Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Chief Rabbi of Southern Italy

Friday night I set out to look for the synagogue here in Naples.  I had examined on Google Maps its location and the way there was fairly simple.

I walked to where I thought it was.  I was at the top of a cliff.  Huh, I didn’t see that on Google Maps.  The building looked like any other.  I went to open the door.  It opened a few inches and then jammed from a chain.  I could hear someone walking towards the door and calling to me in Italian.

A middle age heavy set matron opened the door a crack.  What little I could see looked like a house and not a synagogue.

“Dove synagogue?” I asked, trying to pronounce synagogue like I was Italian. My pronunciation wasn’t close enough and she sent me away from her home like the lost american tourist I was.  I walked five steps when she called to me.

“Ahhh synagogue!”  She sounded Italian.

She explained to me that it was just under the cliff.  I would have to walk around.  She gave me a bunch of directions in Italian.  

“Capito?”  she asked.

I hadn’t understood a word.

“Emmmm, ci ...”  I didn’t know how to say ‘sort of’ so I said “Sort of.”  She tried again, but then a fellow came out of the house who spoke a little bit of English.  He explained to me that I needed to take a left, go down the stairs, and then follow the block around.

Easy enough.  Easier said than done.  I spent half an hour looking for the stairs.  The street that I was on was about five stories above the crossing street that I eventually realized I needed to be on. Once I made that determination, it was only another ten minutes before I found the stairwell down.  I walked along a pedestrian avenue with lots of trees and less garbage than most in Naples.  

The cleanliness, the trees, the smell of pastries, pizza and gelato, and the bright shops in the evening created a Friday night festive atmosphere in the air around me.  I could see it in the way people held hands.  I could see it in the way they walked and smiled.  

I took a left heading towards the bottom of the cliff, and not surprisingly, got to a dead end.  I asked a guard at the entrance to an apartment buildings courtyard “Dove synagogue?”

“Qua, ... chiuso ... domani.”  Were the words I could pick out.  The synagogue is here, but it’s closed.  Come back tomorrow

I tried to ask if services were over or if they didn’t happen Friday night.  But the guard didn’t speak English so I couldn’t get an answer.

I tried “Tempo Domani?” Time tomorrow?.

“Nove.”  He told me. Nine, good.

The next morning I knew where to go, and I got there at 9:30 which was a little earlier than I like but not all that bad.  I don’t like to get to services on Saturday mornings on time since they’re so long.  But I got there and found they hadn’t started yet.

The chapel was beautiful.  Wooden floors and a high white ceiling created a brightness that was made formal and holly by the intricate work on the ark and the alter.

After services the rabbi invited me to lunch in a reception room with the other foreigners.  There was one couple there that had been on a Mediterranean cruise until their ship broke down.  Everyone was interested in everyone’s adventures and we all had stories to tell.

The rabbi appreciated that there were so many guests and that we had all gotten there so early.  Usually it takes much longer before they have enough people to start.  Rats, it meant that if I’m still here next week I need to arrive on time, and not even later.

The rabbi also wanted to get me on Italian tv as a Jew paddling from Naples to Israel in support of our people as opposed to the flotilla which had passed through Cyprus in support of Hamas.  I’m not sure if I’ll make it all the way to Israel, but that would be pretty great if I do.

I was invited back for the next week also, oh, and as for Friday nights, they don’t usually have enough people for services, but I should definitely come by.  At least they’ll feed me.

The rabbi here was also one of the founders of the service I had attended in Rome.  Apparently he was an integral part of building a culture of hospitality there, one which I enjoyed a great deal.  He is also trained as a physicist,  involved in getting hotels in southern Italy to have kosher kitchens, and building an eruv and mikvah in Naples.*  Even more interestingly, he has arranged with the local public transportation companies that Jews will be able to travel for free on the Sabbath, when they are forbidden from handling money.  In other words, he’s a righteous dude and I think he should be made chief rabbi of Israel.

*Making it much easier to have a devout Jewish family in the city.

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