In October of 2019 I took a family vacation to Italy. Yes, you heard that right. At 30 years old I volunteered as tribute and went on a family vacation. In my defense, I was about to move abroad and it was a chance to spend some time with them (and maybe a mostly-free trip to Italy). The last time I was in Italy was 14 years prior for a soccer tournament I played in with my high school team. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate international travel. This time around was a much different experience and despite the certain annoyances that come with too much family time I had a very meaningful and educational experience. My parents travel at a much higher caliber than I do and as someone who has had their fair share of hostels and “just winging it” travel style I truly appreciated this trip in particular.
Now, just a brief background as it pertains to the context of this post, my father’s side is Jewish, which is how I was raised. We are very reform. In fact, so reform that we had a gay rabbi (unheard of) and a woman cantor (very rare until about 10-15 years ago) at our synagogue. I like to think we were ahead of the time. I didn’t realize it then but looking back I fully appreciate how progressive and accepting our congregation was. Full transparency: while I am proud of my ancestral heritage, appreciate a lot of what Judaism teaches and respect those who practice, as an adult I have never been religious myself. I’m also not here to debate or *kvetsh about the race, ethnicity, religion or cultural prose around Judaism. Instead, I’d like to share my experiences in Rome surrounding Jewish history. Regardless of personal beliefs or creed I hope you find interest in our excursions, enjoy my *spiel, and consider checking these things out if and when you make it to Rome.
We had two tour guides show us four major attractions: The Roman Colosseum and Forum, The Jewish Catacombs, The Vatican, and the Jewish Ghetto. Both of our *mavens, Michelle and Sara, were of Jewish ancestry. Michelle, a 20-something year old, considered herself of modern orthodox practice while Sara, middle-age, was more reform. All but one tour were private and allowed us to feel more engaged and comfortable asking questions. Each guide offered a unique perspective on the these historical gems along with their interesting Jewish family history. I would HIGHLY recommend either one for your excursions and should you have any interest in their contact information please email me and I would be happy to connect you! Now let’s get down to *tachlis.
The Roman Colosseum and Forum
It goes without saying, the Roman Colosseum is an amazing man-made architectural feat. The amphitheater, which was built in only eight years in 80 AD by the Jewish slaves brought back from Jerusalem, hosted horrific gladiator fights (many of whom were Jews), executions, mock sea battles and animal hunting among many other – what would be considered today – atrocious events. Now maybe it’s a lack in the US public education system or I missed this day in class but I had no idea Jews were responsible for the construction of the Colosseum or the simultaneous persecution and integration into Roman society throughout history. Even if you do a quick Google search I’m amazed at how many sources neglect to mention the Jewish history involved in the Colosseum and much of ancient Rome for that matter. After the Colosseum our tour guide, Sara, took us over to the Forum. While I loved the vastness and engineering accomplishment of the Colosseum, I was beyond impressed by the Forum. Here you get an up close look at the hand carved stone and architecture that once stood as congregation places, businesses, and homes. It oddly reminded me of a Hollywood set. Too amazing and impressive to be real. It felt like a once utopian ancient city with a labyrinth of buildings now overrun by moss and prairie. As we meandered through the Forum Sara knew what every deteriorated, crumbling building used to be in its time and helped us truly understand what life was like in ancient Rome. An amazing insight to history and ancient living. If you’re visiting the Colosseum you can’t miss the Forum.
Considering the Colosseum is one of the top two most popular tourist attractions in Italy (the Vatican being the other) I STRONGLY encourage you to purchase tickets ahead of time. Sara purchased tickets for us and charged for everything after the tour, making the whole process incredibly seamless. Not only did she walk us through the Colosseum and Forum explaining so many intricate features, stories, and history primarily from a Jewish perspective but, logistically, streamlined the entire tour for us. Her badge of honor was being able to use a separate tour-guides-only line to purchase tickets. What could have been hours waiting to get into the Colosseum took about 20 minutes, including security procedures through the metal detectors. Her native Italian tongue and *chutzpah allowed us to squeeze through busy areas, capture the photo ops where *schmucks tend to stand in the way far too long, coordinate line skips, as well as generally keep us from being “those stupid Americans.”
The Jewish Catacombs
I have to admit this next tour was pretty freaking cool. The Jewish catacombs are underground burials for the Jewish people, often composed of a labyrinth of passageways with carved troughs inset along the walls (see photo above), which held the sarcophagi (stone coffin with ornate carving). Many relics have been found throughout the catacombs offering insight into ancient rituals and burial traditions. If you are claustrophobic, skittish of spiders, or freaked out by skeleton remains and the idea of what a catacomb is then this tour is definitely NOT for you.
Of the six known Jewish catacombs in Rome, only two are currently accessible. The others have either collapsed, are too dangerous to excavate or impossible to enter due to lack of preservation. The Villa Torlonia is the smaller of the two remaining catacombs, allowing only 10 people or so at a time. From my understanding you need to apply in person with Rome’s archeology department to get a ticket. The other catacomb, the Randanini Vineyard, is situated on a private property and can be seen by appointment only. Sara, our tour guide, had the hookup for us. Having a close working relationship with the property’s owner for her routine visits to the catacomb to study the history and archeology of the site she was able to set up a private tour for us.
Upon arrival we were greeted by a very sweet *zayde named Alberto, the property’s owner, who has carried out routine maintenance and preservation work throughout the catacombs since the 1990s. He supplied us with hard hats and LED lamps that would guide us through the underground tunnels. Sara led us on what seemed like an arbitrary path as she told us stories about the ancient catacombs revealing frescos and relics left behind. At one point I was genuinely concerned whether or not we’d find our way back, but somehow at ever major crossing point Alberto appeared before us before heading off into the darkness to meet us at a later point. Just a shadow in the dark. No head lamp. No magical fishing line guiding his path. ::kindaspooky:: Sara navigated the tunnels the same way we commute to and from work everyday, never questioning whether to make a right or left turn. The direction burned into her memory. For them this was just another Tuesday. For us, it was a privilege to witness these underground burial sites and to see how much respect and care those before us had for their deceased family members. Having the entire catacomb to ourselves made the tour all the more special; like we were discovering a wonder of the world unnoticed by others.
Next, and last on the tour with our guide Sara, was the Vatican. It was surprisingly difficult to walk through the Vatican and not feel slightly upset by all the stolen artwork, sculptures, and architectural artifacts. I suppose the upside to this is (hopefully) guaranteed historical preservation by the Catholic church and the ability for Joe-Schmoes like me to see it all in one place, but not for free – of course.
Anyway, throughout our time in Rome Sara talked a lot about Michelangelo and his development as a spiritual person and artist amidst the rise of the Catholic church. When commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, what would have been the greatest honor for any artist of his time, was a death sentence for him. For Michelangelo, who was a sculpture at heart, painting was not his preferred medium. In addition, the demands of Pope Julius II drove him a little *meshuggenah by wanting the chapel adorned with scenes only deriving from the new testament. However, Michelangelo was able to swindle the church and execute his own vision instead. By depicting the birth of mankind and the events surrounding Genesis he was reminding the church that its roots were grounded in Judaism. He had an unprecedented respect and tolerance for all religions, especially the persecuted Jews and a disdain for the church’s exclusionary practice. Depending on who you ask, some who have studied the frescoes suggest Michelangelo incorporated subtle jabs at Pope Julius II and the Catholic church throughout his paintings. If you ask me, Michelangelo seemed like a true *mentsh back in his day.
These historical tidbits were truly fascinating to hear about. In all honesty I did not know much about the Vatican or the Sistine Chapel prior to this trip. And probably most of what I knew about Michelangelo came from historical fiction books and movies. Regardless of your faith or the interpretations you choose to believe surrounding Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, it truly is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of art I’ve seen. Caution to the wind with this excursion: avoid visiting in peak season. Even in late October we still felt like cattle being herded from one side of the church to the other.
The Jewish Ghetto
Finally, we arrive at the Jewish Ghetto. No longer a Ghetto by American terminology it is now often referred to as the Jewish Quarter and is, in fact, quite a lovely place to stroll through. We met our guide, Michelle, for a small group tour starting in the lower level of the Synagogue where the Jewish Museum of Rome is housed. She walked us through the more (relatively) recent history of Jews in Rome.
The ghetto was established in the mid 1500s and was designated to this particular area of Rome because of its susceptibility to flooding. In other words – not a desirable place to live. The Jews were required to live within the gated area and follow a stringent set of rules that would persecute their beliefs and behaviors, in hopes of converting them to the Catholic church so they could then live freely throughout Rome. Confined to a small area of the city, when WWII started you can imagine the ease with which Nazis could infiltrate and seize thousands of Jews from their homes. As you traverse the neighborhood you’ll notice small brass plaques everywhere on the cobblestone streets to honor the Jews who were arrested on October 16th, 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Rome. Fortunately today the Jewish Ghetto is an incredibly safe and vivacious place to experience and definitely worth the visit.
After our tour through the museum Michelle took us up to the synagogue where she sat us down and discussed her personal Jewish history in Rome. Amazingly, she can trace her roots back 500 years and had astonishing stories to tell; particularly the one that led to her grandmother’s escape from the Nazis making it possible for her to stand there before us and share her Jewish ancestry. Later we wandered through the streets arriving at a Jewish bakery where we ended our tour with some *nosh; pizza ebraica, a sweet Roman-Jewish bread filled with nuts, raisins, and candied fruit, similar to mandel bread.
Our experience through the ghetto was all the more memorable as we heard first-hand the ancient and modern stories of Jewish life in Rome. This tour was by far the most relaxed due to lack of crowds. It also connected us to other international Jews on the tour and offered a completely different perspective on Jewish life.
While I am not a practicing Jew and do not really believe in the religious concept of God I couldn’t help but *kvell a little for my Jewish ancestry. These tours instilled a sense of profound pride and admiration for the hardships the Jewish people endured (and still do) throughout history. I do believe there’s a gray area when it comes to the definition of Judaism. It’s certainly a hot button issue today. To many it’s a religion, to some it’s considered a culture or way of life and to others an ethnicity. It will inherently always be apart of me regardless of my beliefs but as I continue to develop, grow and refine my values there are certain traits I can’t help but idolize when it comes to my Jewish ancestry. Whether innate or nurtured I can only hope to possess many of the admirable characteristics and qualities that my ancestral Jews demonstrated in the face of persecution throughout history; emotional endurance, commitment, perseverance, and above all – forgiveness. I am grateful for my trip to Rome and the chance to embrace the educational experiences, the culture, and the fresh perspectives from wonderful tour guides who gracefully strive to keep the Jewish history alive. It was worth the schlep!
Schlep – to carry or travel (often with difficulty)
Kvetsh – to complain, whine or fret
Tachlis – brass tacks, concrete matters
Spiel – long speech, talk
Maven – trusted expert in their field
Chutzpah – in English, courage or confidence
Schmuck – (technically male genitals); more commonly idiot or fool
Zayde – grandfather
Meshuggenah – also spelled mishegas; crazy or craziness
Mentsh – honorable, decent or authentic person
Nosh – light snack; to nibble
Kvell – feel happy, prideful