Saturday, June 3, 2017

In Search of Jewish Rome

In Search of Jewish Rome by Aaron Ginsburg

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Last Shabbat, I davened at the Great Synagogue of Rome, Tempio Maggiore di Roma. I felt at home. The Sephardic nusach recalled the services at Newport’s Touro Synagogue. An audio system failed to improve the acoustics. The cantor was barely audible. 


The tall synagogue building, with its square aluminum dome, proudly shares the skyline with many domed churches. The interior space is much smaller than the height would suggest. 

On Saturday morning there were about 200 people present. The men sat in the center, the women on one of sides.  Each seat has a plaque with a person’s name. On the back of each seat, was a book rest, and a locked storage box for Talesim and Tefillin. 

Piazza Gerusalmme, next to the Great Synogogue.
 In the center is thePortico of Octavia,
Portico di Ottavia, built by Augustus 






I entered through a side door. Inside the entrance hall a jug of water enabled people to wash before entering. A small room was full of lit 24 hour Yahrzeit candles. 

In contrast to Touro Synagogue, no one greeted me, except an Israeli on a work assignment.

In my search for the Jewish community, I noticed that there were several events to celebrate Jeruslaem day, Yom Yerushalaim, 50 anni 1967-2017

I attended “Footnote,” a 2011 Israeli movie with Italian subtitles. The protagonist was a professor who was jealous of his son for receiving recognition in the same field. At the film, I spoke with a friendly couple whose English was excellent. The woman originated from Bulgaria.

Did I mention that President Trump waved at me? I was crossing the street when I saw several heavily armed policemen and women shooing traffic and pedestrians away from the intersection. I read on the internet that the President had arrived in Rome earlier. 

Was President Trump in the
black car when he
waved to Aaron Ginsburg?
Soon, a motorcade of 50 cars sped by. I waved, and, it is safe to assume, the President waved back. Then we both continued on our way, to recover from our stressful trips, mine to the Ukraine and Belarus, and his to the Middle East. I bet he was more stressed out than I was!

Aaron Ginsburg, center, Gianluca Galderisi,
left, and Fabiano Fiore, right, from
ROME - Historic Adventure Tours
Last Sunday, I hired a couple of guides. Gianluca Galderisi and Fabiano Fiore, of Rome Historic Adventure Tours, met me at the Pyramid of Cestius, which was a tomb. There was a fad for everything Egyptian after the Roman Republic conquered Egypt. If you can’t take one, you can build one.

Our first stop was Rome’s Rose Garden, the Roseto Comunale, on the Aventine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus. Beyond the Circus, on the Palatine Hill, the House of Augustus, the Domus Augusti, still stands.

I returned to chilly Boston on Tuesday, after a balmy week in Rome, where the high temperature was 86 degrees on the cold days.

On Wednesday, I was home again at Touro Synagogue. Rabbi Marc Mandel devoted his sermon to the Ten Commandments, which were given by God on Shavuot, with the rest of the Torah:

“One of the customs of שבועות (Shavuot) is the reading of the Ten Commandments on the first day of יום טוב (Yom Tov). Since we received the תורה on שבועות (Torah on Shavuot), we read about the dramatic episode when the Jews received the Ten Commandments.

“In many synagogues, it is customary to stand for the reading of the ten commandments. Not everyone agreed with this custom. The Rambam was opposed to standing for the Ten Commandments because he felt it gave too much attention to one part of the תורה (Torah)-and all of the Torah has equal importance.

“But most synagogues do have the custom for standing for the Ten Commandments. For us in Rhode Island at the Touro Synagogue, the Ten Commandments have a special significance.

“In the summer of 1862, the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, brought his family from Cambridge Massachusetts to Newport for a vacation.

“While walking the local streets, he became interested in the old Jewish cemetery, up the street. He wrote a poem called, ‘The Jewish cemetery of Newport.’ Here are some verses from that poem,


‘How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, 
      Close by the street of this fair seaport town, 
Silent beside the never-silent waves, 
      At rest in all this moving up and down!

‘Closed are the portals of their Synagogue, 
      No Psalms of David now the silence break, 
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue 
      In the grand dialect the Prophets spake. 

‘But ah! what once has been shall be no more! 
      The groaning earth in travail and in pain 
Brings forth its races, but does not restore, 
      And the dead nations never rise again.’

“Longfellow’s view of Jewish life in Newport was very dim. As far as Longfellow was concerned the Jewish community of Newport was gone forever.

“But another famous poet also wrote a poem about the Jewish community of Newport. Emma Lazarus used to spend summers here in Newport with other New Yorkers. Her poem, ‘The Jewish Synagogue in Newport,’ was written as a response to Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Jewish cemetery at Newport,’ and used the same title format, and the same meter. She wrote,

‘Here, where the noises of the busy town,
   The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
   And muse upon the consecrated spot.

‘What prayers were in this temple offered up,
   Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
   From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!

‘Nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet,
   With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
   Before the mystery of death and God.’

“The last stanza of the Longfellow poem included the phrase, ‘Dead nations never rise again.’ Lazarus concentrated on the living power of the synagogue-and said, ‘The sacred shrine is holy yet.’ 

‘Each time that we read the Ten Commandments in Newport, we prove that Longfellow was wrong. 

‘Thank you for being with us this שבועות (Shavuot), thank you to our visitors and to our members.’

The Ten Commandments at the Rose Garden’s entrances recall the hundreds of years, from 1645 to 1934, that the garden was the site of Rome’s Jewish Cemetery. The site was given to the Jewish community after the Jewish cemetery in Trastevere was destroyed, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1934. The Jews had been forced into a ghetto in 1555, where they were forced to reside until 1870. The Great Synagogue and The Portico of Octavia, the Porticus Octaviae, built by Augustus, dominate the nearby Jewish Quarter’s Piazza Gerusalemme.

In 1934, the fascist government decided to turn the cemetery into a park. The city of Rome and the Jewish community, which was not in a position to disagree, agreed that the remains would be moved under Jewish supervision and a Jewish school would be built.  

A parade with Mussolini and 15000 athletes led to the construction of road bisecting the cemetery. Under pressure to finish the work in time, the contractor worked on Shabbats and Jewish holidays. Many of the graves were moved, but many remain. And so it is still a Jewish cemetery. 

photo by Luciano Rosseti, couresy of Rome Gardn Authority.
The rose garden arrived in 1951. A couple of olive branches were thrown to the Jewish Community, still reeling from the Holocaust, as if this could make right the destruction of a Jewish cemetery. The paths resemble a seven-branched menorah. Jewish visitors often place stones atop monuments with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew that are at each entrance. 

Chag Sameach!