Imagining New Jewish Rituals on Tisha B’av

Nuovi Rituali Fun Goles (New Rituals in Exile) began shortly after I returned from a semester studying architecture in Rome in 2014. Upon returning home, I realized that I had left one of the most vibrant cities of the Jewish Diaspora without considering the Roman Jewish community or my identity relative to it. Later that summer, Israel was immersed in Operation Protective Edge and I found my newsfeed covered with increasingly polar viewpoints. Like many Jews, especially those of my generation, I began to examine the Zionist ideologies that I had subscribed to for most of my life as a Jew living in the Diaspora. In short, I was torn between the humanitarian values that I had associated with my Jewishness, and a Jewish state that I was predisposed to supporting, while becoming increasingly unsettled by its excessive use of military strength.

Amidst the social media war over Gaza, I happened upon a Tablet Magazine article by the poet Jake Marmer. Marmer describes observing the fast of Tisha B’Av while vacationing in Rome. Marmer sits with his family under the Arch of Titus, at the end of the Via Sacra, and looks up at a relief depicting the soldiers of Titus returning to Rome with the spoils of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. Rome celebrated this as an indicator of imperial strength; however, in Judaism, this event signifies the last point when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. In Jewish culture, the loss of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Diaspora are mourned on Tisha B’Av by fasting and reading the scroll of Eicha. In Eicha, the prophet Jeremiah writes about how Jerusalem fell out of favor with God because the behavior of its inhabitants had strayed from the city’s ethical underpinnings. He writes in chapter 1, “Jerusalem has greatly sinned, Therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, For they have seen her disgraced,” (1.8). And in chapter 4, “It was for the sins of [Jerusalem’s] prophets, the inequities of her priests, Who had shed in her midst, The blood of the just,” (4.13). As I read this, I could not help but see the eerie contemporary relevance of the text. The significance of the Arch of Titus and Eicha within the observance of Tisha B’Av became tools to understand and comment on the current relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

To grapple with these questions, I drew a set of new rituals that will precede the observance of Tisha B’Av in Rome. These rituals have architectural manifestations that stem from the spatial practices of the Jewish Diaspora, a sukkah for example. In the architectural community, this type of project is referred to as “paper architecture,” a means for presenting ideas that relate to the built world but do not necessitate constructing a building to achieve their rhetorical potential. This project is intended to inspire diasporic Jewish communities to explore the ways they define identity both spatially and socially. For more than two thousand years the Roman Jewish community has been a part of the Roman city, but also of a global network of Jews. I see the way that Roman Jews exist in the Diaspora as relevant to all Jews, and I see the way that one community constructs Diasporic identity as relevant to all peoples who exist outside of an ancestral homeland.

On the inner thigh of the Arch of Titus in Rome, a celebratory relief depicts Titus’ soldiers pillaging the temple in Jerusalem. In Judaism, the loss of the temple and the beginning of the Diaspora are mourned by fasting and reading the scroll of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, a holiday in mid-July.

With the design of three new spatial rituals that will precede Tisha B’Av in Rome, this project subverts the privileging of Jerusalem in the Jewish imagination, which is correlated to ongoing injustices in modern Israel. Additionally, this project celebrates the reality of Diaspora and local identity with three ephemeral and place-specific interventions.

These are each constructed by the community and deconstructed after two days to reuse the materials. The first ritual engages the Arch of Titus - the sign of Diasporic onset. An east-west axis, implying a connection to Jerusalem, intersects the Via Sacra at the arch, establishing a collision of Jewish and Roman narratives.

The axis-turned-walkway rises above the Roman landscape towards a metaphorical Jerusalem amidst a violent collision with the arch. The elevated position of this structure and its opaque envelope confront the problematic understanding of chosen-ness in Judaism and its resultant alienation from its neighbors.

The participant enters Jerusalem through an east-facing gate, the Lion’s Gate. But inside the enclosure, the occupant is blind to the outside world, similar to Jeremiah’s description of Jerusalem in Eicha. The participant wanders through a perpetual labyrinth, destabilizing the notion that a re-occupation of Jerusalem signifies an end to wandering.

Jerusalem converges with Rome at the southern leg of the arch. A panel of the arch is removed and a turning staircase is inserted inside the leg to disorient the participant as the two narratives entwine. The staircase leads the observer through the fragmented relief, fracturing the unitary path of the Jewish narrative into a divergent series of narratives across a new landscape. This is how I understand Diaspora.

The Diasporic landscape extends from the arch into Rome, gradually returning the participant to the ground plane as it weaves amongst specifically non-Jewish fragments of the classical Roman city. The landscape stretches between extensions of the Jewish and Roman axes rather than insisting upon a single path.

The second ritual draws upon traditions of overlapping Jewish and Catholic space in Medieval Rome, particularly in the nuances of daily life in the Jewish Ghetto, mandated on Tisha B’Av by Pope Paul the 4th in 1555. The ritual draws from two traditions of informal place-making: the prayer-house adapted to the Christian apartment, and the wedding processional commonly instigated in Roman Streets. Both use ritualistic objects to shift spatial designation.

This ritual is manifested by an open and directionless procession from Trastevere to the Jewish Ghetto Quarter, demarcated by yellow chalk on the ground and a diverse array of benches for gathering, bimot for discussing, and chuppot for rejoicing. The procession repeatedly passes between Jewish and Christian space, and across Tiber Island which has traditionally been a locus of overlap. During the holocaust, the doctors at hospital on the island saves the lives of hundreds of Jews by insisting that they had infectious diseases so the Nazi’s wouldn’t come onto the island. Currently, the small river island has both churches and Jewish minyans, as well as civic buildings.

At junctions between Jewish and Christian space, the threshold is marked by a screen of dangling cobble stones through which the participant must struggle. This highlights the tensions of Diasporic overlap and borrows rhetoric from an archaic practice in which Jewish vending stands were pelted with cobbles, signifying the re-designation of the street for Catholic festivals.

Where the procession crosses Ponte dei Quattro Capi and Ponte Cestio, wedding canopies (chuppot) blanket the public space and allow for the communities of Rome to embrace one another beneath one covering. The yellow motif recounts the Papal order that yellow caps must be worn by Jewish men in public space.

In more open areas, chuppot are accompanied by prayer benches and a multiplicity of lecterns to facilitate informal discussions between overlapping religious and cultural communities. This ritual broadens a medieval tradition in which Jews would present a Torah scroll to the Pope as a sign of allegiance.

The third ritual examines the worsening mistreatment of refugee immigrants in Rome and elsewhere in Italy. Last May, the informal immigrant settlement at Ponte Marmolo, home to Eritreans, Ukrainians, and Ecuadorians amongst others, was destroyed by Roman authorities who gave no warning to the 300 permanent residents of the settlement, who were all made homeless.

Illegal occupation is often tolerated for Italian citizens in Rome but not for refugees who require more protection from inconsistently applied and further marginalizing laws. This image shows an excavator reducing the homes of Ponte Marmolo to rubble.

To understand how security can be established for residents of settlements like Ponte Marmolo, the third ritual begins in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. A wall with towers is established to encourage the community to consider how Ghetto isolation has both protecting and marginalizing outcomes. The understanding of a wall that simultaneously protects and marginalizes relates also to the stockade walls surrounding Israeli settlements: a simultaneously defensive and offensive maneuver.

After two days, the towers and walls are disassembled and actively redistributed around Rome to refugee settlements like Ponte Marmolo. Diaspora is a widespread phenomenon, involving both temporal statelessness and persecution. But some Diasporic communities are in more need of protection than others. The redistribution of the wall materials reiterates this. [V’kitu charvotam l’itim, And they shall beat their swords into plowshares – Isaiah 2:4.]

Sites of immigrant marginalization are often far from the Roman center we imagine. While various diasporas might overlap, the socioeconomic geography of the city inhibits the Jewish community from empathizing with less secure diasporic communities.

In this distributive ritual, refugee communities are given a tower from the Jewish Ghetto installation. The tower serves as an identifiable symbol, providing each settlement with the means to not be invisible.

From the towers, residents of the settlements are able to see the bulldozers coming before they arrive, providing them with more time to protect and organize themselves than the city government allows. The stockade wall is delivered as a stack of parts, erected by the residents as they see fit. [Le ruspe stanno arrivando, bulldozers are coming!]

Through this redistribution of the mythologized ghetto and settlement walls, the Jewish community of Rome celebrates its own place in the Diaspora, while striving to dismantle the boundaries with other overlapping diasporas in the city. This, is Nuovi Rituali fun Goles, a new diasporic ritual.

This story "Imagining New Jewish Rituals on Tisha B’av" was written by Daniel Toretsky.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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