Even outings that start out secular end up rounding back to the church. The Villa Borghese gardens, the city’s beloved central park—where we watch boccie players and pedal a four-seat rental bike—is the former estate of a pleasure-loving cardinal who was a nephew of a pope. Daniel falls into a soccer game with some Italian boys, while Hannah and I check out the museum that occupies the cardinal’s white villa. We cruise by Caravaggios, Raphaels, and Titians, then stop dead in our tracks before Bernini’s amazing sculpture of Daphne turning into a tree to flee Apollo’s clutches.
If the church in rome is inescapable, you have to seek out Jewish Rome, which is concentrated in an area known as the Ghetto Vecchio. Our convent puts us within easy walking distance of this gritty collection of kosher butchers, Judaica shops, and restaurants specializing in Roman-Jewish cuisine. The most prominent structure is the square-domed Great Synagogue. An enormous oil-lit menorah stands outside the 1904 building the day we take an English-speaking tour and learn about the history of Jews in Rome.
They arrived as early as the second century B.C., and over the years their status fluctuated, depending upon the leanings of the pope in power—until, in 1555, Pope Paul IV cracked down, decreeing that they should be confined to a tiny walled area. Jews lived for over three centuries here in the Ghetto, the men allowed out at sunrise to practice the two professions they were permitted—money-lending and the sale of second-hand clothes—but required to return by sunset, when the gates were locked from the outside. Finally, in 1870, the walls were demolished and Jews were granted the same rights as other citizens—only to face Mussolini and World War II less than a century later .
Although few of the city’s 15,000 Jews live in this area today, it’s a magnet for roots-seekers like me. At Pasticceria il Boccione, a hole-in-the-wall bakery in a decrepit medieval building chiseled with Latin words, I buy nutty, cinnamony biscotti and a sloppy slice of luscious cherry-and-ricotta torte that in itself is reason to visit the Ghetto.
Our favorite meal of all is at the Ghetto’s tiny, hectic Sora Margherita, which we visit toward the end of our stay. We wait for over an hour, then we’re finally seated at one of the crammed- together tables and issued membership cards—the restaurant is a club of sorts; to eat here you first have to join, which involves filling out a form, after which a man in a tiny closet just inside the front door records the information by hand in a large ledger. I order buttery baccalà (codfish), a traditional Jewish dish. When our food comes, one of the owners, seeing that Steve hasn’t properly stirred his agnoletti into his meat sauce, bustles over and does it for him—a motherly gesture that makes us feel we belong.
In fact, Rome itself, with everything it offers both persuasions in our family, has made all of us feel at home. No, I didn’t convert, but I’m certainly sold on the idea of mixed families like ours dealing with the December dilemma by taking off on vacation. And, as a result of our trip, I feel more at peace with the two religions coexisting in our family. At Sora Margherita, we’d ordered both the regular Roman and the Roman-Jewish (alla giudea) versions of artichokes. The former is cooked in oil and garlic until soft and silky; for the latter, the whole bulb is dropped in bubbling oil until it turns crisp, the petals curling so they’re easy to pluck. The restaurant’s rendition arrived looking like a bronze cast of an exotic flower. The four of us decided we liked both. And, for our family, that felt just right.
Jane Margolies is the executive editor of T+L Family.