Thursday, March 23, 2023

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by all things Italian. I finally had the chance to experience the real deal having just returned from a memorable and whirlwind vacation touring Florence, Venice and Rome. Being a fan of old movies, one of my favorites is Roman Holiday with the beautiful Audrey Hepburn who played the role of an unhappy princess who just wants to be an ordinary citizen for a while. Gregory Peck is a journalist who learns of her identity. The historical sights and sounds of Rome are the backdrop. Predictably, somewhere along the way Audrey and Gregory fall in love but can’t stay together because after all she is royalty. On the other hand, my husband is an aficionado of all things Godfather and can recite many of the lines from each of the movies. Wherever we went in Italy, we’d say, this reminds me of that scene…

When people travel they’re typically interested in food, and the Italian fare certainly didn’t disappoint. In the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, there were several wonderful restaurants from which to choose. Being a long-time carbohydrate lover, I was in “carb” nirvana and all annoying diet thoughts were clicked onto mute. The bread was thick and fresh, the pasta perfectly al dente, and the pizza dripped with cheese and scrumptious tomato sauce. Italians certainly do embrace their wine and assorted varieties can be found everywhere and sipped leisurely with meals any time of the day. There was also a kosher gelato store, and a bakery with delicious pastries with unusual fillings like pistachio, which I personally sampled.

In restaurants, trains, and on the streets you hear the lilting sound and melody of the Italian language. The word “scuzy” (excuse me) came in very handy when we tried to get proper directions from the locals. It was easy to get lost walking through the narrow and winding streets of Florence and Venice. Holding maps didn’t always help as each street had several multi-syllable words in the names. Our hotels were on Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia and Via Luigi Petroselli 47. Talk about tongue twisters! Remembering and pronouncing those names was beyond challenging, and made me appreciate straightforward American streets like: Cedar Lane, River Road and even Fifth Avenue.

Even though there is so much beauty, art and historic architecture throughout Italy, the Jewish tours and culture resonated with us. The “Great Synagogues” of Florence, Venice and Rome are very old, ornate, intact and still largely in use. In Siena, however, near the Piazza de Campo, which is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares famous for horse races, there is a synagogue that is easy to miss because of the plain facade. It was built that way to detract attention from outsiders, and for the extra security. Our tour guides in Rome were native Italians who are passionate about their Jewish identities. They explained how the Jews have been a presence in Italy for over 2000 years and counting, how they survived harsh edicts and anti-Semitism, and were relegated into the various ghettos. Now, the Jewish Ghetto in Rome has become a trendy and expensive place to live and a local hot spot.

Strong and vibrant Chabad organizations have fueled and added so much to each of the communities, and without a doubt the highlight of our trip was the Shabbat spent in Venice. Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant, located in the world’s oldest ghetto in Venice, is a melting pot for Jews of all ages from around the world. We sat next to a couple originally from America who had made aliyah over 30 years ago. After Tefillah, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Banin warmly welcomed everyone to pre-reserved meals at Gam Gam. I watched as Rebbetzin Banin also wished “Shabbat Shalom” to unaffiliated passersby with cameras in hand, and invited everyone to the communal Kiddush in the Chabad shul. She also baked all the delicious challot, and told me that baking challot connects her spiritually to all generations of Jewish women. Such inspirational messages of connection to the Jewish population past and present!

In general, people do a lot of walking in Italy, which probably helps with all those extra “carb” calories. We walked over the canals on foot bridges and winding paths to Piazza San Marco, where the scenery was breathtaking. Narrow streets opened to a large courtyard, an idyllic setting where a bride and her bridal party snapped “just married” pictures. Children chased birds and one another, and people dined al fresco while slowly sipping wine. Even though it was hot, there were areas of shade to sit and watch the world go by.

Later in the day, a delicious Seudat Shlishit was followed by havdalah in the courtyard of the Jewish Ghetto. Shabbat was over at 10, and yet the time seemed to fly by. It was truly a special Shabbat, and now I’m home but grateful for my own Italian Holiday.

Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a reading teacher, tutor and freelance writer. If anyone is interested in visiting Venice for Shabbat, check out www.jewishvenice.org.

By Esther Kook

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