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Jewish Journal

Roman Holiday

Celebrating Yom Kippur in the Eternal City.

by Ivor Davis

November 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The synagogue in Siena has had around-the-clock police protection since the violence in Israel and the West Bank erupted.

The synagogue in Siena has had around-the-clock police protection since the violence in Israel and the West Bank erupted.

On Yom Kippur, my wife Sally and I went to shul just around the corner from the Vatican. It was a visit we will not soon forget. The imposing Comunita Ebraica di Roma Synagogue (the Great Synagogue of Rome) sits just off the Piazza del Firori close to the Tiber River and spitting distance from Vatican City across the river in one direction, and Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum in the other.

We arrived to find an armed camp. With the Middle East coming to a boil again, the shul was a counter-terrorist fortress. Separated from the traffic off the main boulevard by metal barriers, every single side street was blocked by police cars and more barriers. A large contingent of carabinieri (antiterrorist police) toting Uzis and plainclothes men in sun glasses with walkie-talkies patrolled the perimeter. We were told that even when there is no trouble in Israel there are around-the-clock guards on the Rome synagogue, but Yom Kippur was a day for special alertness.

Pedestrian access to the sanctuary was through one narrow gate manned by plain clothes guards who inspected our passports and subjected us to a short interview. What were we doing in Rome? Where were we staying? Why did we want to visit the synagogue?

Women who brought their purses had them emptied. A canvas booth, like those El Al uses at airports, stood nearby for more detailed inspections.

Once inside, everything was as it presumably always is for the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The interior of this magnificent Sephardic sinagoga is impressive. Friezes of gold-painted palm trees adorn the walls, the floors are marble and the bimah - at the front of the sanctuary rather than in the middle - is approached by a wide, elegant staircase. The Torah scrolls sit dressed in gold breast plates and crowns in an aron kodesh behind high, carved wooden doors and screened from the congregation by heavy white satin curtains.

Of course all this magnificnce is downstairs where the men sit. Upstairs, the women are isolated behind face-high metal grilles on shabby, uncomfortable steel chairs with worn leather seats resting on bare concrete.

Downstairs, tiny Italian school boys with mini tallesim were carried onto the bimah by fathers granted an aliyah to participate fully in the service, while upstairs their mothers and sisters strained to catch a view.A shammes in top hat, white tie, tails and sneakers rushed busily up and down, kibbitizing and handing out the aliyah cards to selected congregants. He didn't seem to do a lot of praying. He wouldn't have had the time.

The crowd was sparse when we arrived at mid-morning, but the pews began filling up slowly as the hour grew later. An American lawyer, who has lived in Rome for a dozen years, told me congregants know the times of specific services and come for those rather than sit all day. What else is new?

Fortunately the day was cool. The expatriate American told me when the weather is hot, the shul has no air conditioning and things can get a little uncomfortable.

The dress code was a lot more relaxed than it would be in an American Orthodox synagogue, and certainly less formal than in the English synagogues of my youth. There were older men in business suits, but many wore trendy Italian sports clothes as for a day at the Lido; some even wore jeans. Few of the women wore hats.

There are between 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in Italy, and 15,000 of them are in Rome. As a community, they have had troubled relations with their neighbors over the centuries. In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV segregated the Jews of Rome behind a wall into a ghetto, a neighborhood where many of the Jews still live. Four centuries later, members of the community were shipped from Rome, where their ancestors had lived for generations, to perish in concentration camps.

The current occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II, made the short drive across the bridge from the Vatican in April 1986 to step into the history books as the first pope ever to set foot in the Rome synagogue.

But despite the pope's apparently sincere desire to be closer to bring Jews and Catholics closer, this is not an easy time to be Jewish anywhere in Europe. France, with a large Arab population, has had scores of incidents during the past month; Italy, too. The short flight from the Middle East brings large Arab immigrant and student populations to many major towns in both countries. Synagogues and Jewish groups everywhere in the country are on high alert.

We found the synagogue of Siena at the bottom of a narrow alleyway just steps from the Piazza del Campo, site of the famous twice yearly Palio horse race. The inevitable police car with two armed officers inside was backed up to the entrance 24 hours a day.

A nondescript facade hides a beautiful neoclassical sanctuary from the 18th century. The interior has been restored, except for the ladies' gallery, which is in disrepair. Consequently, women are now allowed to sit downstairs on one side of the sanctuary.

The synagogue's prize possession is a beautiful walnut inlaid "Chair of Elijah" used in the Sephardic circumcision ritual. Alas, brit milah are few and far between these days. There are only 55 Jews left in Siena, but four boys are currently preparing for their Bar Mitzvah. The congregation is served by a rabbi who comes from Florence, some 40 miles away, to the walled city for special events, but minyans gather only when a member manages to personally call enough men together to help him pray. There are no Shabbat services.

Outside, two plaques commemorate congregants lost in two Holocausts - the 20th century one and a pogrom from 1790 when a local priest unleashed his ire.

Nothing has really changed, I guess. It was never easy to be a Jew in Europe.

Tours of the Siena synagogue are conducted several times a week. The times of English language tours of the synagogue are posted weekly on the front door.

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