The Federation trip to Italy was well planned and executed. It was an adventure that combined the current shops, restaurants, and smells of Italy and introduced us to the history of an old country.
Walking the ancient streets of Venice with no trees or vehicles only boats was interesting. We visited the Jewish Ghetto where several vibrant synagogues use to be. Amazingly, the synagogues are still there as well as a few kosher restaurants. Of its roughly 2000 residents in the 40’s, 1500 people went to the concentration camps and only 8 people survived. Today there’s only 500 Jewish people living throughout Venice. It worried me that there is almost zero growth of Jewish people in Italy and that we will hear similar stories time and again in other cities.
We visited many cathedrals in Venice, Florence, and Rome. A lot of the cathedrals we saw were constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries. We saw examples of old marble floors, statutes, elaborate gold ornamentation. I was surprised by so many gold and warm color mosaics especially on the ceiling that depicted the Old and New Testament.
One of the highlights was seeing several statutes at Galeria de Academic in Florence. One could spend hours studying a lot of the sculptures that Michaelangelo created. We spent time walking around David and noticing the expression on his face, how he was standing, the sling, stone in his hand, his veins, etc. Our guide had a total appreciation of art history, and he wanted us to understand the intricacies of such a statute.
Walking the streets of Pitigliano aka Little Jerusalem that dates back to the 13th century one wanders how they built such a magnificent village a few hours from Rome. From the synagogue to the living quarters, it was also intriguing walking up and down the small narrow streets that was 1-3 stories high. We saw where they made their bread, torah scrolls etc They definitely had a beautiful vibrant community there.
My favorite synagogue was the Jewish Museum and Great Synagogue of Rome built around 1903. I was captivated by the size and adornment. The colors were gold and red, the colors of Rome. It was acoustically designed, and the sound vibrates during prayer. Amazingly, it wasn’t destroyed in the war. I enjoyed seeing the museum in the basement and was amazed of the colors of the Torah covers, tapestry and heavy gold crowns.
I appreciate the Jewish Federation and Rabbi Kullock for making this a great culture and learning experience. It was great having such a congenial group of people to travel with.
I was most moved by our visit to the small, mountaintop community of Pitigliano. As is true in many of Italy's smaller cities, there once existed a thriving and vibrant Jewish community, but, today, few if any Jews remain. Also, what occurred in most of Italy's cities, and repeatedly, the Jews were forced out of their homes and into the cramped and worst parts of the cities, into ghettos. But, unlike most cities that rebuilt and moved on, in Pitigliano, parts of the ghetto still existed.
We began this experience by walking down, then further down, into the side of the mountain, stone steps that took us through small, cramped, dark, spaces. What we saw was remarkable. The Jews maintained their beliefs and gave up what could have been precious living space to create the necessary places to continue their religion.
We saw where their kosher wine was made, where matzoh was prepared and baked, where a mikvah once was, and even where the kosher butcher worked. To see all this, underground with stone surrounding us, and then to imagine living in this dark, dank, crowded, space, is just pretty overwhelming.
I was also moved by us participating in an open Chanukah celebration in a small neighborhood square, hosted by Chabad. In collaboration with the local fire department, who had to use a bucket truck to lift up a Jewish community member to light the tall chanukiah, we proudly and loudly sang the Chanukah prayers, which was followed by more singing and gifts parachuted down from the top of the firetruck for the children to catch and enjoy. Protecting us, as the Italian police do at all active Jewish institutions and gatherings, were several local police, to ensure our safety.
This trip gave us the opportunity to go to areas beyond the big cities, to see a part of Jewish history few get to experience, all the while, building relationships with fellow Nashvillians, and building a stronger connection to our Jewishness.
I had never participated in a Jewish Federation trip but knew about those trips through my mother-in-law, Ann, who had been to Morocco and Israel with the Federation. What a great trip! Besides visiting many of the typical tourist sites, we learned about the history of the Jewish people in Italy. I was very touched by the members of the Jewish community we met and with whom we shared meals and heard their stories. And of course, I’m very happy to have met all my fellow travelers. I hope we can still get together in Nashville. I’m grateful for Rabbi Kullock’s efforts to arrange the audience with Pope Francis. Being one of the few Catholics in the group, I could have not been happier. It was a unique experience and one I will never forget…and Rabbi Kullock is a “very cool dude.” I had never spoken to a rabbi, and I am happy to have met not just one, but two! Joshua Kullock, Dan Horwitz and I walked from the Shabbat service to the hotel on Friday, and watched a little “breakdancing” on the way. It was an awesome trip, well organized and with wonderful people, including Raya, Mario, and Barbara, who made sure we had a fantastic experience. We even graduated from Pasta School!
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