My beautiful wife wrote a very heartfelt piece on our visit last week to the Sinagoga e Museo ebraico di Firenze (Jewish Synagogue and Museum of Florence). She framed it as her “Shiksa perspective”. As a companion piece to my companion’s piece (see what I did there?), I’d like to share my take on the experience.
The Synagogue was not on our agenda, nor had it been on my first visit to Florence many years ago. But this time, as the final day of our stay approached, I felt a growing compulsion to go there. It wasn’t far from our apartment and sort of on the way to yet another spectacular Florentine church (the Basilica of Santa Croce) where we were headed to pay our respects at the tomb of Michelangelo – and Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini… it’s one hell of a church!
I told Nickie that I’d like to visit the Synagogue and she was supportive without hesitation. As we approached, and saw the magnificent dome loom closer and closer, we started to notice a few kosher restaurants and some Hebrew writing in the shop windows. I was a bit surprised – and happy. When we arrived at the site, the first thing that struck me was the armed guard out front, a soldier actually, standing in front of his Jeep, cradling an AR70 assault rifle. We’d been in Florence for four days, visiting some of the most beautiful, iconic, priceless treasures in the world, but this was the first time we’d seen a gun.
There was just one person in front of us at the glassed off ticket window, a small chokepoint of an entrance with lockers and an airport security X-ray tube. The sign on the ticket window said, “We speak Italian, English, French, Spanish and Hebrew”. I said, “Boker tov. Shnai cartisim b’vakasha” (Hebrew for “Good morning. Two tickets please’). The woman looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t speak that language”. But the sign says….
No matter. We took our tickets, put our belongings in a locker and, one by one, we entered the X-ray tube.
The grounds were lovely and the edifice was quite impressive. As we approached the entrance, there was a wall to our left in the garden. My Italian language skills are basically non-existent, but I could make out that this was a memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the wall was inscribed with the names of the 248 Florentine Jews who were taken from their homes and sent to the death camps. Now, I’ve been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, so this “little memorial” barely caused more than a ripple in my hardened soul. I paid my respects and went into the Synagogue. It was a dark interior with very muted lightning, maybe a bit dusty and mildewed, not bright and polished like the Cathedrals and Basilicas we’d visited. But it was hauntingly beautiful. A little tour group of a dozen or so people noisily went by us. One thing we’ve learned on our travels is that more often than not, if a historical site is busy, you can just lay back for a few minutes until you find a brief lull in the crowd and you can have the place virtually to yourselves for a minute or two. We did.
The outer portions of the building, the tiny darkened rooms and staircases, contained a small museum, filled with precious artifacts and a handful of tourists. From certain vantage points, we could see downstairs into the shul itself and that became our focus. Once we entered the congregation, we found ourselves alone. It was absolutely breathtaking, as fine as any of the churches we’d visited. We wandered through the benches, the men’s and women’s sections separated. I noticed that the railing in front of each seat had a brass name plate, some old and tarnished, some newer and with a bit more luster. Beneath the railing, each seat had a small locked cabinet that I assumed held sidurim and talit (prayer books and shawls). A soiled tissue was on the floor. I frowned, then picked it up and put it in my pocket. From the back corner, we could hear loud talking in Italian and then giggling. I tried to ignore it but it persisted, growing into a crescendo. I couldn’t take it anymore and as I approached, I saw three people wearing name tags – they were employees! Using my handy language app, I said rather firmly (and maybe a bit contemptuously), “Silenzio prego. Questo è un luogo sacro. Per favore mostra un po’ di rispetto” – “Quiet please. This is a sacred place. please show some respect.” They looked at me with shock and what I perceived as disdain, but the look in my eye and the tone of my voice worked. They rolled their eyes, grumbled a little, and shuffled out of the sanctuary. I felt angry but, frankly, proud that I had stood up for myself, and for my people. From what I’d experienced these past several days, no church employee would dare exhibit such callous disrespect. None!
As our visit came to a close, we walked up to the gift shop where two other employees were chirping away as if they were in a cocktail lounge. Upon receiving my icy glare, the man hightailed it in one direction while the woman retreated into the shop behind the counter. I said to her, in Hebrew, “This is a place of quiet”. To my surprise, she apologized in heavily accented Hebrew and wished us a yom tov (good day). Upon exiting the building, Nickie went into the garden while I went around the building to take it all in. On one side, in the back corner, was a small blacktop basketball court/soccer pitch. Oh! So this place was actually an active Jewish community center. I walked around to the opposite back corner where I found a little children’s playground where I found myself picking up more trash. As I went back towards Nickie, I saw a window with a large child’s painting displayed in it. It was a Hebrew school!
That’s when I lost it.
After everything this community went through – a community dating back to the 1400s – annihilated by the Nazis, Jews still choose to live here, to raise their children here in the ancient traditions, under the shadow of one the greatest Synagogues in Europe. I walked back to the memorial, read all of the 248 names and shed a few more tears, tears for the people who died for one reason, and one reason alone – the senseless hatred of the blood that was in their veins – the same blood that is in my veins.