Roman Holiday

And do the heavenly angels not understand Aramaic? (Sotah 33a)

We are preparing for a trip to Rome. You are reading the Lonely Planet guide and Time Out Rome; I am finishing up today’s daf, Sotah 33, which alludes to the edict by the Roman emperor Caligula (called Gaskalgas) who decreed that an idol be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. At the very last moment, as the Jews were in a panic about the fate that awaited their sacred place of worship, the high priest Shimon HaTzadik heard a voice from within the Holy of Holies that cried out in Aramaic, “The decree of the hated one has been annulled, for Caligula has died.” The Talmud cites this incident as proof that angels in heaven can understand Aramaic. In the background, I hear you trying to pronounce some words in Italian, poring over the page of helpful phrases in the back of the guidebook. Parla inglese? Non capisco.

The public buildings and baths and streets which this wicked kingdom makes, were their intentions for the sake of heaven, they would have been worthy to possess the world. (Mid. Hag. to Gen. 44:24)

Our very first stop after dropping off our bags in our tiny hotel room near the Termini, the train station, is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Of the scores of churches we will visit in the next two days, this one has pride of place – it is our “home church,” you might say, since Gerusalemme is the same Jerusalem from which we hail. The church was founded in 320 CE by Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena, who brought back relics of crucifixion cross from Jerusalem. On the façade is a statue of St. Helena herself, who appears to be swaying with the cross in the way that a woman might dance with a broomstick. We take a photo that we will print in Jerusalem, thereby bringing the cross back home.

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt….We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells…if our cattle drink your waater, we will pay for it. We ask for only passage on foot. (Numbers 20:14-19).

We decide, perhaps in homage to the next week’s parsha, that we will walk all over Rome, taking not a single bus, train, or cab. But our three days in Rome coincide with a three-day heatwave, and everywhere we go we sweat. Each time you pause to look in your guidebook, I sink down exhausted onto the ground, grateful for a moment to rest my aching legs. But relief comes in the form of the free-flowing fountains all over the city. I am referring not just to the great fountains: the Trevi Fountain (Salvi, 1762), with its great statue of Neptune flanked by two Tritons; the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Bernini, 1651) in which the four great rivers–the Ganges, Danube, Nile, and Plate–are represented by four giants; the Fontana del Tritone (Bernini, 1642) on Via Veneto, featuring the Triton and his conch shell. These fountains capture our imaginations, but physical salvation comes in the form of the small hydrant-shaped fountains on many of the street corners, which flow constantly with water. We carry our Mei Eden bottles and refill frequently. Coming from Jerusalem, where we turn off the water while soaping in the shower and half-flush the toilet, it is hard to adjust to the abundance of fresh water so freely and generously available to us as we make our passage on foot through Edom/Rome.

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs….
(John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)

For me the most special place in Rome will always be the Keats-Shelley Museum, housed in the very rooms where the greatest of the English Romantic poets John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of 25. There he wrote, in his last days, a letter to a dear friend: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” I peer out the window of his bedroom, which overlooks the grand and majestic Spanish steps which lead from the Piazza di Spagna (named for the Spanish embassy located there in the seventeenth century) to the Trinita di Monti church. Shivers run up and down my spine when I learn that so many of my favorite writers stayed in this area at one time or another. Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth. I decide that if we make it to the Forum in the afternoon, I will stand on the Rostra, the platform used for public oratory, and declaim to you one of my favorite odes.

The restaurant, five minutes from Giovanna’s apartment, was next to the Portico d’Ottavia. There were of course hundreds of other restaurants she might have tried, hundreds of versions of cacao e pepe and carbonara and deep-fried artichokes she might have eaten…At the restaurant the waiters knew by now to bring her a bottle of acqua gassata, a half-litre of vino bianco, swiftly to clear the second place setting away. They left her alone with the book she would bring, though mostly she sat and looked at the remains of the Portico, at it chewed-up columns girded with scaffolding, its massive pediment with significant chunks missing. (Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth)

Late Friday afternoon we wander through the alleys of the Jewish ghetto, first created in 1556 by an edict of Pope Paul IV, who forced all the Jews to live inside a high-walled enclosure. It is 7:30pm and the sun is beginning to sink in the sky, but Shabbat does not begin until 8:30pm. We find a small vegetarian pizzeria right next to the Portico d’Ottavia, part of a monumental pizza built in honor of Augustus’ sister in the first century CE. I am convinced that we are eating in the same restaurant mentioned in the breathtaking Jhumpa Lahiri novel I am reading, which I carry with me all over the city even though it is hardcover and heavy. I read you the passage to see if you agree, staining the white pages with my oily hands. While we are eating, we notice two men in black gabardines passing by, presumably on their way to shul. We pay quickly for our meal, musing at the bizarreness of calling this Shabbat dinner, and then follow the passersby.

Perhaps you will say: They have statutes and we do not have statutes?… there is yet place for the evil inclination to reflect and say: Theirs are more suitable than ours!… (Sifra to Aharei Mot 13:9)

The synagogue in the Jewish ghetto is not quite as ornate as the city’s finest churches, but the high ceilings, painted walls, and decorative columns were clearly built with the ecclesiastical model in mind. I walk up two flights of stairs to the women’s section, where I sit in the last row by an open window near a sign that reads: “Si prega di FARE SILENZIO durante le tefilloth.” A gentle breeze blows from the Tiber river below, and I find my place in the siddur. It is strange to read the Italian stage directions printed inside, which remind me of a musical score: After the Shma, “Baruch Shem K’vod” is to be recited in sotto voce; and the Chatzi Kaddish is labeled “Mezzo Kaddish.” The women around me are dressed in tank tops and jeans, indistinguishable from the other Italian women I have been seeing on the streets. It is strange for me, coming from Jerusalem, to see such women in shul – where are their kerchiefs, their long skirts layered over lacey pants, their double strollers? They chatter in Italian to one another, though they stop talking to take three steps back before the Amidah, aware, then, of what they are doing. Below us all the singing comes from an operatic chazzan whose voice fills the entire building, and from the choir that accompanies him from their hiding place behind the bimah. I sit quietly, taking it all in.

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
Wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns….
How much better to command the simple precinct of home
Than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.

(Billy Collins, “Consolation,” from The Art of Drowning)

We are eager to get home because my sister will be arriving in Jerusalem right when we return, and we are supposed to pick her up at the airport. I have not seen my niece in eight months, and I am counting down the moments until our reunion. But when we get to Fiumicino airport at 7am, we learn that our flight is delayed. A one-hour delay stretches to a four-hour delay, and El Al tries to console us with a voucher for lunch at an Italian pizzeria. There is nothing we can eat there, so I exchange my free pizza and pasta for six bread rolls and a bottle of soda. All around us the Israelis on our flight stack their trays with plates of hot food, crying “voucher, voucher” to the bewildered cafe clerks. In the end, we return to Israel just when my sister’s flight lands; she spots us in the Israeli passport line and runs in our direction, greeting us with a bear hug and a giant grin. That night I unpack and begin going through our pictures; my sister tells me the next morning that she and her husband celebrated their arrival in Israel by going out for dinner, to a restaurant called Little Italy.

2 thoughts on “Roman Holiday

  1. claire says:

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