When the wandering Jew made his way through various countries, he left a piece from the baggage he carried in each location.
The wandering Jew that made her way to ancient Persia, left behind the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai.
The Jew that found himself in Syria, carried with him the Aleppo Codex.
And the Jew that ended up in Rome… well, the Arch of Titus and its relief of the Temple’s menorah says it all.
The “wandering Jew” is not a specific individual, but rather a metaphor for the Jewish nation. And what better proof of that than the baggage she carried and the pieces she sometimes left behind.
These items and landmarks are the story of the Jewish people. It is one story, even if at times it seems that each part of it is “owned” by a particular community.
And on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day that physically brought the wandering Jew(s), it is no less important to note the items she carried with her.
In the days leading up to this year’s Israel Independence Day, I added another piece to the Jewish story. Or at least to the knowledge of the Jewish story that I had.
I learned that for years, the Jewish community in Rome would not walk through the Arch of Titus. Before the fence surrounding the landmark, when locals and visitors alike could stand directly beneath the relief of the menorah being carried, Jews held the tradition to not walk in. It was too much a reminder of the exile and destruction that left a mark on Jews everywhere, not least of which it led to the reality that Jews were dispersed.
But when the State of Israel was declared in May 1948, the tradition was re-considered. If the Arch of Titus was a symbol of destruction, the State of Israel was a symbol of rebuilding. The symbolism was reversed and therefore it was time to reverse the tradition. And so, the Jewish community of Rome, along with many European refugees from displaced person camps, gathered at the Arch and walked through. What they had refused to do for years even individually was finally being done en masse. And in a greater act of symbolism, they walked through in the opposite direction of the depicted figures on the Arch. The relief showed the menorah being carried out of Jerusalem and now the community was walking back towards the holy city.
An act like this may have been done in a site unique to Rome, with a specific community. But it is not only a piece of the Roman Jewish community. The Arch of Titus is a piece of the wider Jewish story. The tradition of not walking through, and the reversal of this tradition, is only further proof of this connection. The act done in 1948 made the Arch of Titus something with modern significance rather than a thing distinctly of the ancient past. But the act also brought a site specific to Rome to something of (Jewish) national significance.
I believe a major factor in learning about the diverse Jewish communities is putting together parts of the story – forgotten, neglected or otherwise. Certainly, there are customs and traditions of specific communities that relate to the environment in which they developed over centuries – not necessarily directly linked to the greater Jewish story. And still, there is a significant amount that is pieces of the Jewish story left behind with each new wandering. As the Jews traveled, were exiled, brought back to the Land, and again exiled, they carried baggage.
Some of this baggage did not make it back to the Land in 1948 or in following years. However, a look back at what was left behind, and an exploration of traditions held in specific locations where the wandering Jew settled, can help piece together the full Jewish story. Yom Ha’atzmaut enables us to see meaning in bringing together pieces of the story, for it is a day when the wandering Jew, with all the baggage he carried, no longer needed to wander.