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The International Writers Magazine: Italy - Rome - Jewish History
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Secrets of the Vatican
Michelle Lynch
I’m driving around in Rome, which is a nightmare under the best of circumstances, but when you’re trying to make a circle to get back to the right street and most of the city is limited to local traffic, you feel like pulling out your hair. 


Except I don’t dare pry off the death grip with which I am clutching the wheel and the scooters zooming past me on either side are making my knuckles turn an interesting shade of blue from stress.

    I’m late to meet David Walden, who runs a tour company called Rome for Jews.   It’s my mistake, I should have asked him where the nearest parcheggio is, not where he lives.  When I finally find a place to park and dash several blocks to his apartment, I’m a few minutes late.  I dial the cell number he provided and hear the ring right next to me.  I look to my left to see a young man, with a motorino helmet and Elvis style sunglasses grabbing his phone with one hand and struggling with his groceries with the other.  And here I was, expecting an older, fatter, balder man with a hat! 
    “Are you David?” I ask the young man.
    “Uh yeah, I just have a call here…” and it dawns on him that I’m the one who’s calling.

    We sit down at the local pub to discuss his tour company.  When most people think Rome, the Eternal City, the religion that comes to mind is Christianity, especially that of the Catholic Church.  After all, Vatican City is its own state inside of Rome.  Yet here is a tour company specializing in the Jewish history of a city most people would not think to connect to Judaism.
    David trained as a teacher and spent time travelling, finally ending up in Rome, which he considers his new home.  I ask him how he got involved with Rome for Jews.
    “I met a man called Roy Doliner, who is a professor from Boston and an amateur historian.  I offered to help with his tour company and did one year of training.  I’ve been doing this for 9 years and Dr. Doliner turned the company over to me to run.”

    The whole premise of Rome for Jews is to expose the ancient history of a people who have lived in Rome almost as long as the Romans have.  The tours are done in the evenings (the famous Italian passeggiata), with the usual Roman tourist spots (the Foro, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican), and their links to Jewish history.  The company has six full time guides, each with their own specialty.  The guides also take the tourists to eat in kosher restaurants where typical Jewish and Italian foods are prepared.

Titus Arch “The Jews” David says to me “have been here since 161 BCE.  Their stamp is all over this city.  For example, the Titus Arch was built from 81-89 AD, to commerate the end of the Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem.  If you look at the arch, you can see the carvings showing the spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Pope Paul IV made the Jewish swear an oath of submission under this hated arch, just so the Jews could have the privilege of paying to live in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome.  Even today, there are Roman Jews who will not walk under that arch. 

Did you know that the base-relief carving of the menorah on the arch was the basis for the design of the coat of arms of Israel?”
    I feel very ignorant at this point.
    Sitting back in his seat, David pulls on a cigarette.  “And the Colosseum.  Don’t forget that.  Jews were forced to build it after the end of the Jewish Wars.”
    I raise my eyebrow.  “Is this like the pyramids story in Egypt?”
    “No, really, they were!” he’s excited now.  “Jews were brought here as slaves by the Emperor Titus in 70 AD.  The construction of the Colosseum began in that year.  We have the writings of Josephus, Suetonius, Livy and Juvenal, among others, for proof.”

For me, the most interesting aspect of the tour is the visit to the Jewish hospital on Tiberina Island.  During the horrors of WWII, the Nazis occupied Rome (1943), a young Roman Jewish doctor named Vittorio Sacerdoti, took matters into his own hands.  He invented “K Syndrome”.  He named the so-called disease after the German commander Kesselring.  As individuals came to the hospital for refuge, they were admitted as patients and told to “cough and cough”. 
Tiberina Hospital

Dr. Sacerdoti told the Germans that that particular ward was filled with patients suffering from this mysterious,
airborne disease.  He said that the Germans “fled like rabbits.”
    “You see,” David says, “the Italians were disgusted by the war, fascism and the Nazis.  They rallied to the Jewish population and hid many of them in their homes; at great risk to their own safety and lives.  Out of the 8,000 Roman Jews, 1,000 were deported and 1,000 were denounced.  The rest were saved by the Gentiles of Rome.”
    “Why do you think the numbers are so high compared to other countries?” I ask.
    “I think because we value the same things—food, family and tradition.”

“And the Vatican?” I ask.  After all it is the font of all things Catholic.  “How does it tie into the Jewish history of this Eternal City?”
    David’s eyes twinkle in amusement of my ignorance. “Oh yes, especially the Sistine Chapel, if you can believe it.  Michelangelo studied the Kabala and you can see its symbolism all over the chapel.  But if you want to know more, you really should take the tour, after hours.  And read Professor Doliner’s upcoming book The Secret Jewish History of the Vatican.


© Michelle Lynch December 4th 2010

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