Rosh Hoshanah in Florence. I didn’t want to go to the main synagogue because although it is incredibly beautiful, the service wasn’t what I was looking for. It is very orthodox, all in Hebrew and Italian, and the women are separate in an upper balcony behind bars,,hot, stuffy and too far from the “action.”
A few years ago, a group of Italians and ex-pats started holding Progressive Jewish services in a classroom of a local school. I made sure their schedule for the High Holidays was in our paper along with that of the Synagogue, and I decided to attend myself.
Saturday morning, I rode my bike to the “classroom”. There were maybe 25 people there. There was a small ark, holding a single Torah. We sat on plastic chairs surrounded by schoolwork and blackboards. An Italian gentleman, greeted us in Italian, and told us that the man who was supposed to blow the shofar wasn’t able to come because a friend of his had died the night before. Then he asked what I considered an absurd question. He asked if anyone there knew how to blow the shofar. The group present consisted of several tourists, who had heard about these services from our paper, or their concierge, a handful of Italians, a few ex-pats and a couple of students. Then a darling American girl of around 23 years old, from WDC, who was traveling in Florence with her parents raised her hand, and said she did. I looked back at her, thinking maybe she had picked one up in Sunday school, and would be able to play it at the level that I can play a kazoo, and the service began.
This wonderful man led the service. In real life, he’s a psychiatrist or psychologist. He spoke very little English, so there was a friend of his who translated. We all did the service, he would ask different people to read different parts…most of us didn’t know each other, but we pitched in, to read Hebrew, or English or Italian. We discussed the parshah in a mishmash of Italian and English. At one point Stefano forgot to wait for the Aliyah before he started the next parshah, and we knew to remind him. No one was “scheduled” to do anything, but it all got done. For the last aliyah, we were all at the Torah. Meanwhile, I was crying so hard that my friend next to me, remarked about what a bad cold I had (obviously, not a friend who knows me well).
In my seat, I kept thinking about the ceremony of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Up until my son, Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah, I always thought a Bar Mitzvah was a rite of passage, of a boy becoming a man. But I learned that the Bar Mitzvah was the time that a boy/girl takes on the responsibility for continuing the Jewish religion. I had my Bat Mitzvah when I was 51 years old, and experienced the joy and honor which come with this responsibility of knowing how to read the Torah, and how to lead a Shabbat service. I looked around the room, wondering and in awe of this religion. What is it that this unrelated group of Jews made sure they attended services. What is it, after 1000’s of years, that we do this? When I grew up in Detroit, we went to services because everyone did…all my friends, family, everyone was Jewish. In Florence, most of my friends are Italian, and even among the ex-pats, I only know two Jewish families. So why did I carve out this time from my life in Florence?
Then, time for the blowing of the shofar. The girl came up front, a little embarrassed, apologizing because she hadn’t done this since she was 13. And she blew the shofar, not just getting some sound out, for which we all would have been grateful. But she really knew how to blow the shofar, she knew the correct response to each incantation (sorry I don’t know what it’s called), and she was magnificent. We tell the story at Chanukah, of the oil that was only enough for one day, lasted eight. That what I kept thinking about when I heard the shofar last week. It was Rosh Hoshanah, the shofar needed to be blown, only 25 people there….I am Jewish from birth, I know a lot of Jewish people, friends, family, neighbors, teachers, colleagues, and I do not know personally a single person who knows how to blow the shofar. And at all the different services over the years, it was always some older man who blew it. Who would think? A young, hip, beautiful, American…..girl, in Florence for a couple of days? It was a miracle.