Saturday, September 26, 2009

Italy 2 - eye of the beholder

Synagogue, Pitigliano, three Jews left

When visiting a place as rich in history as Italy, the tourist (the photographer) can follow his/her own religious or cultural inclinations and take a personal trail. On Rosh Hashana we shared apple, honey and songs at 'home' in a converted farm cottage in Montefesciano. Christians might look for churches, Moslems for mosques, we tend to look out for synagogues. In the Tuscan hilltop village of Pitigliano we found one, part of a sort of Jewish heritage centre in what was once known as "La Piccola Gerusalemme"

Here it was sobering to recall that 'ghetto' is not only an Italian word but an Italian invention. The Jewish community of 500 that shared the complex of synagogue, bakery, slaughterhouse, mikve etc were confined to these narrow quarters from the middle of the 16th century until 1871 when Italian unification also brought emancipation to the Jews.
There are shops nearby professing to sell Jewish food, consisting mainly of hard, round matzas. One shop carried this mysterious sign having to do with slow food but including the word 'goym' (translations welcome)

Mysterious sign

In the old photo below, Jewish women baking bread, or maybe those round matzas.

And so the pleasure derived from the scenery, the friendly people, the quaint old houses etc. becomes diluted somewhat by knowledge of history, especially when it impinges on your particular group.

And, suckers for punishment that we are, was it just by coincidence that we happened to book a B&B in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome over Rosh Hashana? Here the security was tight as the small community spilled out of the great synagogue in a hubbub of expansive Roman chatter.

According to Jewish Italy ,about 15,000 Jews live in Rome today. Neither Sephardim or Ashkenazim, they are called 'Romanim', tracing their Roman roots back to the second century B.C.E., well before the larger Jewish Diaspora. This makes them the oldest Jewish community in Europe. They have their own language, a mixture of Hebrew and Italian, and their own culture. Like Jewish communities all over Europe today, they and their institutions are also in need of security 24/7. We hung out with the locals along the Jewish strip of shops, cafes and restaurants understanding little but enjoying the proximity to a warm lively, friendly community.

By coincidence, Saed Kashua, the satirical Arab-Israel writer who writes in Hebrew and publishes a weekly column in Ha'aretz, wrote about the same phenomenon of being lulled into an Italian fantasy before being jolted into reality this week - only from the Muslim perspective (worth a read).

For more photos of Italy click here

Italy 1 - Differences

It's easy for someone coming from a Mediterranean country like Israel to immediately feel at home in Italy. The landscape resembles the Galilee, the Mediterranean menu suits our palate, the people are open and friendly. Given the outward similarities, the real points of interest are to be found in the differences. These images from a recent trip to central Italy (Lazio, Tuscana, Umbria) and Rome sparked some thoughts on how different we are but also on the howItalians appear to live in their towns and what, if anything, we might learn from them.

For example, the scene above (actually some sort of church statue shrouded in black cloth sharing the back of a van with some flowers) would not normally be encountered on the streets of Tel Aviv.

In Montefiascone, a town of about 13,000, a lady, dressed to kill, strides across a mediaeval piazza. In the background is an older less fashion-conscious local lady, and behind her, Il Caffe is a supertrendy, streamlined custom designed cafe-bar. Old-fashioned and high-fashion seem to coexist seamlessly even in this undistinguished provincial town, as in all the small towns we visited. This is a phemonenon one might find in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem but not in a town in the 'periphery' like Migdal Ha-Emek or Dimona. In Israel the Tel Aviv effect radiates only so far.

Locals congregate outside a bar in Pitigliano. The coffee/bar is an important community centre where old people can share a laugh, share the gossip - be part of things. Older Italians seem to take better care of themselves, and take greater pride in their appearance (although not in this photo) and to be more fully integrated into family and community than most older Israelis.

They appear to be good neighbours too. In the photo below a snazzily dressed gentleman of about 80 chats with a lady neighbour. Of course there are close neighbourly relations in Israel too but, as in much of the developed world, we are also increasingly closing in on ourselves and away from our neighbours and surrounding communities.

Lucky Italians, they have so much water, it flows liberally and constantly from their elegant fountains, their landscape is magnificent, their cultural heritage is rich and deep, their food a joy, their interpersonal relations a model. Unlike us Middle Easteners, they enjoy peace and tranquility. What more could they possibly need? (and why did God give it all to them?)

Lake Bolsena

Etruscan water fountain

But are they happy? No they're not.

A fairly recent Pew Research showed that the Italians are the most pessimistic people in Europe. Old people are those most dissatisfied with their lives, the economy is lagging and they are deeply concerned about corruption, crime and immigration. Only in the cultural field do they feel that the are superior. Go figure...

The eye of the tourist/photographer, is attracted by the patina, drawn to the picturesque but for the locals this is just the ordinary picture. Deeper currents pass unnoticed by the lens.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Workers rebuilding the tiled roof of the old house next to the rooftop. August.

Back to blogging, after another long break. Thanks to A for reminding me that I'm meant to be "archiving the city" and even for dangling the possibility of a mention in an important academic publication. I've also been taking a few more photos recently so here's a quick foray before we fly off the rooftop for a holiday.

Soviet/early Zionist style street art on Herzl this morning. September is art month in Tel Aviv and the ART TLV Biennale opened on Thursday. This wasn't one of the exhibits. We started by cycling down Rothschild Blvrd, one of several boulevards hung with hundreds of banners containing painting and photographs of Tel Aviv(for some reason can't find them now) . Then headed for the Betzalel gallery on Salame 60 where there was an excellent exhibition and we could wander into some of the studios of the resident artists.

One of the ARTTLV exhibition spaces was the cluster of Templer buildings at the foot of the mighty Neve Tzedek Tower. The theme had to do with urbanism (see site for details) and the totem pole like object in the foreground of the photo and the streams of tape hanging from the cassettes on the wall behind it (making a cityscape) are two of the exhibits. (guess you had to be there).

These old buildings have finally been restored as part of the deal that made the developers of the tower very rich. Under the original plans these three buildings were supposed to be for public use (such as the exhibition) but I hear that there are plans to rent them out as private cafes and galleries - we'll see.

This is what the entrance to one of the buildings looked like (taken from the inside). A few years ago we held a roudy, private Purim party in this same building (a friend connected with the project had the key).

Here's the couryard with the Templer building in the background and something artistic in the centre.

In Neve Tzek proper, the fight continues , the latest episode being another hearing of the District Committee , scheduled for Mondayto hear objections against devoting the planned Lieber building entirely to residential use without proper infrastructure. (See details below for Hebrew readers)

הזמנה לדיון בועדה המחוזית - מיגדל ליבר בואו להפגין ולהראות נוכחות בישיבת הועדה המחוזית, יום שני ה-14 בספטמבר בשעה 9:00 דרך מנחם בגין, קרית הממשלה, קומה 13 ת"א

Wall tile, Neve Tzedek, taken at twilight.

Last but not least, the wraps have come off no 6, upon which the rooftoop gazes, to reveal the first layers of plaster on this magnificent building. The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

Re-Remembering David Crosby

               We recently saw the film David Crosby: Remember My Name at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and as I write, I’m listenin...