On my first visit to Rome, I was deeply engrossed in exploring everything Italian. But then, in touring around the Colosseum, my husband and I came upon the Arch of Titus, an ancient stone arch featuring carvings depicting Roman soldiers carrying a menorah and other items from the Jewish Temple after attacking Jerusalem in 70 CE. From the perspective of a Jewish convert with an Italian background, I found it hard to observe; the conflict felt personal, and disturbing.
That tension—between my Italian background and my Jewish identity—recurs for me every year with the Counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot now largely linked with tragedies in ancient Jewish history. Many of these occurred because of conflicts with Rome. One such tragedy was a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, a leading teacher in the early second century. Some believe this “plague” was actually the Roman army. The period also has become associated with the Jewish Bar Kokhba rebellion against Roman rule in Judea. Rabbi Akiva supported the rebellion, which ended disastrously for the Jews around 136 CE. In crushing the revolt, the Romans decimated Jewish communities, largely ending Jewish life in the area. Many consider this event the true beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.
An interruption in this tragic narrative comes with Lag Ba’Omer (literally, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer), which begins Wednesday night. There are several ideas about the origin of this minor holiday—the end of the plague or perhaps a military victory or truce. It also marks the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, believed to be the first to publicly teach the mystical Kabbalah, and who is believed to have instructed his followers to make his dying day one of joy. However it is approached, Lag Ba’Omer is a festive interlude now commemorated with picnics and bonfires.
From this pause and turn to joy in the midst of a difficult historical remembrance, I take permission to turn to a different aspect of the past and what evolved from it. I can see a peace on both my houses while understanding at times it was badly broken. I can be thankful for the resilience of Jewish spirit and know that even amid great tragedy and being forced from their homes, Jews can regroup.
That Diaspora did indeed regroup all over the world—even in Italy. In fact, in Sicily, the home of my great-grandparents, Jews flourished for 18 centuries and their population peaked at 100,000. Although the community is greatly diminished today, remnants of Jewish life in Italy remain, from small but vibrant Jewish communities, to historic synagogues and ghettos, and, of course, food.
Jews living in Italy adopted local food traditions and ingredients to what they could afford, adapt to kosher cooking, and prepare in advance for the Sabbath. As traders and immigrants, Jews likely introduced the eggplant to the greater population. From their time under Arab rule in Sicily, Jews adopted and made popular the now classic combination of raisins and pignoli (pine nuts). One of the delights of my first trip to Italy was discovering that an Italian restaurant’s signature dish was “artichokes Jewish-style”—artichokes deep-fried until crispy. Since then, I’ve seen the dish celebrated many times over as an innovative and delicious Jewish gift to Italy’s culinary landscape.
Furthermore, in adapting Italian foods to Sabbath prohibitions against cooking, Jews ventured where no Italian probably thought to go: eating pasta cold. Jewish cooks still wanted it to taste good, though, and they created perhaps the first pasta salads. Jewish-Italian cooks also embraced and made their own versions of dishes like pasta pies and pasta frittatas—such as Italian Jewish Cooking author Mira Sacerdoti’s “maccheroni frittata,” an open-faced Italian omelet with the addition of pasta (usually spaghetti). Pasta frittatas could frugally use leftover pasta and be delicious at room temperature, making them good options for Shabbat.
By their nature, these foods also happen to be perfect picnic fare. Which brings me back to Lag Ba’Omer. Although Middle Eastern foods as well as foods that can be roasted over an open fire (like potatoes and onions wrapped in foil) are often traditional for the holiday, I find the picnic-ready Jewish-Italian dishes more fitting. Like the holiday itself, which represents a break from difficult times, the foods were born from and stand for a more peaceful intersection of Jewish and Italian life.
In my explorations of Jewish and Italian culinary traditions (which came together in my cookbook Meatballs and Matzah Balls), I created a recipe for pasta frittata. I like the recipe not only for its ease but also for how it seems a more flavorful relative of Ashkenazic noodle kugels (and I even named it my “frittata kugel”). In honor of Lag Ba’Omer, however, this year I wanted to create a new pasta frittata—one representing the hope of the season.
My new frittata (recipe here) starts with the traditional spaghetti, whose long strands seem to beautifully symbolize the ties that bind us together across history and cultures. I turned to the Italian broccoli rabe (or rapini) as well as basil for deep earthy and herbal flavors, which also add color and nutrition. For their mild nutty flavor but also for being an ingredient Jews helped perpetuate in Italian cooking, I included pine nuts. Additional flavor comes from the traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano as well as the salty and tangy ricotta salata, a Sicilian favorite and little nod to my father’s family. The frittata is bound by eggs, themselves a customary Lag Ba’Omer food, albeit usually in their hard-boiled form. Beyond all that, this cheesy dish can grace the Lag Ba’Omer picnic baskets as well as the celebratory tables of Shavuot, the festival that falls a few weeks later and is commemorated with dairy foods.
Lag Ba’Omer calls for us to pause and embrace joy. And answering that call with dishes that represent Jewish resilience and renewal and that reflect a peaceful time in Jewish and Italian history helps me do just that.
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