Erica Brown

When In Rome

As we approach Tisha b’Av, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts from an early June trip to Italy. It’s a magical place by all accounts, but the hours we spent at the Coliseum and Forum were unexpectedly hard. Suddenly, the Three Weeks of mourning over the Temple’s destruction, and the loss of Jerusalem and our ancient political autonomy jumped off the pages of Lamentations. To see the Arch of Titus up close, with its chiseled menorah and Jewish exiles frozen in stone, was painful. To see public signage explaining that the Coliseum was paid for in part by the sacred vessels of our Temple brought anguish. We were forced to contribute to the brutality of 50,00-70,000 spectators watching humans and animals ripped apart for public entertainment, an anathema to our own tradition and values.

I had another thought at the odd nexus of the Talmud and Monty Python. The Talmud acknowledges the gifts of the Romans despite their attempts to diminish our religious identity. In “Life of Brian,” a group of disenfranchised citizens complains, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Just aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, health, wine … the list goes on. The Romans gave us many of the underpinnings of Western civilization as we know it: the myths that grace literature and art, the architecture that made buildings more efficient and aesthetically pleasing, the inventions that are still in use today. How were they so ahead of their time?

Then I came across a small fact in Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” culled mostly from research done on Pompeii and its environs. The Roman workday was about six hours long and started at dawn. By early in the afternoon most men and women were already in public bathhouses — slaves and free men, plebeians and senators. The baths were terribly crowded, and people spent hours in them, often on a daily basis. While these were different experiences for those with money and those without, the intermingling of economic classes and professions meant that people had hours of leisure time in a comfortable spot — in the heat or frigidarium — surrounded by diverse voices and ideas.

Interdisciplinary research on innovation has yielded the interesting find that creativity peaks when hyper-stimulation is combined with deep relaxation. It helps explain why we have so many good ideas while in the shower (or why it may be hard for some people to leave a shower). Research on creative collaboration shows what happens when people with diverse backgrounds spend time with each other in a spirit of openness. Put lots of different people in a public bathhouse every afternoon, and good ideas breed.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that our federations, JCCs, synagogues and day schools build public bathhouses to get us to think more innovatively. Keep your clothes on. I am suggesting that the organizational walls we proudly build may have kept us in and others out too often for real innovation to take place. Where is our forum, literally? Where can Jews of different ages, spiritual orientations and socioeconomic strata come together regularly to brainstorm while they relax? We used to have the shvitz. I know of no such place today.

Romans in bathhouses have been replaced by tourists with iPhones. Yet beyond columns and statuary, the Romans left the legacy of relaxing every day with friends and strangers and creating a place where ideas can live. The Jews gave the world a set of ideas and values intangible enough to outlive bricks and mortar, but you cannot “visit” monotheism or intellectual and spiritual achievements as a tourist.

In the ruins of the Forum, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the Romans’ contribution, I thought about the moment when we first approached the Coliseum. A man dressed in a red satin gladiator costume for photo ops looked up at us and said “Ma Nishma.” How absurd to see an Israeli dressed as a Roman gladiator. Latin has long fallen out of common use, but there’s hardly a place in the world where you cannot hear Hebrew.

Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina in the Talmud imagined that “one day in the theaters and circuses of Rome, the officers of Judah are one day destined to teach Torah in public” [BT Ta’anit 6a]. The ancient rabbis pitted Rome against Jerusalem, warning us of the evils of too much power, beauty or sport — all temporal values. Standing humbly at the floor level of this sprawling 20 plus-acre complex, I was awed by one thought I will treasure when I sit on the floor reading Lamentations on Tisha b’Av. And I hold on to it now while so much conflict afflicts our Jewish homeland.

We are still here.

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at


About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).