April 15, 2024
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Italian Idyll IV: Prophesy Fulfilled: Hadrian and Akiva

On the morning following their excursion to Rome, the Rabinowitzes planned a visit to the nearby city of Tivoli, halfway between Rome and Fiuggi. It was Friday morning and Jake wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be traveling too far from their hotel as they would need to return in time to prepare for the Sabbath. Tivoli was one of the spots the ancient and medieval Romans frequented when they wished to escape the heat, hustle and bustle that bedeviled residents of the capital city. On their itinerary that day would be a visit to Hadrian’s Villa as well as a tour of Villa D’Este, built by a famous Florentine cardinal. Both locations had been designated World Heritage sites for their beauty and historical importance.

Before they took off for Tivoli, Jake was informed that the hotel was awaiting the arrival of a 70-strong tourist group representing the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation. This organization was based in Rockland County in New York; the touring group hailed from the tri-state area and consisted of travellers visiting Italy, but who would be continuing on to Israel, Eastern Europe or back to the U.S. following Shabbat in Fiuggi. That day they were travelling from Tuscany to Rome, and ultimately to the Grand Hotel.

Our travelers arrived at the entrance to Hadrian’s Villa at about 10:00 a.m. The sky was cloudless and the late July sun was beginning to cause Jake some discomfort. With his new electric scooter unloaded, Jake was the first to greet their guide for that day’s activity. Christiana was a local professor of antiquities and she seemed eager to explain every detail of the site. She ushered the group into a building where a model of the villa was laid out in diorama form. Jake knew much about the emperor Hadrian; he even knew his nickname, “Graeculus” (“Little Greek”), given him when he was still a child because of his love of all things Greek. His parents were born in Spain, and Hadrian was one of those emperors who during his life did not particularly enjoy living in or even visiting the city of Rome. Given the opportunity to build a country home in Tivoli, outside the capital, he devoted years in constructing a “resort” there full of all the creature comforts he could come up with: ornate buildings, extensive gardens, “theaters,” canals stuffed with colorful fish and crossed with bridges, artificial lakes, gymnasia and Roman baths. Hadrian spent many days at his country getaway, but as those familiar with his life know only too well, he spent most of his time fighting battles, waging wars and subjugating peoples under Roman rule. Of particular interest to Jake was the fact that Hadrian was the mastermind behind the brutal suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in Judea in 134 C.E. Among his more dastardly deeds was authorizing the famous execution of 10 rabbinic leaders of that time, known as the Ten Martyrs of Israel, Asarah Harugei Malchut). Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva, a humble scholar of the greatest ability. Hadrian’s antipathy towards the Jews of his time came somewhat naturally to him. Included in his aforementioned love of things Greek was a close friendship with the direct descendants of Antiochus Epiphanous, the Syrian Greek king who fought a bitter war against the Jews and lost. At least Antiochus indirectly gave the Jews the holiday of Chanukah, observed in celebration of their victory over him.

Nothing good came from the Jews’ interaction with Hadrian, however. Nevertheless, as Jake drove his scooter through the ruins of the villa grounds, he thought of some sweet ironies of the moment. Jake’s first grandson, a 12-year-old American, who, having been born on Jake’s 57th birthday, shared Jake’s English and Hebrew birthdays, was named Akiva. He was a fine, strong young man, proud of his heritage and he knew of Rabbi Akiva’s life, words and martyrdom. Hadrian, on the other hand, left no known children and for all of his power while he lived, 2000 years later he is mainly remembered by the children of his victims, and at that as a thoroughly cruel dictator.

“Some legacy!” Jake thought to himself.

The tour of Hadrian’s villa at an end, Jake’s group worked their way to the minivan and a ride into Tivoli proper. In 10 minutes, they arrived at the town square, unloaded the scooter and headed for a small park in the center of the square. Belle unloaded her bag of lunch supplies and soon all were munching on tasty rolls and jelly brought from the hotel. The local pigeons strolled by seeking crumbs from the now satisfied travellers. Sipping bottled water as the beverage of choice, the Rabinowitzes began to explore the shops adjacent to the park. One shop in particular featured very colorful leather products, gloves, purses, wallets and pocketbooks. This was too much for Belle and Marissa to pass up, and they spent a half hour in the store, selecting gifts for the folks back home as well as themselves. Jake waited outside for the shopping spree to end. Soon enough, his wife and daughter emerged from the leather shop.

“We’ll pick up the items we bought after we visit the Villa D’Este,” they informed him.

Fortunately, that villa stood just across the square down the hill on which they stood. Christiana, their guide, and Davide, the Venetian chaperone, led the way into the medieval structure. It stood at least five stories high, but, given that the villa was built on a mountainside, the entrance to the grounds was on the fourth floor. The plan was to take an elevator up to the fifth floor at the start for a panoramic view of the countryside, followed by a steady descent to the below-entrance levels where the renowned gardens and magnificent fountains were displayed. In the course of the next two hours, the Rabinowitzes enjoyed viewing a profusion of Italian Renaissance fountains (no fewer than 107!) surrounded by a magnificent series of gardens. Designated a World Heritage site in 2001, the Villa is now an Italian state museum. Without too much difficulty, Jake maneuvered his scooter down the cobblestone paths that separated each of the terraces. When the family had seen enough, they reversed course and started to ascend to the exit on the fourth terrace. It was now that the steep cobblestone paths became much more challenging for Jake. As he steered his scooter onto one particularly steep path, he sensed immediately that his front wheels would soon fly upward into the air causing his scooter to flip over; with lightning reflexes, Davide supported the back of the scooter, settled the front wheels onto the ground and carefully pushed the scooter up the path to safety.

“I nearly became the newest equestrian statue in the Villa d’Este!” quipped Jake.

“You would have become part of Italian history, never to be forgotten, if you had flipped over!” countered the Venetian.

Back in the square outside the Villa, the Rabinowitzes picked up their souvenirs of the day, piled into their van and headed back to Fiuggi, the Grand Palazzo and their first Italian Shabbat. They had seen much that was memorable on that unforgettable day in Tivoli, traversing the ruins of oppressors of their people, but a day of rest was most welcome to the living descendants of those that had been treated so harshly in the past.

By Joseph Rotenberg

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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