A year ago, I came to Rome to work on my next book, take a break from New York, and enjoy la dolce vita — decidedly alone.
The day I arrived in the city, lost and bedraggled, I asked a stranger on a motorbike for directions. He was wearing beat-up jeans and had a devilish stare. Over coffee I learned that the mysterious stranger, with his hand-rolled cigarettes and arrogant charm was also… Jewish. David was an “Anav” — one of the oldest Jewish families in Rome.
I grew up in a strong Jewish home in Massachusetts, but my connection to my Jewishness had faded. After 18 years in New York, chasing excitement and success, I lost touch with my religious identity. I was always proud to be Jewish, but it all felt rather irrelevant.
And yet, when the Anav family graciously took me in, opening the majestic double doors to their beautiful Piazza Bologna apartment that first Shabbat and making me feel ever so warm and welcomed, suddenly it all felt very relevant.
Roman Jews are neither Sephardim nor Ashkenazim. They are Roman. Their Hebrew is almost unascertainable. It is belted out loud and fast, with thick Italian accents, and at the end of Kiddush they happily shout, “Hazak!” (Hebrew for “strong.”)
They don’t know Yiddish, although meshuga, has made it into a conversation or two. They don’t eat — and some have never heard of — bagels, and the name “Larry David” doesn’t ring a bell. Their services are impassioned and amplified (a wild assembly of gossiping and davening).
Jewish life in Rome centers on the historic ghetto — a neighborhood that is equal parts familiar and fascinating to me. The big synagogue emanates an upbeat message of Jewish solidarity. It was there that David’s mamma and I first spent time alone. It was Yom Kippur, and I arrived wearing all black while everyone else was dressed in white. I felt uncomfortable and anxious. When I found Edith sitting in the balcony of the “old-school” synagogue, she had saved me a seat, and waved me over without any hesitation. Our stomachs growled as we prayed side by side.