Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

Roman time

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In April of 1943 in Warsaw, Czeslaw Milosz looked at the Warsaw ghetto under assault by the Germans.  He saw Jews murdered, going up in flames, not in some small village in a distant forest, but in the very center of one of Europe's great cities just across the way from one of Warsaw's wonderful carnival-like parks and gardens.  Milosz could not understand how a whole city could enjoy life while a part of it was murdered, consumed in fire.  For precedent and meaning, he reached back hundreds of years to another great city and another such place in his epic poem Campo di Fiori.

In Rome on the Campo di Fiori

Baskets of olives and lemons,

Cobbles spattered with wine

And the wreckage of flowers.

Vendors cover the trestles

With rose-pink fish;

Armfuls of dark grapes

Heaped on peach-down.

And why bother repeating the tale when Milosz does it so poetically? Just one fact unmentioned in his poem is necessary.  Giordano Bruno was considered a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church.

On this same square

They burned Giordano Bruno.

Henchmen kindled the pyre

Close-pressed by the mob.

Before the flames had died

The taverns were full again,

Baskets of olives and lemons

Again on the vendors' shoulders.

And so, Milosz reminds us that in places filled with life, beauty, and color, brutal murder can take place without so much as a curious gaze from those who are having such a good time. And then he returns to Warsaw.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori

In Warsaw by the sky-carousel

One clear spring evening

To the strains of a carnival tune.

The bright melody drowned

The salvos from the ghetto wall,

And couples were flying

High in the cloudless sky.

 

At times wind from the burning

Would drift dark kites along

And riders on the carousel

Caught petals in midair.

That same hot wind

Blew open the skirts of the girls

And the crowds were laughing

On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.


Four hundred and twelve years later the Campo di Fiori is still there in Rome.  Its vendors are still hawking flowers, and rainbow cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.  Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.  He was not the first put to the torch in this Italian campo, flush with life, color and food.  On September 9, 1553 wagonloads and wagonloads of the Talmud and many other sacred Jewish texts were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori by order of the Pope.  For decades a complete edition of the Talmud could not be had anywhere in Italy.  

Today, in the Campo dei Fiori, next to the statue that memorializes Giordano Bruno, is a simple plaque set in the cobble stone pavement.  On this bronze plaque are engraved two quotes from earlier Jewish incinerations.  When Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion was burnt at the stake by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 1937, he was wrapped in a Torah scroll.  As he and the Torah scroll were consumed in fire, Rabbi Hanina declared:  The parchment is burning, and  the letters are flying in the air!  The second quote is from an elegy written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg who, upon witnessing the incineration of the Talmud in a Paris marketplace in 1242 declared: Sha'ali, serufa ba-eish… You sacred scrolls and Talmud texts consumed in fire, inquire after  the welfare of those (the Jewish People) who mourn you. Heine wrote, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."  Today in Rome on the site of the incinerated Giordano Bruno and the Talmud, there is a plaque.  Europe is surely filled with memorial plaques.  It is a continent breaking  under the weight of memorial plaques for martyred Jews, destroyed Jewish communities, and awful events in Jewish history.   Rome is home to the oldest Jewish memorial plaque.  When Titus was victorious over Israel and destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, he built a triumphal arch in the Forum in the year 82 to celebrate his victory.  On it is a bas relief, an ancient "photograph" of Roman soldiers  carrying the Menorah and other sacred Temple vessels to Rome.  This is the first and oldest of what was to become the most enduring literary creation of European civilization, the premature obituary of the Jewish people.  These are the times of Rome, from 82 to 1553, to 1600; and lest we forget there are now small bronze plaques in the pavement outside the homes of Roman Jews sent to Auschwitz in October of 1943.

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