updated: June 8,2003

Venice & Tuscany
Ah Venice, the city of romance- with three kids in tow!! Loses just some of the charm, but not all! We took an easy train ride from Rome (the Italian train system is amazing, very comfortable and affordable, and boy is it efficient, unlike the rest of the country...) and stayed in the thick of St. Marco. Venice was, by all accounts, the most overpriced and expensive city of our entire sabbatical. But it sure is beautiful,(we actually thought it was one of the, if not the, most beautiful of all the cities we saw) marvelous and you could shop till you drop, if you were a millionaire...It was hard to tear ourselves away from the glass, the shoes, the ties, the masks, but we did, again and again. We took lots of vaporettos (their subway system on the water), one on the Grande Canal (their medieval Fifth Avenue lined with palazzos) and one day we visited the small island of Murano where they have historically made and still make that gorgeous glassware. The kids especially enjoyed watching the glassblowers in action. We took a tour of what was the Jewish ghetto- the first ghetto in Italy-and the origin of the word ghetto itself (comes from the Italina word for foundry, jetto, which the Ashkenazi Jews pronounced with a hard g, turning it into getto). On Shabbat we went to the beautiful Sephardic synagogue where the community is so small theyve let the women come downstairs from the high balcony to sit opposite the men. A gorgeous tune for Lecha Dodi (which we heard again in Florence) and a lovely service. From Venice we entered the region of Emilia-Romagna to stay in the town of Modena. Little did we know that on that very week, the annual festival of parmagiano cheese and balsamic vinegar was being held in Modena! Local producers of the finest cheese and vinegar set up stalls in the main square (where, to our utter surprise, was the synagogue- more on that in a minute) and we tasted to our hearts delight. On that Monday little was open, as it was the Italian national Republic day, but every restaurant was having a balsamica food fest! We ate an unbelievable lunch buffet where everything, including dessert, was made with balsamic. The highlight was panna cotta (a kind of Italian creme caramel) with a cherrywood balsamic vinegar on top! Now when we have balsamic at home, its just great vinegar. NOT in Modena- there, its a passion. And, its aged 12 to 25 years so it becomes almost a liquour, and its 40 Euros a tiny bottle, around $55 US or $80 Canadian! Back to the synagogue, where we tried many times, unsuccessfully, to gain entrance. Its locked up tight, guarded by police all day and night. Its gorgeous, huge, from the 1700s, and must be quite a sight inside, but we are sorry to say we never got in. The community there is now so small nobody is ever around and you probably have to call months in advance to get an appointment to get in. From Modena we were fortunate to have found a travel agent who got us to a parma factory where we were able to see the process of making parmagiano cheese from start to finish. You must visit our album to see the picture of 20,000 wheels of parmigiano cheese in a row! We learned that parmiagiano cheese is ONLY made in the Parma region- anything else is a fake! It gets a stamp of authenticity that its the real thing and strict quality control guarantees its the best. We ate big chunks of it (with aged balsamic on top- heaven!) and are spoiled for life from the Kraft stuff. Our first stop in the Tuscany region was Florence. Mama mia-the whole city is one big art museum. Our necks are cramped from looking up to see fantastic art everywhere. The Ghibetti doors, the Uffizi gallery with Bottecellis Birth of Venus, and of course, Michaelangelos David. At the Uffizi we took a fabulous tour which really concentrated on art history, from the early Middle Ages to after the Renaissance. The kids felt like they had had three periods solid of art! It was fantastic, we all learned so much about Italian art in general and the famous pieces we were looking at. We spent a day in Pisa at the famous Leaning Tower, and found a synagogue there too- also locked up tight, no way to get in. So sad, that once these flowering Jewish communities are so decimated even a tourist cant get in to the see their splendor. We spent Shabbat and Shavuot at the magnificent 19th century, huge synagogue in Florence, a Moorish style setting that can easily hold thousands of people. Looked alot like an Italian Catholic cathedral, to tell you the truth, with a nave and a high sculptured pulpit on the left side. Unfortunately services were not equally impressive, they were rather small, unspirited, and dwarfed in such a big place. They have a three man choir which sounded almost Gothic in the cavernous unfilled space. It sure was interesting though. And now are in- you guessed it- Siena. The Siennas in Siena are causing quite a stir, everywhere we give our name for a reservation the person says, yes, this is Siena, and we have to say, no, our name is Sienna! Its like the famous Abbott and Costello routine, whos on first. Siena is gorgeous, very Medieval, and the food is fantastic! We are resting and just enjoying it, and we even got to see the synagogue here, which was open for tourists! Since it wasn't Shabbat, we were finally able to even get a photo! From Siena we are taking a one day bicycle trip around the Tuscany countryside and plan on a few days on an Italian Tuscan beach, before the (harsh) reality of re-entry on June 15th. Rome
On our first day in Rome we visited the colosseum. It is an amphi (meaning double) theatre, but is named for the colossus statue of Nero (only the foot remains in the Capitoline Museum). The floor was covered in sand (in Italian –arena) to absorb the blood of gladiators. (It was sometimes flooded to host mock sea battles!). Jewish slaves brought after the destruction of the Temple (see Arch of Titus below) actually built it- and many also fought in battles. Other slaves and prisoners of war were used – although some professional soldiers sometimes chose to be gladiators and the successful ones retired and were quite well off (I haven’t seen the Mel Gibson movie). The colosseum was the first propoganda machine- (I guess they didn’t have CNN), and Roman citizens seeing the power of the Roman Empire and the fate of gladiators must have thought twice about rebelling.
Nearby was the triple-arch of Constantine (often confused with the Titus Arch just a short walk further on). We had a discussion of whether we would defiantly walk under it- the image of Titus's soldiers carrying the Temple menorah has become an icon of the diaspora and is often reproduced (in fact a replica stands at the entrance of the Diaspora museum). Roman Jews in fact had a tradition to NOT walk under it- but our debate was academic since the gate is fenced (we assume to prevent grafitti). But we continued from there on a wonderful tour of the Roman Forum. We learned lots about the different buildings- about the vestal virgins, St. Lawrence, Julius Caesar, but one surprise was the beautiful regal purple marble from Egyt that the Romans favoured. So much so, it seems, that none of this marble exists anymore- as the Romans mined every single bit of it! We were surprised- we knew that animals and plants could become extinct, but here was an example of an extinct rock. I guess rock is a non-renewable resource.
Our next tour was of the hidden piazzas and the Jewish ghetto. The hidden piazzas are simply lovely fountains and buildings in Rome that aren’t on the list of the top ten tourist attractions, but still very interesting when the guide can tell stories of Pope’s with mistresses and other fascinating tidbits. Nothing remains of the Jewish ghetto in Rome- it must have been the equivalent of a medieval ‘shanty town’, and was completely demolished and large buildings now stand in the quarter. The entrance has a beautiful and imposing synagogue built in 1901 which also houses a small museum. The Roman Jewish community is interesting- as it predates the diaspora so they do not consider themselves Ashkenazic OR Sephardic, and their prayerbook is titled: Romani. We went to services on Friday night and Micah was a little scared when the shamash brought him to the front to stand by the Chazzan for Kiddush. Nearby is a church (identifiable with a large Christ painting and cross) but with Hebrew lettering; at first we thought it was a synagogue that had been converted. Reading the quote (from Isaiah) and later confirmed by the guide we realized what it was: a church that Jews were forced to attend- we learned that Jews put wax in their ears to avoid hearing the sermon- until they had to pay a fine for such ear wax!
We saw the famous Moses statue by Michaelangelo in the St. Peter in Chains church, and the Pieta in St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican. We were impressed that our Italian guide knew that his horns were based on the incorrect Latin rendering of 'keren' (horned with light instead of 'shone with light') and even knew the Hebrew! Of course, we toured through the treasures of the Vatican and saw the Last Judgment and the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with the Creation scene so often reproduced. While we were staring at the ceiling, a group of important church officials came in (with the colourful Dr. Seuss-like costumed Swiss Guard) to see the chapel. That was a very exciting moment. Baruch was here 25 years ago, BEFORE the restoration, though he doesn't remember exactly how it appeared. Certainly now, the colours are quite bright. There was some controversy over the restoration making the shading more cartoonish- but it certainly was impressive to see the artwork with the grime of 500 years removed.