When in Rome, Do as the Progressive Roman Jews Do

I was late to Rosh Hashanah services at Beth Hillel, Rome’s new progressive Jewish community. I meant to leave my apartment at 6pm but I scooted out the door by 6:45pm, realizing that the mistake would cost me 22 euros in cab fare. On the way up the Janiculum Hill I remarked how beautiful the houses and buildings were. “Yeah,” said my cab driver in Italian with a thick Roman accent, “these are Jewish homes. They have a lot of businesses in Rome. So they have a lot of money. Mostly Jews and Americans live in this area. They’re all very rich.” He said this as we wound past the palatial American Academy of Rome, shining marble with fountains and a rose garden. I considered getting offended as I gazed at the giant palaces whooshing by. Maybe he had a point about the wealth–if not about all Jews and Americans, if not about this Jewish American–then at least about the Jews and Americans living on the Janiculum Hill. 

Luckily I was on my way to a Jewish service in Italy. Between the Jewishness and the Roman-ness, the event was bound to start late, despite the foreboding “precisamente” nota bene in the event invitation. I walked in at 7:30pm, past a plain clothed security guard, just as the service was starting. I found a seat next to an older gentleman who introduced himself as Roberto, here for Erev Rosh Hashanah before he would return to the orthodox shul down by the Tiber River.

The new year service was held in the Gran Hotel Gianicolo and it was very fancy indeed, shiny with mirrors and velvet chairs. Perhaps 120 people were in attendance, older folks and young parents and kids. I spied some gayish couples, an equal gender split, and one Asian man. We used the Italian siddur published in 1957, Preghiere della festa del capodanno, usato dalla comunità israelitica di Torino (translations and explicative notes done by Professor Dario Di Segni.) The service was led by Rabbi Joel Oseran from Arizona, a 1976 HUC grad who lives in Jerusalem and works for the World Union of Progressive Judaism. He told the congregation in English that he as an American is unable to replicate the b’nei Roma nusach, so he’d be singing mostly Ashkenazi tunes, some Sephardic. It would be a pluralistic service in that sense–lots of Judaisms in one room. As much as he would have loved to do an authentic Roman nusach, he said, we’d have to go down the hill to Tempio Maggiore for that.

To me, no native nusach is worth sitting behind a mechitza for, so I settled in for an Ashkenazi service and was soon singing Avinu Malkeinu to the tune I’ve always sang it. I started to feel at home Jewishly, though certain elements reminded me that I was in Rome—namely the Italian scripture reading, which sounded to my ear like the Sunday mass gospel recitation on the Italian radio.

In the fancy Roman hotel ballroom, I reflected about all the places I’ve davened Erev Rosh Hashanah. My home shul of Tifereth Israel in San Diego. Stanford University Memorial Auditorium. New York City Town Hall with Beit Simchat Torah. A congregation in the Bronx right after September 11th. Mansfield, Massachusetts. New Haven. Boston University Hillel. A modern orthodox shul in Brighton. Cuzco, Peru. This year–2014, 5774–I celebrate new things and old things and right here right now things in the Eternal City.

After the silent Amidah Rabbi Oseran distributed Italian copies of his sermon so native speakers could follow along. His sermon asked, “Is getting older the same as getting wiser? What does Judaism teach us about getting older?” It was a provocative and compelling address, especially for me since I’ve just moved to a new country and am building a home with my partner, hopefully to stay for a very long time. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it feels like and what it means for me to be edging 36, in the last third of my PhD program, starting my life with my partner, putting down roots in a country I have felt for decades is my spiritual home. To find a progressive Jewish community here puts the raisin in the challah.

The rabbi said that the older one gets, the fewer answers one has. I feel this truth coursing through my veins as I mature and become more capable of surrender and less interested in captaining my ship unreflectively toward rigidly set goals. These days I’m floating down a river current, sometimes pausing in eddies, but surely bobbing along in the sunny clear water, not fighting the tide as I have been all my life. I have fewer answers about what will happen and perhaps even about who I am, but I feel okay about that. Paradoxically these days, slower feels deeper, and flexible feels strong.

Rabbi Oseran said, “We must rediscover the meaning of growing old, which connects past and future.” Maturing means we bring our experiences forward, encountering new friends and vistas and conditions whilst applying our creative legacies and lessons, allowing the past to pave our progress forward. The Rabbi recounted how he and his family had recorded his mother telling her life stories before she died and he talked about how frank her words had been. “Old people don’t hold back,” said the rabbi. “They don’t shelter us from hard stories or protect children from reality.” Why should they? After all, they survived it all, and come to us from the past to share their wisdom in the future—which is now. The present is the seat of wisdom where all three planes of time touch.

At dinner I chanted the berachot (blessings) with two American women—a law professor and a press agent—and three Italians, two of whom are members of the Milanese progressive Jewish community Lev Chadash. At the table we blessed our rose-water apples and dipped them in pomegranate honey, smiling shyly at each other and turning together to look through the dark window at the blinking lights of Rome, just a kilometer away from the glowing dome of the Vatican.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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