Finding a Piece of Home in Italy

March 1, 2011

After about 12 days of whirlwind travel through London, Paris, Lucerne, and Florence with only Rome left on my journey, I was feeling like an estranged stranger, overwhelmed by the mosaic of cultures that I had encountered thus far. I had been traveling with my best friends from high school, backpacking and tour-busing across the continent, and fatigue was beginning to set in. Needless to say, I was beginning to crave something familiar, something that would mentally unite me with home (which for me would be Los Angeles, California).

The art, history and elegant architecture of Rome were enough to keep me motivated despite my fatigue. I visited Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum and Forum, and all of the classic tourist spots, all of which were worth the trek in 100 degree weather. Standing in the Coliseum, feeling the ruins beneath my feet and imagining how many millions of people had tread upon that same earth thousands of years before was mindboggling yet unifying.

After the Coliseum, we walked into a local church and looked at yet another ceiling.

Being one with history is a nerdy and gratifying emotion, but being one with one too many churches, however, can be bothersome at times – especially for a Jew.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sistine Chapel is one of the holiest and most magnificent pieces of artwork that I have ever laid my eyes on. The vibrant colors, depth of figures and the extravagance of color is something that I will never forget. But walking all over Europe and stopping to look in churches in Switzerland, France and now Italy (in multiple cities) was starting to make me feel lost: how come we weren’t looking for the nearest synagogue? In my mind, I knew why – no art, no Jewish populations, no demand – but my heart was beginning to miss the familiarity of Hebrew, of the tallits (prayer shawls), and of the warmth of Jewish people. I figured that warmth and familiarity would just have to wait until I got home; Rome was the last place on Earth I expected to be shown the most elegant, elaborate and beautiful synagogue that I have ever seen.

Finding a Piece of Home in Italy

The Great Synagogue of Rome, located in the city near the river Tiber in the “Ghetto Quarter” (named such as a reminder that the area used to be a ghetto for Jews from the 16th to 19th century), is also a museum with a beautiful archive of relics, tallits, and stories of Jews in Italy throughout the centuries. The fact that the building still stands and its residents thrive post-World War II is a miracle, and its pride seeps through every corner of the building. The synagogue itself is the only one I have ever seen with decorations. Its high vaulted ceiling is littered with gold stars, symbolic of God’s promise to Abraham that the Jewish population shall be as numerous as the stars. The architecture is eccentric, with ionic columns, an enormous marble aron ha’kodesh (ark in which the Torah is stored) and balconies with wrought iron banisters.

Everything – the decoration, the mixture of Orthodox , Conservative and Reform Jews in an Orthodox practicing space – surprised me at first. I was reminded that even within my own religion I can be made a stranger. But that does not mean that I should estrange myself from the opportunity presented to me. I am grateful for my Jewish friend who brought me to the synagogue in the first place. I am grateful that she could show this unique place to me, and that we could enjoy the space together, and yet on our own.

In retrospect, I am relieved that being a traveler means choosing to explore places unlike home; it means putting yourself into new situations and possibilities. It also means being in places that may make you feel estranged, without an anchor of similarity or shared culture. For me, as that traveler seeking new experiences, I am reminded of good ol’ Moses, who said “I am a stranger in a strange land.” Of course, a strange land does not necessarily mean a bad one or dangerous one, but simply one that is unlike home. Trying to feel at home or comfortable in a new land is not easy, but it certainly makes for a great adventure.

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