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Jewish Journal

A Short Escape to Prewar Italy

by Rob Eshman

June 5, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Detail of the Israelite frieze in the Arch of Titus.

Detail of the Israelite frieze in the Arch of Titus.

Even when it's 40 F out and a freezing wind sweeps through the narrow streets of Florence, it is good to be in Italy.

No, it's great to be in Italy.

My wife, Naomi, and I spent 10 days in Rome and Florence in the dead of winter, bundled like Aleuts in the Mediterranean cold. I've read that of all the world's art treasures, 70 percent reside in Italy -- the sacking of Baghdad has probably upped that number to 75 percent -- and a chance to see beauty we had only read about was one reason for our long-planned vacation.

What better place to visit as civilization teetered at the brink than the repository of much of civilization's bounty?

There was a subtext to the voyage as well, inevitable when a rabbi and a Jewish journalist disembark anywhere. The war in Iraq was a few weeks away, and the conflict in Israel blared over CNN International and in the Italian headlines. We would inevitably seek out Jews, Jewish sites and opinions on the international situation, finding plenty of all three along our way. But this was primarily a vacation, and we had no qualms about a brief encounter with Italy's seemingly unlimited array of pleasures.

Rome was first. Although it was cool in the capital city, we found ourselves walking everywhere from the new and charming Hotel Ottocento, near Piazza Barberini. Nicola, the concierge, just about threw his arms around us when he discovered we were Jewish and from Los Angeles. He was convinced we knew the lyrics to every Barbra Streisand song ever sung. "Peace, war, Bush yes, Bush no" he waved off all talk of the impending conflict. "Do you know, 'Stony End?'"

Laden with maps Nicola marked up for us, we set off.

If all roads lead to Rome, all Roman streets lead to surprises. Turn a corner and there before you is the Spanish Steps. Tourists dawdle, lovers snuggle and poets linger in the shadow of the building where Byron and Shelley once wrote (and where Shelley, at age 24, died). More walking that first evening led to the sites we had read about but never visited -- the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona. Even in February, even before a war, tourists crowded into Rome, but the atmosphere was festive and the people relaxed. If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, why not enjoy tonight?

If the looming war was hurting tourism among Americans, it didn't seem to faze thousands of others. The next day, when we set off by subway for the Vatican, we emerged to find a line for the Vatican Museums that was at least a mile long. Instead, we headed for the synagogue.

Rome's grand synagogue sits on the banks of the Tiber River at the edge of the ghetto, or Jewish quarter. Security is tight, and has been ever since a PLO attack in 1982 that left a child dead. Italian soldiers stand guard with machine guns, and visitors pass an armored door to get inside. The interior is stunning, and an exhibit of congregational artifacts, including Nazi-era deportation orders, provides yet more evidence that Jewish life is both adaptable and immutable.

Many Israelis joined us in one of the many daily tours of the synagogue, and over the next 10 days we'd meet several more Israelis taking a break from their country's tensions by making the four-hour hop from Lod airport to Rome or Milan. Several carriers, including El Al, offer the flights, which run about $500 round trip, making Italy a perfect stop to or from Israel. Perhaps not what Moses Hess had in mind when he penned the Zionist manifesto "Rome and Jerusalem," but the makings of a great trip nevertheless.

The ghetto is home to several busy kosher butchers, bakeries and a handful of restaurants specializing in Roman Jewish cuisine. To eat this food is to understand, in a bite, much about Italian and Jewish history. As early as the second century B.C.E., Jews traded and settled in Rome. Thousands more were marched off as slaves to the city after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. forming, by some estimates, a quarter of the ancient city's population.

"Perhaps the greatest single force in maintaining culinary tradition over the city's 2,800-year history," writes David Downie in the indispensable "Cooking the Roman Way" (HarperCollins, 2002) "has been the Roman Jewish community."

The 16,000 Jews of Rome (about half of Italy's Jewish population) are scattered about the city now, but the ghetto still provides Rome's best glimpse into the Italian Jewish past.

At La Taverna del Ghetto, just behind the synagogue, you can sample excellent renditions of these contributions to Italian cuisine, including deep-fried carciofi alla giudia (literally, "Jewish artichokes") and sweet-and-sour salt cod.

Working backward in history, we visited the ruins of ancient Rome next, stopping to see the frieze on the Arch of Titus depicting the destruction of the Temple. The image looms large in books on Jewish history. In reality, it is tucked away inside the arch. One people's tragedy is another's interior decoration.

At the Coliseum, we joined up with a local tour group. The guide, Paulo, tells us it is Jewish slaves who built much of the structure, which was adorned with gold and silver from the sacked Temple. History books are less certain on this point, but in itself it seems a mere footnote to the tens of thousands of people murdered there in the name of sport. The worst reality TV is the pinnacle of civilization compared to what the emperors watched, and our own bloody times seem reassuringly tame in comparison.

When we finally joined the line at the Vatican, it was down to a half-mile, and it went surprisingly fast. The Vatican Museums are built partly on the conquest of bodies -- plundered treasures from around the world -- and partly from the winning of souls -- wondrous artworks from devoted, or at least well-paid, masters. In any case, the assembly is mind-boggling. By the time we reached the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's revived frescoes, we doubted any art could further impress us.

We were wrong. The chapel, a vast room with the soul of a warehouse, is home to a creation that somehow magnifies the power of all creation. We lingered, refusing to be shooed away, as the guards emptied the vast crowd for closing time. Our stiff-necked refusal paid off as we stood almost entirely alone beneath God and Adam.

Somehow it was fitting, not jarring, to be surrounded by so much beauty even as the world was poised on the brink of a war which, if you remember, threatened to doom the Middle East, Europe and America. Flags calling for PACE were hung from hundreds of windows, groups gathered in St. Peters Square singing hymns of peace, the headlines inveighed against President Bush and the Italian prime minister, who had joined the coalition of the willing. In my college Italian, I followed café arguments about how America, with Israel behind her, was pushing the world into a war no one wanted. But whatever doubts Italians had about our country's policies, they were warm and effusive toward us.

In Florence, the people were just as warm, the air colder.

The lush Tuscan countryside was taking the winter off, but the city itself was full of life and tourists. And art.

Neither of us had ever been to Florence, and we walked the narrow streets unashamedly clutching maps, camera and guidebooks. You get giddy from the quantity and quality of the masterpieces -- the light and shadow of Il Duomo; the work of the young Leonardo in just one of the endless galleries of the Uffizi; Ghiberti's bronze doors at the Baptistery; and, of course, Michelangelo's David at the Accademia di Belle Arte.

For nearly five days, we explored Florence and Sienna. Sienna's main square, or campo, proved a perfect place to soak up the sun's rays on an otherwise cold day, and the small city is a marvel of well-preserved tradition.

The synagogue in Sienna -- one of Europe's best-preserved -- was shuttered (we had neglected to call ahead), but the Florence synagogue became a trip highlight.

A friend of mine from Israel, Shulamit, met and married the man who would eventually become the chief rabbi of Florence, Yossi Levi. Shulamit showed us the beautiful interior, painted in Tuscany's muted reds and greens, and the preschool, where the din of children matched that at any busy L.A. synagogue. Florentines, in general, are private and tolerant of other people's privacy, and despite the fears of Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Shulamit said the community in Florence felt generally secure.

But Shulamit did say the congregation in Florence could benefit from the participation and energy of long-term non-Italian residents, Jews on study or work visits to Florence, and she was eager to get that word out.

On our last day in Florence, with about 500 museums left unseen and only 2 percent of Italy's masterpieces under our belts, we made one last stop to see David. Nothing in picture books had prepared us for the power of that sculpture, and we knew, back in Los Angeles, back in our lives, we would miss it. So back we went, and the line was magically nonexistent. You stare and stare at David, and end up feeling that we humans, with our petty arguments and massive wars, are capable of a much grander world. Maybe a world more like ... Italy. N

Italian Travel Tips

Kosher establishments are so noted.

ROME

Hotel

Albergo Ottocento

Via dei Cappuccini 19

info@albergottocento.it

011-39-06-42011900

Food

La Taverna del Ghetto (Kosher)

Via del Portico d'Ottavia

011-39-06-68809771

Kosher Bistrot (Kosher)

Via S. Maria del Pianto, 68-69

011-39-06-6864398

Gusto

Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9

011-39-06-3226273

La Tamerici

Vicolo Scavolini, 79

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-69200700

La Toretta

Piazza della Torretta, 38

011-39-06-6833494

At this family-run restaurant specializing in fish, the owners forbid smoking -- a fact which makes it a rarity in Italy. It's also quite good and reasonably priced.

Caffe Sant' Eustachio

Piazza Sant' Eustachio, 82

(Near the Pantheon)

011-39-06-6861309

The be-all and end-all of coffee. Roasted over oak wood and prepared by dedicated barristas following a secret method. Stand in line, order a gran' caffe, and you'll weep the next time you set foot in a Starbucks.

Gelateria San Crispino

Via Della Panetteria 4

011-39-06-6793924

Long ago discovered by The New York Times, still superior to all other gelatos we tried in Italy -- 45 F weather be damned.

Other

Kadima

Murano Glass Judaica

Via del Lavatore, 33

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-6789860

FLORENCE

Hotel

Hotel Galileo

Via nazionale 22/a

011-39-055-496645

A very reasonably priced three-star hotel in a city known for high-priced accommodations. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful staff, and a convenient location near the train and bus stations.

Food

Buzzino

Via dei Leoni, 8r

011-39-055-2398013

Zibibbo

Via di Terzollina, 3

011-39-055-433383

www.zibibbonline.com

Garga

Via Del Moro, 48r

011-39-055-2398898

Now famous and deservedly so.

Ruth's Kosher Vegetarian Food (Kosher)

Via Farini, 27a

011-39-055-2480888

Next to the synagogue, Ruth's focuses on Middle Eastern specialties.

Osteria Ganino

Piazza dei Cimitori, 4

011-39-055-214125

Know Before You Go:

www.FaithWillinger.com is a wondeful site by an expert on Italian food and restaurants.

www.Jewishitaly.org has all the names and addresses of the country's Jewish sites.

CulturalItaly.com is an L.A.-based firm through which you can make museum reservations before you leave. It costs a bit more, but unless your idea of a vacation is standing in line for a half day, do it.

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