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Jewish Travels

Rosh Hashanah alla Romana – Susan Soloway

This year I spent Rosh Hashanah in Rome. I had already emailed the Great Synagogue, situated on the shore of the River Tiber, a few months earlier and was assured that I would be most welcome. No ticket needed. Shacharit starts at 8am.

I decided to arrive around 10am and hope that I would be able to get in. I needn’t have worried. After showing my passport and email to security, I made my way up to the ladies’ gallery, 4 flights up in this vast and impressive building. The synagogue is a little over 100 years old, having replaced an older building and was presumably arranged for an Orthodox congregation. Now, it is Conservative and has a modern prayer book, but women are seated in the gallery. There were about 30 women, in an area which must seat at least 500, and maybe 100 or so men downstairs, rattling around in a vast ground floor. They were already part way through the first Torah reading.

By 10.30, the women’s seating was full. By 11, the aisles, steps and area around the entrance was jammed solid. Many of the women wouldn’t have been able to see, let alone hear. I can in all honesty say that even with my seat near the front, I barely heard a word of the main service. I don’t know if the acoustics are better when you are downstairs, but upstairs all the words were swallowed up into the huge dome. Not only that, but the noise level, both amongst the men and the women was tremendous. Certainly most of my neighbours talked non-stop, not even bothering to whisper.

There were two moments, though, when you could have heard a pin drop. The first was the shofar blowing. This was unlike anything I have heard before. The blast was one long continuous note, rising and falling in wave after wave, maybe 30 times in the one blast. This was repeated twice more, with slightly fewer waves of sound. At each place in the service where the shofar was blown, this pattern was repeated. No one (except me, inadvertently) looked at the shofar blower, but turned aside or covered their eyes.

The other silence was during the duchening, the priestly blessing recited by a representative of the cohanim. I grew up with this custom in an Orthodox synagogue, when a member of the community, representing the priesthood, would cover his head with a tallit in order to become anonymous and recite the priestly blessings from Numbers 6. In Rome, the women immediately huddled together in small family groups, looking inwards. The grandmothers had their hands on their daughters’ heads, the daughters had their hands on their daughters’ heads. I was so absorbed in this that I forgot to look what the men were doing, but I assume the equivalent. The priestly blessing was extended by other scriptural verses. For each word that the cohen pronounced, the congregation responded with another Biblical verse containing that word, which meant the blessing went on for several minutes. At the end, a loud amen from the congregation and then the whole place erupted. Everyone went absolutely crazy, hugging and kissing their family and friends and wishing them Shanah Tovah. After about 5 minutes or more, the congregation gradually quietened (to the previous level of chatter) and the service continued.

At the end of the service, no Adon Olam (in fact, no singing at all during the service except when escorting the scrolls to and from the Ark), just a mad scramble for the door.

So an interesting and very different experience. But some things are the same the world over. As I climbed the stairs to the ladies’ gallery, I passed the cloakroom. There were two young women, taking off their sensible shoes in which they’d walked to shul and putting on 6” heeled platform shoes.

And second day Rosh Hashanah? A guided tour of the Vatican, of course.

Sun, 27 May 2018 13 Sivan 5778