Rome and Jerusalem

Aaron Cohen image

The weather in Rome over Chanukah was mixed: sunshine at the Forum; pouring rain at Il Tempio, the main synagogue by the Tiber; drizzle at the Vatican.

I remember it was hot and sunny the day I shouted “Que bella Italia,” waving through the sunroof of the family's rented Fiat Seicento. It was 1961, I was 8 years old, and loved Italy at first sight—the weather, the people, the little cars with buzzsaw engines, the Coliseum.

That summer we sailed for Israel from the port of Brindisi, and I was introduced to the dichotomy between the Eternal City and the Holy City. At such a young age I was confused—which was which?

Forty-six years later my wife and I decided to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary in the city of Caesar and the pope. Returning as a man I understood what my parents wanted to teach me as a child. Western Civilization is beautiful, but we Jews have a special place.

Over the years I’ve spent much time in Israel, wandering the Old City and the Temple Mount, climbing Masada, communing with the ancient Torah scrolls from Qumran, and passing by the Central Bus Station at Yavne. The Hebrew of the Shmoneh Esrei and the Hebrew of the No. 18 bus both resonate.

From the ruins of Jerusalem I learned about the empire that crushed Judea and cast our people into 18 centuries of affliction. I also learned where to get Kosher for Passover pizza in Tel Aviv.

Rome, like its pizza, its wine and its Pantheon, is thin-crusted, full-bodied, and filled with style and grace. The past pokes through con gusto in every piazza. So this was the seat of our nemesis and the author of our bane? This was the capital that carved the face of Western history? What wealth, what power, what greatness. What ruin, what dust.

Rome rising, Rome falling, Rome reinvented under the cross.

What genius, what wisdom, what cruelty, what evil, what beauty.

One could say ancient monuments are silent, their people and purpose long vanished. But Rome, like Jerusalem, is not mute; it calls across the centuries and speaks of the implacable engines of destiny: ambition, desire and faith.

“He who laughs last,” I thought, finally catching sight of the Arch of Titus, built to commemorate the conquest and sack of Jerusalem.

“You are gone, but we are here,” I thought.

Jerusalem falling, Jerusalem rising. Rome, the past; Jerusalem, our future. In another 18 centuries who will hear the call of all these stones?

Que bella, how beautiful, to be alive in the present, with nothing—and everything—new under the sun.

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