October 22, 2019

Roman holiday: Pesach vs. Pizza

Ever since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of an Italian honeymoon. Cuddling on a gondola, exploring ruins, feasting on pasta — those to me were the definition of marital bliss.

So when my husband, Sean, and I booked our post-wedding tickets for nonstop pizza in the piazza, we were rattled when we realized that it was going to coincide with Passover. Neither of us had ever skipped a seder, and we always tried to avoid chametz during the holiday. And yet, would canoodling in Italy be complete without noodles?

We thought hard, and instead of returning our tickets, we made a Passover plan that ensured both a unique and beautiful honeymoon.

We started in Venice a few days before the holiday and began to eat unlimited amounts of pasta and pizza, as well as visit the Jewish museum and the historic synagogues. My idea of Venetian Jewry previously had come from only “The Merchant of Venice” (not the best source material). Despite being ghettoized for centuries (and even inventing the term “ghetto”), the Jews of Venice had a rich, beautiful history and tradition. Unfortunately, we also learned of the dramatically fading Jewish life in Venice: the struggles to put together a minyan, the challenges of getting kosher food, and the community’s aging population.

Our next stop was Florence, where I had heard so much about the Great Synagogue (or Tempio Maggiore) — its iconic dome, rich mosaics and stunning stain glass windows. So before we headed out on our trip, I bought two tickets online for the synagogue’s community seder.

We traveled by train and arrived with only enough time to quickly drop our bags, change clothes and walk to the synagogue. We arrived as services were nearing the end. What I had forgotten was that, like nearly all historic synagogues of Europe, this one was Orthodox. Sean and I, both raised Reform, were separated and I had to sit along the side behind a mechitzah, able only to see most of the stunning building through a wooden-gated divider.

While my view was limited, it also was breathtaking — and not just for its beauty. The building was filled with the chazzan’s boisterous voice, children running around, and even disenchanted teenagers loitering in the lobby. This synagogue was alive — not a beautiful old relic, like so many of Europe’s other old synagogues.

As services concluded, the majority of the congregants left to attend their family seders. About 40 people stayed behind to attend the community one, which was held in the basement/community room of the synagogue’s administrative office building. Sean and I found a table with a few other English-speaking folks, including an American expat who had been living in Italy for 27 years and, it turns out, used to carpool to Hebrew school in Flint, Mich., with my former boss!

The seder was led by the synagogue’s rabbi and his family. Little of what was said was comprehensible to Sean and me since it was in Italian, but we got by with the help of our tablemates and the fact that the order of a seder in Italy is the same as one in Los Angeles — some wine, four sons, some plagues, some miracles, some more wine, next year in Jerusalem.

For the rest of our trip, which was all during Passover, we knew it would be impossible for us to keep strict observance. And considering that our love of pasta is what made us book our trip in the first place, we made the decision to not keep the holiday for every meal but to designate one meal each day as chametz-free. And there were little things that required little sacrifice — instead of getting our gelato in a cone, for example, we ate it from a cup. These sacrifices, though minor, kept us thinking about Pesach even as we spent our days touring the Vatican and exploring seaside villages.

It also helped that we spent the rest of our honeymoon trying to incorporate as much Jewish tourism as we could. Among our stops was Pitigliano, a small Tuscan village known as “La Piccola Gerusalemme” (Little Jerusalem). More than 1,000 feet above sea level, the village was once home to a small but thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years. Now, fewer than 10 Jews live in the city.

Still, the community’s historic synagogue, Jewish museum and ancient caves that once housed matzo ovens, a mikveh and wine cellars are the top tourist attractions for the otherwise remote and decaying mountain fortress. After a lovely tour, we walked into the gift shop and bought our first box of matzo, which had a sign in English that read “ancient bread.”

In Rome, we toured the Jewish museum and the historic synagogue located in the famous and thriving Jewish ghetto neighborhood. During the tour, I asked, “Is the shul Sephardic or Ashkenazi?” “It’s Roman!” the tour guide replied, explaining that Jews have been in Rome since before the Diaspora and so they predate the concepts of Ashkenazi or Sephardic.

We spent that afternoon — our last in Italy — shopping in Judaica shops, where we met people who said their families dated back to the days of the Colosseum, when Jews were brought as slaves. As the curtain descended on our Italian-Passover honeymoon, I turned to Sean and joked, “We were once slaves in Egypt; then God freed us. We were once slaves in Rome; then we became tourists.”