Identity. In Italy.
This summer, my husband and I celebrated our 20th year of marriage with our first European vacation. In the cold clutches of the polar vortex, we asked ourselves, what is the one European city known to be one of the world’s most romantic destinations?
Why, Paris, of course!
Gleefully, we dreamt of a Paris vacation. In the evenings, we played a Paris Jazz Café station on Spotify. Without a single semester of French between the two of us, we spoke sweet nothings to each other in fake Parisian accents.
I dug out my college art history textbooks and plotted my visit to the Louvre.
Then we checked in with the news coming out of France, and our dreams crumbled like a stale baguette.
Anti-Semitism in France has been on a steady incline in recent years, even before Hamas’ most recent war with Israel. In 2012, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that 40 percent of approximately 1,200 French Jews said they avoided wearing Jewish identifiers such as kippot or Jewish stars. For me, all it took was one YouTube video filmed on Jan. 26 with throngs of protesters repeatedly shouting “Jews Out” through the streets of Paris, to rethink our plans.
So, forget Paris. We instead spent 10 memorable days in Italy touring Tuscany,
eating fresh pasta
Italy was far from a consolation prize to France.
However, all that wine did not cloud my awareness that war was still raging in Israel (my daughter spent the summer in Israel), and anti-Semitism was all around us in Europe. Still, I refused to be afraid to be outwardly Jewish. In the Jewish ghetto of Venice, I purchased a star of David made of Murano glass and wore it for the duration of my trip.
In Italy, an appreciation for Judaism’s contributions to humanity on the surface outweighed any animosity towards the Jews. An orchestra in Venice’s St. Mark’s square played Klezmer music.
Craning one’s neck in the Pitti Palace, one can view a ceiling painting of Queen Esther begging King Achesverous to save her people. The owners of one of Florence’s hottest trattorias proudly hang a hamsa bearing the Hebrew blessing for a business by their cash register.
Still in Florence, there remain dark undertones of Europe’s hatred for the Jews, both past and present. As we strolled past the city’s many sites, I could not shake the eerie thought that for the first time in my life, I stood in places where Hitler once stood. A Palestinian flag fluttered on a balcony.
Florence’s Great Synagogue, where we spent Erev Shabbat with an eclectic minyan of Jews from Italy, Britain, Israel, and the United States, was partially destroyed by the Nazis and used as a parking garage. Now, the synagogue compound contains the fully restored synagogue, museum of Jewish Florentine culture a school and a Holocaust memorial to the Florentine Jews murdered by the Nazis. Cameras are forbidden in the compound, so you will have to imagine the garden in the courtyard, featuring a walkway lined with pomegranate trees heavy with ripening fruit. The Italian National Guard continuously watches over the compound and all visitors go through a rigorous security screening before entering.
Like every Jewish community, even one of only 900, there are politics and disagreements. Tomas Simcha Jelinek, known to all as simply “Simcha,” is a man in his late 70’s and the owner of Ruth’s, the city’s only kosher restaurant. He grumbles when the local Chabad tries to lure Jewish tourists away from his business with the enticement of a free meal. During services, the rabbi shushed a toddler and asked his Israeli father to remove him from the sanctuary. I sat in the women’s section shaking my head. Don’t we have bigger problems than the natural noisy state of a toddler, I thought.
After gathering on synagogue’s front steps to sing Shalom Aleichem, we went to Ruth’s for a family-style Shabbat dinner. Simcha sat at the head of the table after he served us a meal of homemade hummus, eggplant salad, roasted salmon, and pasta al pomodoro. Dessert was fresh watermelon and a lighter-than-air Italian cheesecake for dessert. And let’s not forget about the fine kosher Chianti.
Dinner conversation went in and out of talking about not only Israel, but also the situation for Europe’s Jews. Simcha noticed that things getting worse for Jews in Italy. Several times, motorists in cars and motorcycles had shouted slurs at him because he wears a kippah. Between Simcha and our other dining companions – three families from Britain – there seemed to be a sad resignation that anti-Semitism never really disappeared after WWII, but now they admit, it is getting worse.
On our walk back to our hotel, on the darkened streets of Florence, my husband took off his kippa and slipped it into his pocket.
Later that week, the docent at the Jewish museum echoed Simcha’s sentiments of things getting worse for Italy’s 23,000 Jews. When I asked her what could be done to stop the hatred, she shrugged her shoulders.
“This is our history,” she said in resignation.
Indeed, anti-Semitism is our past. But, for the new year, does it also have to be our future?