In search of Rome’s Great Synagogue

Rome's Great Synagogue (Miriam Porter photo)

After dozens of smiling selfies within Rome’s famous Coliseum, I am ready to keep exploring this fabulous Italian city.

Miriam Porter with the Coliseum (Miriam Porter photo)

Ancient Romans called it the Eternal City because they knew Rome would always remain standing. Touring the third most visited city in Europe is like exploring an open-air museum without admission prices because there are ancient ruins, colossal remains and magnificent monuments everywhere. There are countless sites worth visiting in Rome, but with less than 24 hours in this magical destination, I’m on a mission to find the famous Great Synagogue of Rome. Officially called Tempio Maggiore di Roma, it was built in memory of the demolished Roman Ghetto, where Jews were forced to live until 1870.

I am traveling on my first tour with Intrepid Travel. Our experienced local leader took us by train from our first stop, Venice,  through Bologna, Florence and San Gimignano, with stops in charming small villages off the beaten path. She taught us the history of the land and how Italy’s past has shaped its future. I had a blast with my new friends from the group, but decide to explore Rome solo.

Equipped with paper maps and cold water (it was over 40 C) I set out to find the Jewish community. Navigation is not my strongest quality, so I wander the streets in awe of Rome’s impressive monuments, archeological sites and Italian designer stores. But hours later, I am completely lost, as usual. My Italian is limited to ordering food (Sono vegano!), so the first few people I approach asking for directions to the Jewish quarter turn into a friendly game of charades with me acting out biblical scenes from my Hebrew school days.

I am a hot and sweaty mess and about to give up and walk into an air-conditioned market. I approach an Italian-speaking cashier and I hold up my blue Star of David necklace and say “Jewish” with exaggerated facial expressions. She understands! She points around the corner and I rush off.

Within minutes, I see a young man with a kippah. I must be close! I follow him down cobblestone streets detective-style trying to be inconspicuous. Finally, the Hebrew writing is literally on the wall and I rejoice. There is music playing and I walk past a friendly-looking man with a furry white rabbit on his shoulder who’s strumming an old guitar trying to earn a few euros. Colourful apartments, veggie kiosks and boutique shops line the streets. Kosher cafés and restaurants are getting their patios ready for dinner.

Although it’s my first time in Rome’s Jewish quarter, it feels oddly familiar, like I belong, despite it being a different continent.

Rome has been home to Jews since the second century BCE, many of whom likely arrived as messengers sent by Judah Maccabee, making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.

Today, approximately 13,000 Jews live in Rome, as opposed to the 2,000 to 3,000 Jews who lived here in 1555, when Pope Paul IV established the walled ghetto.

A kosher sign in the city’s Jewish quarter. (Miriam Porter photo)

I stop outside an adorable shop selling Judaica, souvenirs, pasta, kosher wine and mezuzot. Nonna Betta is a family-run business that has sold Roman treasures for three generations. The owner’s son, Michele, explains that his mom runs the gift shop and his dad runs the kosher-style restaurant nearby. He invites me to the restaurant to see the large replica paintings on the walls of the old ghetto before it was destroyed. Michele invites me to try famous Roman deep fried artichokes, a dish that dates back to the 16th century, but I have a synagogue to find, so I decline.

Outside, I spot several on-duty Italian police officers. Since 1982, the Great Synagogue of Rome has been under continual police surveillance, after terrorists targeted the building. I have finally arrived at Tempio Maggiore! The towering majestic pillars glow from the shimmering setting sun. Construction began in 1901, when the first stones were laid and completed by 1904. Designed with Greek and Assyrian architectural motifs, the Great Synagogue of Rome is a symbol of freedom for the local Jewish community.

I march to the black gates protecting the synagogue and press my face to the front like a kid outside a candy store. I circle the synagogue twice, but can’t find an opening in the gate. Reading the sign, I suddenly realize I’m too late. They closed half an hour ago. I sit on a bench and imagine what it must be like to walk through the grand doors on Shabbat. I admire the stained glass windows and Hebrew writing set among Greco-Roman architecture. There is a Jewish museum inside explaining the history of the Ghetto of Rome in the 16th century. Exhibits include a gallery of ancient marbles in Hebrew, 900 fabrics from the ghetto age, Jewish-themed objects and a visually reconstructed city.

I smile and whisper a grateful prayer towards the Tempio Maggiore. Now I have another reason to come back to Rome besides the fried artichokes.