The first thing I noticed when my plane touched down in Rome, in the year 2000, my first real visit other than a barely recalled weekend in college 15 years earlier, was that the women swarming around baggage claim all looked like me. They were much more stylish, of course, with their characteristic bella figura, the Italian way of always putting one’s best face forward, no schlumping around in sweatpants and running shoes. But like me, they had dark eyes, dark hair, bodies with a little curve to them, and there was lots of talking and emphatic gesturing, their mellifluous alloras and pregos and mamma mias making me want to jump into the conversation.
“Are you Italian?” the cab driver asked, as he drove me toward the city center after I’d retrieved my bag, the highway taking us beneath the remains of an ancient aqueduct glowing pink and gold in the early morning sun.
“No, I’m Jewish,” I replied. Of course, one didn’t preclude the other, but this was my stock answer when anyone asked about my ethnicity. I uttered it on autopilot, without any particular emotion. The last thing I expected was for that trip to the Eternal City, the seat of Christianity, to lead me to embrace my Jewishness in a new way, a way that my (very Jewish) home of New York City and even a visit to Israel hadn’t. On that trip and the many that followed, I gradually came to understand that Rome and my Jewish identity were somehow intertwined, twin anchors tethering me to a home and a history I’d only been dimly aware of.
When I was growing up in suburban Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, my parents never observed the Sabbath. The only candles we lit were on Hanukkah, and on Passover we flew through our Seder in 15 minutes. Although I dutifully attended Hebrew school, I mildly resented my Sunday and Wednesday afternoons spent learning my alephs, bets, and gimmels. We weren’t taught conversational Hebrew, just enough to be able to recite our haftorahs by rote at our bar and bat mitzvahs, chanting a language we didn’t really know. When my big day arrived, I belted my 12-year-old heart out, the Ethel Merman of Temple Beth David, but my passion was more a product of my love of the spotlight than an indication of any religious feeling.
I mostly skipped out on Judaism after that, attending synagogue only on High Holidays—and even that was mostly to please my parents. They didn’t expect me to be religious, but I knew they hoped I’d marry a nice Jewish boy, and when I graduated from college, they presented me with a congratulatory tour to Israel designed for young adults. Maybe you’ll meet someone, I could almost hear my mother thinking as she and my father saw me off at the airport. Whatever my parents’ motives, I was happy to accept the free trip. You’ll cry as soon as the plane touches down on the tarmac in Jerusalem, my parents’ friends assured me. You’ll definitely cry at the Wailing Wall. At the least, I figured I’d feel more connected to my Jewishness, feel something approaching spirituality.
I didn’t cry when the plane touched down in Jerusalem. I didn’t cry at the Wailing Wall either, where an Orthodox gentleman scolded me for peeking over the divider separating the men from the women. Abashed, I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer—Shema Yisrael—then slipped a piece of paper with a wish between the powdery stones. But I was faking it, pretending to a devoutness I didn’t feel. I loved bobbing weightless in the Dead Sea; hiking up Masada before dawn; the badass beautiful men and women soldiers carrying Uzis. But I never got emotional, never felt as if I’d come home.
It’s not that I wasn’t proud of my heritage. I felt Jewish through and through, but only in the vague cultural way so common to New York Jews accustomed to picking up bagels and a schmear on Sundays. It’s easy to take your heritage for granted when you happen to be surrounded by people of the same kind, when no one is giving you the side eye for looking or behaving differently. It was the religious Jews who looked different in my neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I’d settled after college: the women with their wigs and sensible shoes, the men in their dark wool coats even on the warmest of days. I’d notice them walking to synagogue on Saturday mornings, but I was never tempted to follow.
I wasn’t any more interested in visiting Jewish sites when I was away from home, not the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., nor the art nouveau synagogue in Paris’ Marais district. Maybe that’s because I’d always felt as if Judaism was just another “should” in my life, something I was supposed to embrace, but that didn’t necessarily feel organic to my being.
So when I went to Rome in 2000, in my mid-thirties, I didn’t intend to seek out all things Jewish. I wasn’t keen to see the Jewish ghetto, a place I’d heard about only vaguely, nor the famous Great Synagogue, with its unusual squared off dome. I preferred to tour the evocative Forum and the Pantheon with its round window to the sky, to pursue other, more sensual pleasures: the gelato served in teensy cups topped with fresh cream; the heaping plates of cacio e pepe, essentially pasta, salt, pepper, and pecorino cheese, a dish that tasted like comfort. I reveled in the light, the light, the sun glancing off graffiti-strewn buildings in coral and rose and ochre, a new ruin around every corner.
Yet, wherever I went, the question the airport cab driver had asked would arise again—Are you Italian?—the natives stopping me to ask for directions, assuming I was a local. I’d shrug helplessly, feeling a little thrill that I seemed one of them.
And soon enough, Rome did become a sort of second home: When a friend from New York moved there, following a moody Italian musician-boyfriend and eventually snagging a flat with a guest room around the corner from the Pantheon, it was easy to fall into a habit of returning to the city yearly if I could, to start learning the language, simply because I wanted to, as opposed to being forced, spending nights doing exercises from a green-and-white workbook, practicing rolling the rrr’s in trattoria.
It was my American friend who took me for the first time to Trastevere, a neighborhood whose cobbled streets were nearly too narrow for Vespas, never mind modern cars, its chic artisan shops selling supple leather shoes and handbags in every color. One evening, she and I stood in the middle of the Ponte Sisto, the quarter’s picturesque pedestrian bridge. To the left, I could see the glow of St. Peter’s massive cupola in the distance; to the right, the squared-off dome of the synagogue against the cerulean sky. That’s when she mentioned that Trastevere had a Jewish history of its own, along with the remains of an ancient synagogue or two. I learned that the first Jews had come there to live in the 2nd century BCE, outsiders from the Holy Land drawn by trading opportunities but banned from the heart of the city. Instead, they were forced to settle across the Tiber, the way New York City’s Jews were forced to reside in apartments on the west side of Manhattan, rejected by the Upper East Side’s exclusive co-op boards.
From Trastevere, I could walk to the Jewish ghetto in seven minutes, as I did the next day—not for the history, but to try a kosher-style restaurant, Nonna Betta (Grandma Betty), I’d heard was good. There, I dove into a plate of classic Roman-Jewish carciofi alla giudia, deep-fried local artichokes, salted liberally, like hand-cut potato chips without the guilt. Afterward, I took a stroll around the tiny neighborhood, making perfunctory stops at the two or three sad-looking stores selling silver Seder plates and menorahs, stopping to read the plaque commemorating the round-up of the Jews during the Holocaust, then looping back to the synagogue. It was closed, but the Jewish museum, in the basement, was open, and I decided to check it out, almost an afterthought.
When I stepped inside, I immediately spied glass cases filled with more of those silver Seder plates and menorahs, and my heart sank a little. But as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I began to read about the history of the Jews in Rome, about how one pope treated the community with relative liberality while another levied unbearable taxes and yet another forced conversions, burned Torah scrolls, and forbade Jews to do business with Christians. I read about the synagogues that once dotted the city and about how the word ghetto was an Italian word, first used during the 16th century in Venice, where the Jews there were sequestered over a period of two centuries. And I read about how the Nazis rounded up the remaining Jews in Rome’s ghetto, the ones who hadn’t already left, on Oct. 16, 1943.
As I read, a painful knot formed in my throat, a slight welling in my eyes, the emotion I had been told to expect in Israel, the one I’d hoped for. Except I was feeling it in Rome, a city Jews had been a part of from the beginning. Was that why I felt so oddly comfortable here, more comfortable than I’d ever felt in the suburban Reform synagogue of my Long Island childhood, the rabbi’s droning sermons doing nothing to move me?
Whenever anyone mistook me for Italian, I felt an unreasonable surge of pride, as if I’d finally come home.
When I emerged from the museum, blinking into the glow of late afternoon, I strolled past a tiny pink bakery where men with yarmulkes waited in line for challah, then lingered in the main piazza, watching schoolchildren just released from the Jewish day school kick a soccer ball. Ready to return home, I went around a corner to find a graceful fountain in a hidden piazza, a fountain ringed by bronze turtles up top and dancing young boys below, reaching their arms high as if to catch the plodding creatures.
Several days later, at dinner at Spirito Divino, a restaurant in the non-touristy part of Trastevere, I struck up a conversation with the proprietor. “Did you know that this building is the site of the oldest Roman house in the city—older, even than the Colosseum?” he informed me proudly. “And that it also used to be a synagogue?”
“Really?” I asked, feeling the unexpected tickle of goose flesh as he beckoned me outside and directed my attention to the portico, where, when I aimed the flashlight of my iPhone, I could just make out the ghostly impression of Hebrew letters. I felt a shiver of wonder then, the same shiver I felt when, back in Manhattan a few months later, I came across an article in the New York Times about Rome and the Jews. Apparently, genetic researchers had discovered that Ashkenazi Jewish women were not descended from Jews in the Middle East as had long been assumed. In fact, DNA suggested that while Jewish men came from Israel, many of the women may have actually been converts from Rome, courted by male Jewish traders looking for wives far from home.
I was an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, my grandparents hailing from the Ukraine on both sides. Could that mean that I was as much a true Roman as I was Jewish, DNA-wise? Was I Roman before I was Jewish? Is that why everyone thought I was Italian, why the synagogue museum and the Jewish history I’d learned there had moved me in a way other Jewish sites hadn’t, the way Israel hadn’t?
Whenever anyone mistook me for Italian, I felt an unreasonable surge of pride, as if I’d finally come home. I’d never quite felt that pride in my Jewishness before, at least in the soulful way I craved. But as I put all my Jewish experiences in Rome together—the artichokes, the ghetto, the museum, the synagogues old and new—I realized that maybe Rome felt like home for a different reason: Jews like me, perhaps Jews related to me, had been in the city almost from the very beginning, helping to build its great monuments (including the Colosseum), mixing with the locals, putting an indelible Jewish stamp on the local cuisine. I wanted to find out all about these people—my people. I wanted to claim my history.
On successive trips, each time speaking a tad more Italian, I found myself gravitating to the ghetto and to Trastevere, and doing something radical, at least for me: I started seeking out Jewish landmarks. I kept my eyes downward on my way to visit the turtle fountain, on the lookout for tiny brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones beneath my feet, bearing the names of families who had once lived there and had been extinguished in the death camps. Other days, I’d search out Roman Jewish cuisine, not just artichokes, but fiori di zucca—fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, usually at Nonna Betta. Or I’d grab some “Jewish pizza,” the name given to the rock-hard but tasty fruitcake baked by three Jewish sisters in the pink bakery I’d noticed. On one trip, with my 14-year-old nephew in tow, I even made it into the synagogue itself, the two of us settled together into a pew as our Jewish Roman guide shared tidbits, among them that the people dressed as gladiators gathered near the Colosseum were—surprise!—nearly all Jewish. “It started with one family here in the ghetto 50 years ago and has continued on,” she told us.
“How about that? They’re Jewish!” I said, turning to my nephew, with something very much like pride. Like belonging.
I still try to get to the city I love at least once a year. I now speak passable Italian, rolling my r’s like a native. If I can work it out, I stay in Trastevere with friends, where I’m able to catch a glimpse of the synagogue’s dome as I set out to buy my morning cappuccino and a warm, jam-filled cornetto. By lunchtime, I often find myself at an outside table at Nonna Betta, still a favorite, just down the street from where the Jews were carted away in 1943. The waiters know me by now and greet me like family, kissing me on both cheeks before bringing me my fried artichokes and zucchini flowers. I bite into the delicacies, take a sip of wine, and feel at home.
Recently, at the tail end of my latest trip, in a taxi, heading to the edges of Trastevere for pizza, the driver asked, “You’re Italian, right? Roman? There’s something about your eyes, something about your face … I can tell.”
Maybe he was flirting, but I like to think he saw something in me, my Roman-Jewish lineage stretching back 2,000 years, a lineage I somehow sensed from the moment I touched down on the tarmac of this pink-and-gold city, with its crumbling stones so reminiscent of Jerusalem.
“Si,” I replied to the driver. “Sono un’ebrea romana.” I am a Roman Jew.
“Ah, un’ebrea!” he replied, eyes gleaming. “Bella!” Beautiful. I had to agree.
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Paula Derrow is a writer and editor living in New York City.