With Passover now upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to review the events of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur…Although we started on our second year in Italy this fall, it was actually our first High Holidays around these parts. Given Trofie Wife’s propensity for online research, we located all possible options for prayer, evaluated (er debated?) them, and then came to a decision with just a few moments to spare.
For Rosh Hashana, we settled on a Progressive community located in Milano, the distance being negotiable due to the holidays falling over the weekend. (For those unfamiliar, Progressive synagogues are affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism. However, they tend to grow in accordance with the character and practice of the local community and as such, can often appear more conservative than mainline American Reform congregations. In general, they are marketed as an alternative to Orthodoxy with few guidelines other than a commitment to pluralism and egalitarianism.)
We hopped the last regionale train on Friday night (nothing like Chef Express cuisine for an erev meal!) and then settled into a hotel located close enough to the synagogue, though closer to the happening canal- and nightclub-dotted Navigli neighborhood. From the synagogue’s Web site, we had a general sense of what to expect, but we were not prepared for the outpouring of welcome that met us inside. With apologies to any past, present, or future synagogue presidents that might find this post, the community’s president is by far the nicest (and most adorable) that could be created. The rabbi—who incidentally has a family connection to our little neck of the boot and couldn’t understand why in the world we would be living here—is one of those brilliant Renaissance-type characters. Not only is he a skilled orator, but on the side, he’s a classical instrumentalist of some note (with quite the pleasant singing voice), and from what we could understand of his sermon, quite learned (this hunch was eventually backed up by further evidence collected after Trofie Wife joined the synagogue’s e-mail list, where his weekly d’var Torah (which I usually shy away from after a page or so) includes at least 15 citations a pop in about four different languages).
The room was small, resembling an East Coast synagogue’s library or Hebrew school classroom, yet it was packed with a diverse group of Jews (and likely some non-Jewish family members) singing melodies new and familiar. We saw some rituals that neither one of us had encountered before (additional blessings around the Torah reading, widespread sheltering under tallits during the Priestly Blessing and other points), which we assumed were Italian traditions. The synagogue appears to mix Ashkenazi Reform, Sephardi, and Italianate practices, making everyone feel like a piece of their heritage is represented. We were not the only Anglophones to wander in—there was an Australian med student who knew even less Italian than we, yet she managed to snag the kind of High Holiday honors usually reserved for only the choicest members back over the ocean. When the rabbi’s gaze fell in our direction, I allowed Martello to take the aliyah alone because it seemed like there was a one-person-from-each-family rule, plus he could understand the Italian instructions better than I, but I’ll get him back next year.
Following kiddush, we took advantage of our time in Milano, enjoying leisurely strolls, finally scaling the Duomo (and incidentally running into one of Martello’s colleagues atop it!) and, unfortunately, making a bad restaurant choice from among the many along the canals, though recovering with some excellent gelato—the first of 5770. And amazingly, we ran into Martello’s colleague yet again that evening! We felt like we got to experience Milano a bit more than in prior short trips. Perhaps the most humorous sighting of the weekend occurred during a Sunday walk, when we viewed the owner of an adorable bulldog clean the via of his uh “pee-ah” with sparkling, bottled mineral water. Only in Milano…
Despite having found this fantastic congregation, we opted to stay closer to home for Yom Kippur, being that it was mid-week, and Trofie Wife does not fast well and prefers to manage the day in familiar (bed, bathroom) surroundings. Martello had visited the local tribe (which happens to be Sephardic in style, if not entirely in membership) before and knew what to expect, but Trofie Wife was expecting the worst (and Martello was waiting with his “I told you so” ready). Yet as much as Martello may have hoped it would, the moment for reciting it never came. An ardent congregation member around our age who Martello had met on his prior voyage was already on our case to come back the next day, and after I said I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be there but Martello probably would, the "Cheerleader" made blatantly clear that my presence was not of any consequence but Martello’s most certainly was. Well, with that, he lost at least one customer for Kol Nidre (yours truly; I stayed there physically but checked out in my mind) and two customers (or by his count, one) for Yom Kippur.
With a polite smile masking her bitterness, Trofie Wife disengaged from the conversation and climbed the steps to the women’s gallery, sitting next to two Israeli med students, who came and left quickly (some of their male compatriots could be seen smoking outside following official release. Classy). I was then left surrounded by a truly uninspiring group of devotees. The majority of the women up in the nosebleed seats were chattering away (though I noted that pant suits were acceptable should I ever return, so score one) and most of the men below in the privileged seats looked like they’d rather be undergoing a root canal. Martello was surprised that I didn’t storm the main floor and demand that we leave before the end of the service, but I figured that we weren’t going to make an earlier train anyway.
As the droning rabbi thanked everyone from coming from far away to be part of the community, it dawned on me that most congregants under 60 either lived in another city or, if local, never stepped foot in the synagogue any other time of the year and merely returned to pay homage to the congregation of their parents’ or grandparents’ youth, making it truly a memorial instead of a living spiritual home. It was a far cry from the scene in Milano, where everyone present seemed like they had made a conscious decision to be part of this specific community.
Upon our return from the city, Trofie Wife spent the remainder of Kol Nidre praying along with the online stream from New York’s Central Synagogue. We spent Yom Kippur in a synagogue of our own creation, surrounded by a variety of religious texts, thoughts, and streaming services. Trofie Wife enjoyed a variety of sermons, some from rabbis I once knew back in youth group. While certainly not the way our ancestors celebrated, it worked for me, and allowed me to get a little taste of everything. Speaking of taste, we broke our fast with a nice pesto pizza. (Despite Trofie Wife’s mastery of bagel baking and the local availability of lox and cream cheese, I just cannot bear to be in a kitchen preparing food when I cannot eat it.)
During Martello’s first visit to the community the Cheerleader had lamented that most Jews were leaving the area and that’s why the community was shrinking. Perhaps the shrinking isn’t tied to a geographical exodus but instead a distaste for current communal practices coupled with a typically Genovese (as we’re learning) inability to introduce reforms that mess with traditions of any kind, be they related to food, religion, or paperwork. Incidentally, pluralism has been a growing topic in the Italian Jewish community with a large forum taking place just prior to Pesach, and it looks like our Milan-based synagogue is sprouting a new branch in Rome. Who knows; maybe Genova will be next! In the interim, I have my streaming shuls!
Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie