What does it mean to hurt someone with words? Another example on my mind, albeit less serious than the issue of sexual assault, has to do with another sensational story from last week—the outing of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s real identity.

I’ve been a fan of Ferrante’s writing for years. And I know we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, but I never wanted to know her identity. Perhaps I romanticized the ideal that an author could get away with being known more for her work than for her marketing. Either way, this public doxxing strikes me as remarkably petty, the work of a sleuth conflating “journalism” with carrying out a bit of a vendetta. He claimed that he resented Ferrante possibly using fictionalized elements in her memoir, but she’s a novelist, not a politician running for office. Why should his disagreement with her lawful actions justify infringing on her privacy? Why can’t Elena Ferrante be allowed to be successful on her own terms?

For me it comes down to entitlement—feeling entitled to infringe on someone’s privacy if you disagree with some of her decisions, or feeling entitled to use hateful words against others. Don’t downplay it by whining about “political correctness.” To truly apologize is to have humility, and to respect that we owe dignity to a world that is larger than ourselves. This is the lesson that I hope to take with me into 5777.

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

January 10, 2016

2015: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 6:54 pm by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

It’s my fourth year doing this blog post! I’m especially excited to include an update on Rabbi Barbara Aiello; not only is she rare for being a liberal, female rabbi in that country, but she’s particularly interested in revitalizing Judaism in southern Italy, the home region of my (non-Jewish) family.

Going back to my usual sources, I see there’s a lot about food this year. 😛 Also an opinion piece from an American Jew in Rome, and then an article on how the Italian Jewish community sees their own situation. Bookended by incidents of antisemitism, because that’s how history goes this year.

Speaking of history, I also decided to include a few articles that JTA republished from their archives. Gives a rather intriguing portrait of Italy with regards to the Jews…from 1939 to 1960.

So, without further ado!

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January 5, 2015

2014: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 11:03 pm by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Continuing in my annual tradition of looking back at Jewish news that came out of Italy in the past year. I picked what I consider to be an eclectic mix about Italian people and situations. Several revolve around culture or altruism, to offset those that deal with antisemitism.

I’ve included links to the stories and dates below; please feel free to add anything I may have missed. I think it’s important, on a macro level, to gain insight into Jewish communities that exist outside of Israel and the United States. Our Tribe has made a long, distinguished mark on the world! I am glad, in however crooked a way, to be connected to the Italian Jewish community.

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January 12, 2014

2013: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 6:25 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Continuing the trend from last year, I’m chronicling the Jewish news from a country where such news is often overlooked—the home of my father’s family, Italy.

Seems like a quieter year than last, particularly without any big skirmishes in Israel acting as fodder for antisemitism abroad.  Instead, we have our usual antisemitism revolving around neo-Nazism, old Jewish slurs about money, and etc.  Particularly distressing is the reveal that a supposed Italian “Schindler” figure may not have been so benevolent after all.

But it’s not all bad news, as members of the community receive accolades, get involved in politics and more.  I’m particularly thrilled about the new Jewish library in Naples (near where my family lives!) and intrigued by the oldest known Torah scroll being found at the University of Bologna.  Oooh yeeah.  Librarians and archivists represent! 😀

I’ve included links to the stories and dates below; please feel free to add anything I may have missed. I think it’s important, on a macro level, to gain insight into Jewish communities that exist outside of Israel and the United States. Our Tribe has made a long, distinguished mark on the world! I am glad, in however crooked a way, to be connected to the Italian Jewish community.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 4, 2013

2012: A Look Back At Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 5:53 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

I’ve had this idea in my head for a few months that I should return to my roots, pun intended. I started this blog primarily to chronicle interfaith issues from an Ashkenazi Jewish/Italian-American perspective. It’s since morphed into more than that, but I miss talking about my “step-family,” the Italian Jews! I thought, what better way to get back in the spirit than to chronicle recent events about them? Thanks to my JTA subscription, I have access to an archive of knowledge. A year is a nice, accessible number on which to reflect.

In retrospect, Jewish life in Italy progressed more positively in 2012 than I’d thought. I suppose I was primarily remembering the antisemitic backlash in the wake of Israel’s latest operation in Gaza last autumn, and sure, there were a fair amount of antisemitic events throughout the year. But there was also Jews reaching out to a country during various times of need, and a country in return reaching out to them.

I’ve included links to the stories and dates below; please feel free to add anything I may have missed. I think it’s important, on a macro level, to gain insight into Jewish communities that exist outside of Israel and the United States. Our Tribe has made a long, distinguished mark on the world! I am glad, in however crooked a way, to be connected to the Italian Jewish community.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 30, 2011

Italian/Kosher Intersection; Adult Children of Interfaith Marriage Leading Volunteerism!

Posted in Interfaith, Italy at 7:12 pm by chavalah

Yours truly at the Roman Jewish Ghetto last year.

I’m used to getting bombarded by media pitches via email on Jewish subjects, since I write a good deal about Judaism. It’s a rarer occasion for my fellow Italians or their reps to seek me out. 😛

But recently, I got wind of something that combined the two! From July 10-12, the annual Fancy Food Show will be coming to the Washington Convention Center in DC. Featuring a variety of delicacies from 80 countries I was specifically contacted about Italy’s contributions—including a lecture on culinary traditions with Barbara Seelig-Brown, the host of PBS’ Stress Free Cooking, and smaller seminars as well.

The one that particularly caught my attention was “Kosher for Everyone,” being held Monday at the Italian Embassy, 5:30 pm, where expert Bill Marsano will speak about Italian contributions to the U.S. kosher market. More than detailing the customs of Italian Jews, however, the event is co-sponsored by the Ministry of Economic Development and the Trade Commission, ergo about international relations between countries and the chance to seize upon a sizable U.S. market. (Kosher ain’t just for the Jews anymore. :P)

Unfortunately I’ll be out of town that weekend, but I wanted to plug this fascinating (and yummy) event! And since the Italian Jewish community isn’t the specific focus of the weekend, I figured I’d add a few cultural links as well…the Internet is chock-full of “kosher Italian” recipes but for something more old school, try one of these variety of cookbooks available on Amazon.com! And for those of us not skilled in the kitchen, perhaps a trip to New York is in order…Va Bene and Tevere restaurants both feature foods from Jewish Rome. I’m salivating! 😛

Kosher-style ethnic food options are cropping up everywhere as well; close to home for me is Siena’s Restaurant of Italian and Mexican foods. Search on Google for your local area (or local cosmopolitan city, at least :P) and I imagine you’ll find a few!

In completely unrelated news, just wanted to garner attention to this study, as highlighted by InterfaithFamily.com; turns out in a recent review of volunteerism trends among Jewish young adults, those of us from dual-heritage families are leading the pack! :-O Mazel tov to my fellow mixies! Certainly gives me the urge to find a new mitzvah project.

September 20, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: Is it Bad for the Jews (and Italians)?

Posted in Italy, Pop Culture at 6:30 pm by chavalah

Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein (played by Vincent Piazza and Michael Stuhlbarg)- 90 years later still holding us back.

It was probably a mistake to call my dad to tell him that I did indeed watch the premiere of HBO’s new mobster series, Boardwalk Empire. “Oh no,” he groaned. “Yet another negative depiction of Italian Americans in the media, not to mention New Jersey.” (He grew up in Teaneck. And he still guilts himself for going to the theatre to see The Godfather trilogy—which he now owns—his parents, both immigrants from Italy, boycotted it.)

“They’re denigrating Jews and Irish as well,” I said to him, referring to Arnold Rothstein and a random, drunken immigrant who might actually be a German American married to an Irish American. And Blacks, I forgot to add, who were referenced in only two scenes—one, where the “Black sheriff” of Atlantic City waits impatiently to see Nucky Thompson (modeled after Nucky Johnson) for a forgotten appointment, and two, with blackface. The political correctness gloves are off!

The gangster scenes seem stereotypical as well. Enter Rothstein with a bevy of Italians—Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Big Jim Colosimo—all real people from history, it should be noted. Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg who I met in person at AFI following a screening of A Serious Man *swoon*) was slick and manipulative and cheated the system for his immense wealth—yes, we got a cameo shot of Ford’s The International Jew this episode—and the Italians, brutish and thick with their “old world” or Brooklyn accents, mostly did the grunt work (killings) to get ahead. My dad is worried that this small sample of thugs could continue to spew stereotypes about the Italian American community. My mom, on the other hand, barely knows who Rothstein is, and cares even less about how the dude, now dead for 82 years, could harm Jewish Americans today.

But despite all this, I think the series won me over (for now.) Steve Buscemi, playing Nucky, gave off such a nuanced performance of a corrupt politician that I barely remembered him as the goof in Adam Sandler movies (ok, maybe once or twice. :P) The lavishly intricate sets and the constant jazz (offset, occasionally, by Italian opera,) are also dazzling. It’s a bit too plot-based rather than character-driven at the moment, but we’re still just one episode in.

The “minority” group I can most get behind in Boardwalk Empire is the women. On the cusp of being given the right to vote, they still find ways to assert themselves (see The Women’s Temperance movement.) So far, we are introduced to three women who represent varying aspects of 1920s life—there’s Lucy, former Ziegfield Follies girl who now gets ahead being Nucky’s mistress, there’s Margaret, the battered wife of a barely-working lower class immigrant, and then there’s Angela (my personal favorite so far) who, even though she’s a second class citizen, still has the self-realization to become a painter. 😀 You go, girl!

…so I may have to give Boardwalk Empire more of a chance. In the meantime, I am drafting my own television pilot: Italians and Jews: Saving Kittens Together. I think I should pitch it to The Animal Planet. 😛

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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