Our Identity, Our Politics

Rosh HaShanah Day 5780

“For from Bari shall go forth the Torah, the word of God from Otranto”.

In the Middle Ages, this famous play on the prophet’s vision of Jerusalem was so well-known it made its way into the famed Talmudic commentary of Jacob ben Meir, Rabbeinu Tam. Jews throughout the world knew of the importance of Otranto and Bari—two thriving trading hubs on the heel of Italy’s boot—both as centers of commerce and bastions of Jewish thought. As far as capitals of Jewish life and learning are measured, Bari and Otranto were to the Byzantine Empire what Chicago and New York are in America. It was therefore only appropriate to describe these twin cities as the Jerusalem and Zion of their day.

However, until recently, I had never heard of either Bari or Otranto. I knew nothing of the Saletine Peninsula [that Italian “boot heel”], or the modern region called Puglia that was once a thriving center of Jewish life. That is because, for most of the past 500 years, there has been nearly no Jewish life in that once-famed part of the world.

This summer, I had the good fortune of travelling to Italy and walking through the ancient walled coastal cities of Bari and Otranto. These beautiful places—along with the thriving Lecce, the charming Oria, and the breath-taking Santa Maria de Leuca—literally marked millennia of inhabitants; just in the city of Taranto alone, Greek columns were seen standing astride Roman ruins from atop a medieval fortress. Traces of Moorish Mosques were noted in the crypts of Catholic Churches.

But nearly every trace of Jewish life has vanished.

By my count, about ten remnants of the great Jewish history of Puglia are still in existence: six gravestones in a museum, one foundation plaque of a synagogue (now, turned upside-down, used as a support stone in the chancel of a church), a few found mikvaot (ritual baths) turned into a small museum on Judaism, and a “Quartiere Ebraico” of an inland town (with no Jewish inhabitants) marked at its entrance by the Menorah which serves as a symbol for its sports teams. I was not surprised to see so (Jewishly) little on my journeys. In advance, I had been explaining to people that I was visiting Puglia, “the capital of Jewish life and learning in the Byzantine Empire, of which absolutely nothing remains.”

When the time came for Jews to leave Puglia—mostly against their will in a vast series of expulsions after 1495—Jews carried their thriving Jewish commitment with them as they moved on to their next in a series of homes. Physical remains might have crumbled or been repurposed; it was a knowingly vain search I made for those. But remains of a far more important measure were not only what I myself brought back with me from Puglia; the remaining and continuing commitment to Jewish life and renewal was what brought me there in the first place. I was mistakenly looking for physical remains in buildings and city streets; instead, I should be seeing them every Sabbath when we continue to light candles, in every home where holy days are joyously celebrated, at the onset of every New Year when a community gathers—in any city—to renew our commitment to our tradition and ourselves.

When no remains remain, I have learned, so much remains. What remains is our inheritance: the vibrancy of Jewish life, learning, and tradition. And our commitment to keeping the flame of our legacy burning bright throughout the generations.

In this season of renewal, as we rush to greet the new year 5779, may our commitments and action ensure that our descendants will likewise be able to look back in appreciation of all that we bestowed upon them, of all that of our Jewish tradition that will always remain.

To say I wasn’t surprised by how few remains I saw is the flip side of admitting I found myself stunned by how much, indeed, remains.

Remains are so much of what you see throughout Italy, throughout Europe. Greek and Roman structures, Crusader Churches, medieval Castles and other historic building surround seemingly every turn. Depending on where you are, maybe you can find an ancient synagogue, or even a small Jewish quarter from some bygone day. Mostly, however, the inspiring remains of antiquity were those created by other cultures. It can sometimes seem depressing how little of our people’s history remains visible. It was sad for me to think of all that was lost in Puglia. Until, that is, I realized I was looking for the wrong kind of remains.

Rabbeinu Tam didn’t speak of great architecture going forth from Bari, or impressive synagogue artwork setting sail from Otranto. What inspired our ancestors in the Middle Ages was the learning that spread from these cities to the wider Jewish world; how these Sages and students interpreted Torah and brought Jewish literature forward into their own day was literally the source of this seacoast’s pride. While I am one of many who enjoys travelling to great centers of the Jewish past,
I need to remind myself that the past Jews who lived in such cities were far more proud of the learning they advanced and the traditions they maintained than they were of any archaeological achievement. What the Jews of Puglia wanted to build were thriving centers of Jewish life. That they did. And for that places with names like Otranto and Bari made their way into Jewish lore.

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