The Jewish Communities of Fez, Buenos Aires, Rome, and Bethesda

by Micah Hendler:

So I’ve been more Jewish than usual in the last few weeks.  When I was in Fez on my birthday, I decided to find the Ibn Danan Synagogue, a 17th-century synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the city (outside the walled Medina).  When I arrived, I was shown around by a young Muslim woman about my age who explained the history of the building to me in Moroccan Arabic, which I understood well enough to ascertain the functions of various architectural elements—but not well enough to understand why, as a Muslim woman, she was giving tours of the synagogue.  Fez once had one of the largest Jewish communities in the diaspora, as it was a logical relocation for Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, but now there are only a few hundred Jews living in Fez; most of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950s after the anti-Semitic riots in Morocco that followed the creation of the Jewish state.  However, the King of Morocco still retains Jewish advisors as has been the tradition for hundreds of years, and has pled, with little success, for Moroccan Jewish emigrés to return.

The ark of the Torah in the Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fez, Morocco. (Hendler/TYG)

At the synagogue, I ran across an Argentinean couple who were having trouble understanding the young woman’s English information. I offered, boldly (perhaps too boldly) to translate for them from the Arabic (which I had only half understood in the first place) to Spanish.  But between hearing it the second time around to making some interpretations of my own based on my understanding of Jewish practice which I assumed to hold for the Jews of Fez, I was able to give them a pretty decent understanding of the place.  What was perhaps most interesting about them, though, was that they were not Jews!  However, they had many Jewish friends, they told me (in Spanish).  They described at length their impressions of the Jewish community of Buenos Aires: hardworking, well-educated, and integrated into the Argentinean community.  They told me how many synagogues there were in the city, and how there were entire streets where all the shops were owned by Jews.  The chief rabbi of Buenos Aires has a great public presence as well, according to the couple, appearing alongside his Christian counterparts to advocate interfaith cooperation and tolerance.  This was in marked contrast to the burgeoning Muslim community in the city, they explained to me, which was not interested in assimilation or cooperation and had violent tendencies—so they said.

Just a few days later, I found myself at the Grand Synagogue in Rome. The synagogue is located in the old Jewish ghetto in Rome, the second-oldest ghetto in Europe (second only to Venice).  As I learned during our tour of the synagogue, the Jewish community in Rome goes back over 2,000 years: the emperor Titus was personally responsible for one of the largest influxes of immigration when he brought 40,000 Jews to Rome as slaves during the destruction of the second temple in the year 72.  The Jews have lived there since, and have developed their own traditions and customs in accordance with Italian Orthodoxy, marking a third independent stream of halakhah (rabbinic tradition) which is neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi.  Who knew?  Roman Jewish cuisine also has a long and storied tradition, notably involving artichokes.  In 1492, as the Jews expelled from Spain travelled to Fez, they also came to Rome and established a smaller Sephardic community there; their synagogue was laid out similarly to the synagogue in Fez.  The Grand Synagogue in Rome, though, was built in 1904 (before the unification of Italy in the late 19th century, Jews weren’t allowed to build large buildings in the ghetto), and it is indeed grand.  Its architecture was heavily influenced by the Catholic church (St. Peter’s is about 20 minutes away), and it feels almost like a cathedral.  Almost 2,000 years later, Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to ever officially visit the Grand Synagogue in Rome, and Pope Benedict has been several times to pay his respects to this vibrant and ancient community.

Last Wednesday, I found myself back in Bethesda, Maryland for the funeral of my grandmother, Ruth, who passed away while we were in Florence.  She and my grandfather, Eli, have always valued Jewish community as one of the most important elements of a meaningful life, and I have been blessed to have grown up in an amazing one myself.  Thus, it was particularly important for me to fly home, and I was welcomed by a Jewish family at its strongest, as three generations of friends and relatives came together to show their support.  I particularly appreciated the ritual of sitting shiva, or opening one’s home for seven days after the funeral for guests to visit and offer their condolences and love.  In the mitzvah of saying kaddish for the dead, an affirmation of one’s belief in God specifically in times of trial, it is essential to have a community to support such a difficult assertion as God’s fairness and wisdom.  I can’t imagine what that process could have been like without such a strong network of support.

There are many things to think about and discuss in comparing my experience with these four Jewish communities.  During my stay in Bethesda, my uncle and I lamented the loss of diversity in Jewish expression as so many diasporic communities have picked up and moved to Israel, as well as the beauty, and difficulties, incumbent in such a family reunion.  We also discussed the tension faced by diasporic Jews in the modern age, blessed by the boon of interfaith tolerance but threatened by the spectre of anti-Semitic violence as we have been in every age (there was a shooting at the Grand Synagogue in Rome in 1982).  But perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of the puzzle is the system of concentric circles within the Jewish family.  Judaism has developed differently and manifested itself in unique ways all over the world, and the traditions that are specific to each place are what make a Jewish community truly feel like home to those who have grown up in it, particularly food and music.  For Roman Jews, carciofi alla giudia and other recipes are probably as essential as  harmonizing with my mother throughout a service is for me.  Yet I still was drawn to the synagogues in Fez and Rome (and to the synagogue in Buenos Aires back in March, though they denied me entrance two days in a row for security reasons) because, though distant, we are family too.