When I was a student attending Sunday school on Long Island, my favorite session was music. I was a music major in college, and am a lifelong vocalist, so this is not a surprise to anyone who knows me, or to anyone who hears that I am on the Executive Council of Prism now that I live in Boston.
I remember hearing Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" for the first time in that Sunday school music class; a song I sing with a college duet partner to this day. Another song that made an impression on me is Rabbi Larry Milder's "Wherever You Go, There's Always Someone Jewish". It was a funny little song with lyrics that illustrated that wherever you go, there is always, in fact a way to connect to your Jewishness. I saw glimpses of that message as I moved on from my parents' house, my synagogue, and my Jewish friends. When I got to college, I sought out the five other Jews I could find at my music school in upstate New York. There was something comforting about hearing the cello in a tiny synagogue play the haunting melody of Kol Nidre and about relating to other Jews and sharing inside Jewish jokes and celebrating the same holidays in a place where being Jewish was the minority.
Recently, my husband and I took a fabulous dream vacation to Italy. As I mentioned before in my Passover blog post, we are foodies through and through, so Italy was a culinary heaven for us. We, of course, ate pasta and drank wine, and saw the sites that everyone sees like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Michangelo's David and the Grand Canal.
In Rome, after seeing Chapel after basilica, we made the effort and took a rather long stroll to find the Jewish ghetto along the Tiber River. Neither of us speaks great Italian so getting directions from locals was tough, but as soon as I saw the street sign Via Gerusalemme, I knew we were in the right place - it was a language I understood. We had arrived to the ghetto toward the end of the day on Friday so there wasn't much activity, but knowing that there was a place on Jerusalem Street that sold falafel in Rome made me feel like I was somehow closer to home.
We traveled from Rome to Florence. We devoted one of our four days in Florence to seeing all of the incredible museums including the Galleria dell Accademia where David lives and the Uffizi Gallery which houses the Medici family's artwork collection, including Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". The Uffizi is a maze. The tour book states that one should allow at least 4 hours to see everything in this museum; I will advise that you'll need 4 hours to see the gallery and another hour to find your way out of it! I was in one of Raphael's rooms admiring yet another work depicting baby Jesus when I overheard a woman say to a man, "ma zeh?"
My ears perked up. What's this? This was not the Italian I had been hearing for the last week. This was something I recognized. I tried to make out what the couple in front of me were saying, but my Hebrew is a little rusty. I tapped the woman on the shoulder, as if we were old friends, and said, “are you speaking Hebrew?” She said, "ken" and then asked in Hebrew if I spoke Hebrew. In English I said, not really. The man with her asked if I was Israeli and I laughed and said, if I were my Hebrew would be better. Then we shared our feelings on how crowded and confusing it was at the Uffizi Gallery. I went to find my husband to tell him my excitement about meeting OTHER JEWS IN ITALY. In addition to seeing the amazing David sculpture, the two Israelis I met that day were the highlight of Museum Day in Florence.
From Florence we took the train to Venice. We had shortened our stay in Venice because Florence was just too beautiful to breeze by. We only had one full day to spend in Venice. We analyzed the map to be sure to include the Jewish ghetto in Cannereggio. We turned a corner and saw a restaurant with Gam-Gam Ristorante Ebraico Kosher emblazoned on the storefront and out stepped a man with a kippah on! It was right before the Sabbath (not sure why the timing worked out that way) so the Kosher bakery was bustling. Across from the restaurant was what looked like a Jewish school. Young children were playing outside shouting a delightful mix of Italian and Hebrew. There were elderly folks outside watching them play. Some wore kippot and some played bacci ball. The mixture of cultures and languages was absolutely wonderful!
We ducked into a Murano glass store looking for a mezzuzah to bring back home. We found a beautiful blue one that will be perfect in our new house. There were business cards pinned up on the wall from all the visitors to the store from all around the world. I located at least ten cards from the area where I had grown up on Long Island. I didn't see anyone I knew personally though, although I'm sure if we had played Jewish Geography, I would have found the connection in less than six degrees.
It occurred to me that you're never really a stranger in a strange land because..."Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish. You're never alone 'cause God made you a Jew. So when you're not home and you're somewhere kinda newish...the odds are don't look far - they're Jews just like you."