Last month, I came back with my wife from a 16-day vacation to Italy. We were celebrating my upcoming 60th birthday and while we had many amazing experiences there, one overarching theme, Jewishly, remained with me above all others.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? In the Haggadah, relatively early on, we state after covering the matzot and lifting our cup of wine, “This is what has stood by our forefathers and us. For not only one enemy has attempted to destroy us but in every generation they rise to annihilate us. But the Holy One, blessed is He, saves us from their hands.” I believe the word annihilate means both physical annihilation and/or spiritual assimilation with the non-Jewish world eventually resulting in Jewish national annihilation, chas v’chalilah. This spiritual assimilation in turn can come from various forms of negative social pressure or it can also be the product of assorted types of perceived positive social incentives. In any event, it is undeniable that in every generation the Jewish people are targeted directly and/or indirectly to cease to exist, chas v’shalom, individual by individual, community by community.
And yet we are still here. And always will be. The Haggadah is clearly telling us the reason: G-d saves us. Praised be the Lord! End of lesson, right? Based on the Haggadah and, quite frankly, on almost all discussions of the topic, that is indeed all there is on the subject and all we need to know. After all, in the end, G-d is everything and we owe every second we are alive to Hashem’s loving maintenance of each one of us and every aspect of the entire universe.
But is that really all there is? What about gratitude, what about appreciation, what about gratefulness, what about hakarat hatov? While every single interaction we have with another person and with every single thing in the world has obviously in some way been orchestrated by the Master of the Universe, people have free will and when they do good things for us, we are of course obligated to express how thankful and grateful we are to them, if at all possible. We must thank Hashem for our continued existence individually and as a nation but too often we forget our ancestors and the choices they made. They deserve, very much so, high praise as well.
Italy taught me how we have forgotten the past and need to remember what was.
Because of growing antisemitism in the US and elsewhere around the world, international ongoing anti-Israel campaigns that include Iran’s attempt to wipe out the Jewish State, and the powerful memories of Nazi Germany’s attempt to wipe out all Jews everywhere only 80-90 years ago, we tend to view annihilation in physical terms. The more historical-minded among us might cite the Russian pogroms, and maybe even the “holy” Crusades. Anyone with his eyes open knows that the rate of assimilation of Jews in America today among the non-Orthodox is at least 75% and that therefore few of those non-Orthodox Jews who are not yet married will have Jewish grandchildren. That is a Holocaust of its own that is outside the scope of this essay.
Killing Jews with hate or assimilating Jews with “love” are two of the three ways that the non-Jewish world has tried, actively or passively, to destroy the Jewish people. There is the third method. The pagan Romans, and later the Roman Catholic Church excelled in this method, which was one of ceaseless negative pressure for us to give up and relinquish the eternal treasured relationship G-d has had with the Jewish people since Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and intensified with another covenantal relationship when we were gathered at Har Sinai “as one man with one heart” (Rashi on Shemot 19:2) during Revelation, that unique moment in all of human history.
To appreciate our need for appreciation on the daily pressure for many generations that our forebears had to bear, I had my eyes opened when I went to the Venice Ghetto. This was the very first ghetto ever and began officially on March 29, 1516. I will start off by noting the Jews were not forcibly corralled against their will into this small area. They chose to live there. More on that point later.
What were the conditions? No Jew could go outside the ghetto between sundown and sunrise. The only professions allowed were moneylender, medical doctor, and later clothing salesman. If a Jew went outside in the daytime, he must wear a yellow star (no, that item was not invented by the Nazis). In Europe, the yellow badge or hat, and later a red hat, became a symbol of shame reserved for prostitutes and Jews. The ghetto itself was very small for the Jewish population of Venice.
These conditions were horrendous and yet the Jews of Venice at the time accepted them. What does that mean, given they could have rejected the offer and moved to live elsewhere? It means only one thing: the situation for Jews in the rest of Europe was even worse!
There is more though. As my wife and I walked around Florence, we came upon the Duomo, which is in the center of the city and is a gigantic church. Gargantuan would be a better description. It took around 140 years to build and it is a sight to see, just from the outside. The level of artistic ability is astounding and eye-popping. The intent is clearly to bring about an awe of G-d but perhaps more important was to intimidate even the mere passerby with the seemingly limitless power of the Roman Catholic Church.
It worked. Even I, an American Jew visiting Italy in the year 2022, felt momentarily small and insignificant as I gazed up at an incredible feat of human engineering, project management spanning generations, and unimaginable wealth expended to glorify power, both spiritual and temporal. Just try to imagine how a Jew in the early 1500s must have felt as he passed by to do his day’s errands and work before being forced back into the ghetto at night. It’s the Church’s daily reminder—for centuries!—that the Jews have been abandoned and will always be a downtrodden people. [Earlier Medieval Disputations were designed to engender a similar feeling.]
If you could go out only during the daytime from your cramped apartment, work only in one or two professions that are looked down as lowly by the entire surrounding society, never have enough money, and are scorned with withering contempt by the all-powerful ever-present Roman Catholic Church, how do you think you would fare? And in Italy, there seemed to be another Church around every single corner.
[In Pisa, there is a Baptistry (a building solely for the purpose of a baptism), the largest in the world, that dwarfs any other synagogue I’ve ever seen. Right next to that is another gigantic Roman Catholic Church and next to the gigantic Church was the misplaced Church’s belltower that has been leaning for centuries.]
I would not want to be tested.
The Romans did basically the same thing with their statues, and aqueducts, and buildings, the Coliseum, and pagan temples, and roads, etc. They all communicated at some level the same message (remember, this is all pre-printing press, pre-electricity, pre-telephone, and pre-internet) and that message was to submit, not defy the authorities lest you and your family suffer horribly, and culturally assimilate if at all possible.
The Coliseum and Arch of Titus were both built directly after and in relation to the final conquest of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple. Jewish slaves began building the Coliseum in the year 71 CE and the wealth of Israel and the Beit HaMikdash was what financed the construction of that edifice to the “entertainment” of killing. The first 100-day inauguration of the Coliseum including the killing of thousands of Jews. The remaining Jews in the Roman empire got the message.
So what is our message? The attempted genocide of all Jews by Haman in the Book of Esther, the Crusades, the Pogroms, the Shoah, etc. were all unimaginably horrible. So many Jews, millions of Jews, either slaughtered or almost slaughtered. And yet, from a historical perspective, these attempted annihilations were a blip in our 3,300+ year history. But what the Romans did to us—remember the Roman empire was a Republic for roughly the first 500 years and then was run by an emperor for roughly the next 500 years—and what the Roman Catholic Church did to us for centuries was in some ways far more terrifying and terrible.
Every single day for endless generations we were not just a second-class citizen but there were undeniable socio-economic negative pressures from a myriad of directions that were designed to make us an object of contempt, to quash all hope, and to give up being a Jew. Every. Single. Day.
And yet, we are still here. And always will be. Am Yisrael Chai! What does this mean? Praise G-d and that’s that? I say no. It’s not enough. We must internalize a very special hakarat hatov for our superhuman predecessors.
Our European ancestors (and, I’m sure, perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, our Sephardic ancestors under the Islamic Empire for centuries) not only endured but created beautiful Jewish families generation after generation. They maintained Shabbat, the holidays, synagogues, brit milah, the mikvah, and fantastic Torah scholars.
Think about it. Even with this intolerable daily pressure, out of Italy came the Ramchal, the Sforno, the author of Sefer Zera Shimshon, and many others. Wow! How can that be? To simply say G-d made it happen is to negate the power of generations of European Jews stating to themselves every single day we will not give up our eternal relationship with Hashem, we will fear the Holy One Blessed Be He and not the Roman Empire or the Roman Catholic Church, we will forge ahead with ever greater Torah and never accept any religion that directly violates precepts in our Hebrew Bible, we will counter their hate and scorn toward us with love and kindness to each other, we will be outwardly “low” in their esteem but in our hearts we will maintain enough Emunah and Bitachon to weather the worst the world can throw at us until we return to our Holy Land and do our best to usher in the one true Messiah who will lead Jew and Gentile to worship together the Creator of the Universe with love and fear properly combined.
What I learned in Italy was that if I understand how scores of generations or more dealt with impossible living conditions every single day for their entire life, from birth to death, that inspiration can guide my aspirations. Certainly, you and I have our challenges today and they seem to be increasing in severity with each passing year. Yet, if we are honest, for all our kvetching, our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents and their great-great-great-great-great grandparents dealt with far worse and persevered nevertheless, without which you and I would never be alive and thriving as a Jew.
While G-d is our ultimate savior in every generation, we must become more cognizant that we owe our existence also to the tenacity, the pluckiness, the courage, the purposeful determination that guided those who came before us, in horrific conditions under which many of us might very well have failed. Such as in Italy.
We must use this knowledge to propel us to ever greater heights in our own tumultuous but less trying times and help usher in a brighter dawn crowned with Emunah and Bitachon, for the sake of our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren in turn. After all, don’t you want to model for them what they will need to impart until Mashiach comes, may he arrive today, and ushers in the final stage whereby we will all be redeemed? If not you, who then?