TRAVEL/BEAUTIFUL BUILDING/HERITAGE: ROME:  Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Great Synagogue of Rome) and Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum), visited July 2019.

Visually stunning and emotionally stirring visit, to the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Great Synagogue of Rome) and Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum).

ABOUT THE COMPLEX: Tempio Maggiore is the main synagogue of Rome and houses the Jewish Museum (The Museo Ebraico di Roma)The museum is in the basement and provides fascinating insights into Jewish life in Rome, dating from the second century BCE. The Spanish Synagogue (Tempio Spagnolo) is housed in the basement, as part of the museum.

We are not big on museums but were totally captivated by our experience at the Museo Ebraico which has been curated and presented with what I can describe as an exquisite sense of Italian style, respect and love. It is a warm embrace of a community which goes back centuries in the city. Sure, most of the objects on display happen to be breathtakingly beautiful but the balance between image/presentation/information is a masterclass in heritage exhibition. Museums often fail in terms of front-of-house service.  A shout-out to the museum staff at Museo Ebraico – friendly, welcoming. This museum has got it right. It’s a pleasure to walk through the doors and become immersed in a rich repository of a world which has vanished.

Most of the objects on exhibit are from the five synagogues (five scolas -the Italian-Jewish term for synagogues) which originally stood in the ghetto -on what is now the site of the Great Synagogue and museum. The magnificent array of objects include intricate textiles – velvets and lace of the Baroque and Renaissance period. According to the museum site: “For the most part they were bought second-hand from Roman nobility and then adapted for use in the synagogues, with the application of embroidery and trimmings.”I loved the displays which conjure up life in the Ghetto: Jewish home, domestic stuff -kitchen, rituals – gilded circumcision chair; weddings, celebrations of Jewish holidays…  Check out the pics on this post and the museum website the audio guide dongle works brilliantly – with succinct explanations of what is on display

After the splendour of the museum, we joined the tour of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue)and that was an absolute wow. This epic scale structure has 1 000 seats and is very much in use with regular services. According to our guide, members of The Jewish Community of Rome, pay their dues and they may attend any one of 18 synagogues in the city. If you feel like frequenting the Great, you may and if the next week, you want to go elsewhere, that’s okay.

The Great Synagogue was built after the unification of Italy (1870) when the Roman Ghetto  (1555 to 1870) was bashed down and Jews were allowed citzenship. Yup, that late. Read up –chilling- the long narrative of anti-Semitism in Europe.

The site of the Great Synagogue was originally the location of the ghetto synagogue complex- the five scolas. When the ghetto synagogues were knocked down, one big structure was planned to be a big wow – to stop people in their tracks. The Ghetto (and now the Great Synagogue) was on the banks of the Tiber River and the Ghetto was waterlogged and not in great shape –soggy and crowded. When the Jewish community could finally strip the old buildings away, it was a time for celebration. The Great Synagogue was meant to be a stand-out. As millennials might proclaim, it was meant to be loud and proud. Construction of the synagogue took place between 1901 to 1904 It contains elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture.

The Great Synagogue makes a visual impact from a distance, jutting out because of what is referred to as its “square dome”. I think a dome is a dome but the base/pedestal is square so it gives a sense of being square. It’s a very impressive building with its aluminum dome and very much a statement building. Sitting in the synagogue, I wondered how the building remained unscathed during the Nazi occupation of Italy. The issue of “occupation” in that country is a bit of a misnomer as Italy and Germany were allies – until they weren’t. Anyway, after the overthrow of Mussolini and the Italian armistice with the Allies in September 1943, the Germans occupied Rome. The Jewish Community was assured that it would be safe, if it paid up 50kg of gold. The gold was delivered but in October 1943 the Germans corralled and deported about 2000 people to concentration camps. Very few survived the death camps. Embedded in the cobbles stone streets in the surrounding streets are brass memorial plates memorializing the names of those who were the deported and murdered. Very interesting to see how some people notice them and stop to read the names. (Stolpersteine– stumbling stone” are 10 x 10 centimeters concrete cube surrounding brass plate engraved with names and birth dates of people who were deported. The project was started in 1992 by German artist Gunter Demnig. Most stumbling blocks memorialise Jewish people but others commemorate Sinri and Romani, disabled people – and others considered undesirable by the Nazis. There are about 70 thousand stones placed in Europe – a potent piece of public art).

Returning to the issue of the synagogue and how it remained untouched during the occupation, we were told that the museum was closed and sealed off by the Germans. The Jewish library, we were told, was plundered but the synagogue was left intact. I was intrigued. During the nine months of Occupation, those in the Jewish community who evaded deportation, tried to find places of refuge in the city- and hold out to the end.

After visiting the complex, I wanted to find out more about that period of Occupation – from October 1943 to April 13, 1986, when the synagogue had remained untouched. From preliminary research, I was interested to find that the narrative of the synagogue tends to hinge on two nodes. The first is the post ghetto period, when the beautiful building goes up to transcend the shame of the water logged ghetto. The second node is a jump to April 13, 1986, when Pope John Paul II made a surprise visit to the Great.  The Occupation years are left out.

Apparently, the visit by John Paul II was the first recorded visitation by a pope to a synagogue dating back to the early history of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul prayed with Rabbi Elio Toaff, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Rome. Talking of Chief Rabbis, another chief rabbi popped up, during my hunt for information. Before and during the Occupation, Israel Zolli was the Chief Rabbi of Rome. On February13, 1944, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Oops! One can imagine, here is this beautiful building, The Great Synagogue – apparently the first major synagogue in Europe to be opened after the war. So people who survived camps, people who staggered out of hiding in 1945 must have been amazed that this beautiful building was there. Imagine them asking – “Where is the Chief Rabbi?” The answer: “Uhm, he is not here. He is now a Roman Catholic”.

The Zolli story is fascinating. Some accounts dismiss him as a collaborator but from what I can glean, he worked hard to save his community. He sounded early warning signals that the Jewish community should take protective steps and go underground- stop public functions and so on. Warnings were not heeded. He saved artifacts and heritage objects. He was fascinated by Roman Catholicism, during his tenure as Chief Rab and was apparently given refuge in the Vatican (this is disputed). After the Occupation, he emerged from his hiding place in the house of, a Catholic member of Rome’s anti-fascist resistance party. The Holocaust ripped his family apart. His three brothers were murdered. One can understand his faith being at a cross-roads.

After the Holocaust, many changed allegiances in faith – shifting sides in organised religion – or doffed it all together. He wasn’t alone. But he was the chief of the Jewish community in Rome, heading up the flock in this beautiful building. A leap of faith, one might say. In  his autobiography, Before the Dawn: Autobiographical Reflections by Eugenio Zolli, he is apparently quoted as saying that he has a revelation/vision of Jesus, while he was leading the religious services on Yom Kippur, 1944. Interesting to see what people do in post-Liberation periods and how they respond to pressure, disruption and persecution. We see this in post-Liberation South Africa –peoples’ choices – from struggle veteran to billionaire. People change allegiances and sides – sometimes radically. This is a beautiful building, laced with stories of rupture, loss and history of a community and its wartime minister of faith who crossed over.