The Human Spirit: Funny on the way to the forum

I decide against trying to convince the astute agent that I have been mistaken for a Swede.

LARGO DEL TORRE 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.
On a Friday morning in late August, my husband and I are walking towards Largo del Torre Argentina, the substitute forum used in 44 BCE by the Roman Senate while their usual meeting place was being rebuilt. That’s where Julius Caesar used to speak, and that’s where, on an infamous March 15, Caesar met his death at the hands of conspirators. Cassius, and Brutus, too.
A man comes up behind us and begins speaking softly in Italian-accented, fluent Hebrew.
“The hat,” he says. “When you leave the ghetto, you take off the kippa.”
Before we have a chance to find out who our adviser is, and what danger might await us, he’s gone.
“When you leave the ghetto...” We are, indeed, a reasonable walk from the Ghetto di Roma, so it’s a fair assumption that the stranger’s warning referred to the literal Ghetto and not a metaphorical one. He thought we’d just come from there. Where else do observant Jews head for as soon as they touch ground in Rome? The Rome Ghetto provides a lachrymose lesson in Jewish history. Jews were forced behind ghetto walls in the 16th century, limited in what professions they could engage: rag merchant, fishmonger and pawnbroker were among the non-skilled trades that were allowed. Renowned Jewish physicians were prohibited from treating non-Jews.
Leaving the ghetto required not a hat but the ignominious yellow symbol: a cloth for men, a veil for women. Jews needed to swear yearly loyalty to the pope at the Arch of Titus, with its depiction of the sacking of Jerusalem. The insistence that Jews live in the Ghetto di Roma was set aside for a year when the Republic was established in 1798, and again for a few years in 1848, but was soon reestablished.
The walls were finally torn down in 1888, making Rome’s squalid Jewish section the last standing ghetto until the Nazis re-invented them. This was the fate of the Jewish community that predated Christianity in the Italian capital.
But today, the ghetto is a cheerful place: the source of synagogue services, Jewish city tours and kosher food. Carciofi alla Giudia, the famous cooked artichoke dish some claim goes back thousands of years, and fiori di zucca, stuffed zucchini flowers instead of cabbage or grape leaves. Kosher pizza. On one hand, we welcome being spotted as Jews. Even our mysterious interlocutor in the street was drawn to us by noticing my husband’s kippa.
On the other hand, we might be naïve. The worm of doubt creeps in. This is Europe, not America.
In the last week one rabbi walking with his six-year-old daughter was attacked in Berlin, while another was assaulted in Vienna. Then Italian journalist Giulio Meotti, a non-Jew known for his vociferous admiration of Israel, reported that the stairs to his office were vandalized with red paint and the words “Free Palestine.” In Rome.
What do we know, used to life in Jerusalem, where religious symbols and garb are ubiquitous? Muslim women, Jewish women and nuns dress in similar garb these days. Male identity is fixed by the nuances of devotional skullcaps. So many people cover their heads that you don’t even notice, unless, say, you are spending a morning with a European photographer fascinated by so much exotic dress.
I remind myself that one of my pre-Rosh Hashana resolutions is to try to understand what people are really trying to say when they offer me unsolicited, often annoying, advice.
In the end, we remember that this is the city where one is advised “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” (The expression, by the way, goes back to the fourth century and has to do with observing local tradition about fast days, not la dolce vita.) So, my husband reluctantly covers his kippa with a visored sun hat.
And that’s how we travel to the quaint Italian coastal town where most of our short summer’s- end vacation takes place. Hardly anyone speaks a sentence of English, so there’s no opportunity for dialogue on theology or the Middle East.
At the supermarket – where the origin of all produce is scribbled on tiny chalk boards – near the Ecuadorian papaya and Peruvian avocadoes, stands a bin of mangoes “from Israel.”
Closer inspection shows that the mangoes are actually from Brazil, but no one has bothered to change the sign. That’s about as political as it gets in this town.
Still, the whispered Roman warning has had its impact. We’re not going to hide our identities, but we’re not going to flaunt them, either.
We carry our Israeli snacks, not in Ben-Gurion Airport duty-free bags, but in a sack from the local supermarket. When the itinerant Senegalese peddlers hawking leather purses, sunglasses and sweaters ask where we’re from after the haggling is over and we settle on a price, I don’t answer. After all, 94 percent of Senegalese are Muslim. They speculate aloud: England, Germany, Sweden? I smile. This is a first for me; I’ve never before been mistaken for a Scandinavian.
I convince myself that I have displayed what the Swedes call lagom, moderation, in my bargaining style. The vacation must be working. I think of a Swedish friend who spent years converting to Judaism, and how he gave up this neutral identity to become a Jerusalem Jew.
I leave the question of my origins in the air.
An Italian woman who has been listening to the transaction wants to get in on the deal and buy a pullover, too. I realize I’d rather not have her think that the woman who got the price down is Swedish. Too many stereotypes.
The interlude is over quickly. The night before we leave, I have an anxiety dream in which I nearly miss the plane and try to convince the airport officials that I must get back home for Rosh Hashana.
In reality, we are in the line to Israel in plenty of time. The line to Israel is easy to spot: kippot, keffiyas and nuns’ veils. When asked by security if anyone who sold me anything knew I was flying back to Israel, I assure him that no one has. But I decide against trying to convince the astute agent that I have been mistaken for a Swede.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.