On a recent summer evening at a kosher restaurant in the old Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, 20 Jewish travelers were celebrating a birthday. In Hebrew and in English we shared a rousing chorus of traditional songs lauding the passing of another blessed year. The bright yellow, very delicious cake topped off our meal at Gam Gam restaurant ( a Venetian Jewish landmark). Humbling and yet, triumphant to hear the sounds of our happy occasion in an area which had echoed other Jewish voices less fortunate than we. The now charming main square of the world’s first Jewish ghetto is today lined by vintage synagogues – some of which are museums, souvenir shops, kosher restaurants, Holocaust memorials and, of course, a Chabad shul. That kind of sums up our history, no?
Plaques in the square accompany several commemorative metal bas reliefs by Lithuanian-born painter and sculptor Arbit Balatas, who was himself scarred by the Holocaust. “Men, women, children. Masses for the gas chamber advancing toward horror beneath the whip of their executioners. Your sad Holocaust is engraved in our history,” Balatas wrote. “And nothing shall purge your deaths from our memories for our memories are your only grave.”
This was towards the end of our trip or the middle…everything was so intense in this 10-day multi-city Kesher tour of Italy that trip memories collided in my mind, which on some days acquired the consistency of the warm waters of the Bay of Naples. We woke up early, walked a lot, absorbed – or tried to – a semester’s worth of amazing history and wove our way through massive crowds in sweltering temperatures.
We paused at the Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the glory of the Roman Empire and the victory over the Jews in Jerusalem. On the arch the Romans are portrayed as carrying away the Menorah from our Temple which they had destroyed. At that marble structure we commemorated our survival and recited tehillim. We had just visited the impressive ruin of the nearby Coliseum where people and animals caged in abysmal conditions were pitted against one another, died after unimaginable cruelty for the enjoyment of spectators. Media today still portrays fake versions of barbarism and savagery. Perhaps there is a difference.
For me, highlights of the trip included a visit to Pitigliano, a village straight out of the Tuscan Middle Ages. It is perhaps the best preserved medieval city in Italy. The beautiful synagogue there, built in 1598, is now a museum. There is also an adjacent Jewish museum. We walked through the cobblestone streets, admired the stunning views. The village had acquired the nickname “little Jerusalem,” because Jews escaping persecution could find refuge there throughout the ages. Although today Anna Servi, 85, is the only Jewish person in town, the legacy continued. A certificate on a wall near the synagogue displaying a framed certificate from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation designates this town as a “House of Life because the inhabitants provided shelter to innocent people persecuted by the Nazis.”
Another beloved stop – the Isle of Capri – has no Jewish history. Is that even possible? But the beauty of that small craggy island in the bay of Naples is legendary. One of the musts in Capri is the chairlift to the top of Mt. Solaro, the highest point on the island. Having never met an amusement park ride that I thought was benign (except for some ferris wheels and merry-go rounds) when I eyeballed the chairlift my gut reaction was ‘no’. But then another auto response was activated — the rhetorical ‘when will I be here again?’ Quashing my trepidation, I was seated in the chair (as skiers know these seats don’t stop, they just scoop you up). After 30 seconds I realized that the ride was absurdly benign and lovely. I have added another item to the list of things I want to do but will never achieve – I want to live in Capri, in one of those white white houses with riotously blooming gardens on a twisting narrow road on which I would never drive, with a daily view of the bluest ocean ever.
In Florence (Firenze), where we spent Shabbat, we davened in the dramatically beautiful Moorish style synagogue, reminiscent of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, with the spirits of those who preceded us and a rather large turnout for both services (evening and morning) of exotic looking individuals and boisterous delightful children. Florence has one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in Europe. Looted and vandalized during World War II, the synagogue has been meticulously restored.
Two wonderful Israeli adolescents traveling with their grandparents were among our crew. Towards the end of our stay the amazing tour guide Michael Tuchfeld, offered us the privilege of reciting tehillim for his teen-aged grandson who was undergoing a serious medical procedure. All participated – joining our past, present and hopes for the future of the Jewish people. Shana Tova!
Included in this article are only my idiosyncratic highlights – we did so much more!
Thanks to all my fellow travelers for making the journey so memorable. I especially want to thank my roommate and friend Haviva for telling me about the trip, helping me buy the airline ticket to Milan, helping me connect to wi-fi in each hotel, and finding that delicious kosher gelato place in whatever city that was.