a Non-Religious American Jew Discovers his Heritage through a Mistake on the Holy day of Rosh Hoshanah

            August/September 2013    
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Shana Tova, A Jewish Story

By Michael Boloker

He was tired of fighting the crowds of tourists, groups of Americans, French, Asians and even Italians, probably from other areas of the country, who were being guided around the great cathedral, the green and white striped marble Duomo of Firenze. They lined up the stairs waiting to enter, snapping pictures with their digital cameras, shooting across the piazza to the Baptistry with its magnificent golden doors depicting Biblical scenes in depth and dimension that was startling. The doors were replicas, unfortunately, because of damage done to the originals. And they were Old Testament plates, Jewish stories. There were gypsy beggars and peddlers hawking souvenirs. It was worse than Times Square, not quite New Year's Eve, but close enough to make him want to get out of there.

He headed south, toward the river and found a doorway on a side street, sheltered from the throngs where he pulled a map from his back jean's pocket and figured out his location. He had followed the guidebook which suggested that the best cultural sights were among the three main piazzas: San Giovanni, Della Signoria and Santa Croce. He had no hope of seeing Michelangelo's David because that would require waiting hours on line. He did not have tickets to the museums in the Uffizi Gallery so that was out. The best he could do was walk down to the piazza and admire the statuary. The walk along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio was another exercise in mob evasion and as he walked up through the Medici's palaces he passed the tributes to the best minds of ancient Florence and Tuscany. Sculptures lined the piazza: Boccaccio, Dante, Donatello, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Giotto, Petrarch,Vespucci and of course, Leonardo. He had been to Vinci a day earlier and seen models of the genius' inventions. What a center of greatness, this Florence.

As he walked through the alleyway, he came to the Piazza Della Signoria. There were two statues fronting the Loggia, one an imitation of David and the other of Hercules about to behead a thief. David's hands were huge. Another landsman, another fellow Jew. He sat down on the steps to the building and studied his map again. Off to the upper right hand corner was the Piazza d'Azeglia where the great synagogue was located. He traced a route with his finger and saw that it was within walking distance. He hadn't even known about the place but felt an obligation to see the structure. After all, he was Jewish, felt a responsibility to his dead parents, to his people. He had visited the Jewish quarters in Paris, Budapest, Prague, even in Toledo. He was connected. This was Europe. This was where the Nazi's had been. Where millions had been exterminated. The Final Solution. Time and space had spared him, but he owed it to them and himself to pay his respects.

The day was hot as the afternoon September sun beat down on the ancient city. He thought about getting a coffee at one of the cafes but knew he would be overcharged in this busy area. He would get off the beaten path and walk up to what must be the old Jewish quarter. Things would be more reasonable there.

As he wended his way northeast, passing shoe stores crowded with shoppers, and searchers of the "leather factories" for jackets and coats, he ignored the commercial offerings. There were also tons of gelato shops and pizzerias. If it weren't for the narrow streets and the bicyclists, he might have been in a shopping mall. People seemed to be frantically looking for bargains which he knew were not there now that the Euro was so strong against the dollar. Years ago it was just the opposite. There were purchases to be made and shopping was fun. But that was in another time, a happier time, a more naïve time when travelling to Europe was exciting and adventurous. Now it was just an excuse to get away and find the unusual, the appealing, the classic.

He was getting hot and leg weary and so sat down on a bench in front of a farmacia and checked his map again. The synagogue should be up a block or so as he checked the street signs against the building on the corner. He wiped his brow and got up, determined to get to the temple. He saw no signs of the building and so approached a woman, shopping bag in hand. "Signora? The synagogue?"

She barely looked at him and continued on her way. "Not very Italian," he thought. People were generally very friendly here. He looked for someone else to ask and sighted a young man, well dressed in suit and tie. "Signor? Synagogue?"

The young man, at first confused by his American accent, finally responded. He didn't speak but pointed back in the direction of the farmacia and indicated that the synagogue was up around the right hand corner. "A destro."

He followed and rounded the corner, finally seeing the green dome and then the building behind a locked gate, perhaps ten feet high, garden in front. There was a soldier on duty beside the iron fence and he walked by, admiring the Moorish style of the temple. The place looked more like a Mosque than a Jewish synagogue and he saw a plaque in Italian. He figured out that the temple had been built from 1874-82 and the Sephardic sect had chosen the Muslim style. He tried the gate but it was chain locked. There was another young couple across the street taking photographs of the structure. He walked over to the guard and asked in English, "Can I go in?"

The soldier shook his head negatively. "No. They pray today."


But the guard didn't understand and he backed off, went across the street and approached the young couple, studying the synagogue. "You speak English?"

"Yes. We're from L.A. You?"

"New York. Any idea why we can't get in?"

"Rosh Hashanah. It's Jewish New Year. I guess they want their privacy."

He was stunned. How could he have forgotten? It was September 9th. "Wow. Some Jew I am," he jokingly castigated himself.

They just snickered as he sat down on a step behind them. He took out his guidebook and turned to the description of the synagogue. It had gilt gold plated walls and striped red and white marble exterior which had faded so it had a mottled look. He looked across the street and didn't notice any marble pattern. The wooden doors to the ark were scarred in the war by the Nazi's who used the place as a warehouse and then tried to blow it up when retreating from the Allies. They had failed and over the years the synagogue had been restored. There was a museum on the second floor and outside, a stone monument to the 248 deportees sent to the camps by the Germans. He tried to imagine what it was like during the '40's. He remembered the great film, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." He was guilty about his negligence concerning the holiday. He didn't practice the religion but these were his people, his heritage.

He sat for a while and realizing it was getting late, and wanting to see the Church of Santa Croce. He stood and went down the Via de Pepi which, after a half dozen blocks, brought him to the Piazza de Santa Croce with its massive rectangular square, tourist shops and the great church. He sat on a bench, surrounded by tourists eating gelato and drinking from water bottles. Some younger men and women giggled and chugged from bottles of Peroni. There were crowds led by tour guides entering the church and he decided he couldn't wait to get in. He had to get back to the station which was a walk back across the city, through the narrow streets to catch his evening train. Before he left he saw a framed Star of David high on the marble façade. He was puzzled and thumbed through his guidebook until he came to a description of the cathedral. He found that the Jewish emblem was put there by the architect Niccolo Matas who renovated the building in the nineteen century. He felt glad to know this, happy that the mark was there.

He prodded himself and rose, walking in the general direction of the station, thinking about evading the crowds to make time. He mused that there was the magnificent David, the great synagogue and this. He was proud, despite not worshipping. His guilt at forgetting the new year abated. He was of the people. Shana Tova, as his family used to say.


from the August/September 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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