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Shavuot in Rome, Italy

Contributed by: Nava Billet | Last Date of Travel: May/June 2009


I thought people might be interested to hear about Shavuot in Rome.

I stayed in a small suite next to one Synagogue, Bet Shmuel, on Via Garfagniana  (pronounced Gar-Fan-Nyana). It is a small shul, with congregants mostly of Libyan descent; they came to Italy after 1967. There is one man from Jerba (a small island off the coast of Tunisia with an interesting Jewish history) and he is louder than all the Libyans put together. None of the women come at night but they do come to shul during the day.

The first night we ate a meal at a family named Naccache. They own a kosher bed and breakfast which I recommend you visit! They’re a very sweet and friendly family with children about my age. We communicated in English and Hebrew. They are very funny… I told them that I know how to make chraimi- a Libyan dish that I once ate in Great Neck– and they fell in love with me! (The next day after shul they invited us for dinner again.) They heard I was a rabbi’s daughter and I was given the task of giving a dvar Torah…

For lunch on Shavuot we ate at a family named Guetta. They had their whole “chamula” (extended family–maybe Arabic–they did not describe themselves as a chamula it is a word I picked up in Israel, used by Morrocans) over. They had a lovely ground floor dining area in an apartment building. It looked as I’d imagine an ancient Roman courtyard would look. There was a large area with sculpted heads spitting water into sinks coming out of the wall and a small lap pool adjacent to the courtyard. It had a large open dining area which led into the kitchen.  The husband is Italian and the wife is Israeli– another pattern I noticed– A lot of the Italian Jews in Rome find a spouse in Israel, then they either come back to Italy or move to Herzelia.

The major dish eaten by Libyans on Shavuot is a traditional dish called Bazin. It consists of some sort of boiled dough, a thickish onion/tomato sauce with potatoes and meat. (People compete to make the best Bazin.) Apparently the dough is supposed to represent Mount Sinai… then I heard another explanation based on the Hebrew spelling, that it is a gematria of Rashei Tevot (acronym, in Hebrew)– the letters represent

Bet = 2 Tablets

Zayin = 7 weeks from Passover to Shavuot

Yud = 10 commandments

Nun = 50 days from pesach to Shavuot

I’ll skip now to Shabbat day. I attended a synagogue near the main bus/train station–Estacion Termini, called Oratorio Di Castro; it houses an Italian minyan in the main sanctuary and a small Ashkenaz Nusach Sfard minyan in the basement. I tried out the Italian minyan. It was a little hard to follow (especially from the balcony–and there was quite a bit of talking). They had a bar and bat mitzvah in shul, which made the service quite long. The sanctuary was beautiful (I had time to notice many details): colorful and vibrant. Stained glass windows showed Torah scrolls that match the ones stored in the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). The Torah scrolls, externally had an “Ashkesfard” look. But when they were opened it was in the Ashkenaz style. The floor was painted and the ceiling had several different geometric patterns with menorahs interspersed in the design.

We ate at a family named Arbib. They had many guests and are known in the community for their hachnassat orchim (hospitality) and by no means fell short of their reputation. They are a beautiful family that clearly loves life and people.

General thoughts: I was surprised and impressed by how many people speak Hebrew. I was able to communicate more with adults in Hebrew than in English. The children/ my generation have a working English and Hebrew language versatility.

Overall, great impression of people. Weather was pleasant. I like Libyan Jews. My Italian had improved a little over my trip but had a setback on Shabbat  because I spent time with the elders of Bet Shmuel most of the afternoon (while my friends napped); I never knew if they were speaking Arabic or Italian. I studied excerpts from Proverbs and Ruth with them and it was quite enjoyable (they eventually switched to Hebrew so that I’d be able to follow).

Ciao for now,