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A self-guiding tour of the Mediterranean

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In July, Esther was just setting off for her great Mediterranean adventure. She has yet to sort through her 1,000+ photos (no joke!), but she definitely has plenty to say about the trip. While her previous visits to Europe have been full of jaw-dropping cathedrals and art museums, she and her friend decided to see another, more familiar side of the Old World.

Toledo, Spain

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We found ourselves in the Jewish Quarter by accident: one tight medieval street led to another, and suddenly we spotted Calle de Samuel Levi—where else could we be? Turn left at the monastery and you see, above a high stone wall, a sign for Museo Sefardi, Sinagoga del Transito. Across the street was a little park, which ended with the most extraordinary lookout over the river, with a cliff on the other side. The place was special. You didn’t want to leave and you didn’t want to say anything. An Austrian traveler asked us to take her photo there, because she “love[s] the way the place makes you feel.”

We went to the museum the next day. The synagogue was built in 1366, repurposed as a church after the Expulsion, and restored as a Jewish site in the early 20th century, after long years in disrepair. The remnants of this great Sephardic temple were breathtaking. The exhibit itself, however, was off somehow. It wasn’t until I started reading the English translations it hit me: Spanish Jewry was being framed as a strange, dead culture just beyond the grasp of contemporary understanding.

The Jewish story was not presented by Jews or for Jews, and it showed. Case upon case displayed artifacts: small oil lamps from Israel, Roman coins from the age of Herod, shards of pottery with menorah reliefs, a glowing account of Toledo Jews by the Umayyid ruler; at the end of the small corridor was an Edict of Expulsion. History stopped in 1492, and save for some marriage costumes from the 19th century and a collection of modern religious implements (yadayim, siddurim, mezzuzot, ketubim), you’d never think another Jew had been spotted in Spain since. The text took no responsibility for the Expulsion, and made no mention of contemporary Jewry, or what the lessons of intolerance might teach us. According to this exhibit, the Jews had no bearing on modern Spain. These artifacts were a collection of curiosities.

At its height, the Jewish community in Toledo numbered in the thousands. We asked a docent how many Jews lived here now. One family, she told us.

Outside, in the rest of the city, every tourist trap is brimming with Judaica. Stars of David and menorahs are everywhere. You can buy beautiful Jewish-themed engraved woodwork and painted tiles and silver jewelry and damescene pottery. Toledo calls itself the Universal City, in honor of the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions within its boundaries. When we walked by the site of the Jewish Information Center, it was shuttered and empty, anti-Semitic graffiti (likely from the time of Operation Cast Lead) still legible on its walls.

Rome, Italy

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Everyone in Italy asked me if I was Italian (or they did before I opened my mouth and revealed my rusty command of the language). I always answered that I was American, but in Florence, the man at the leather shop next to Santa Croce took one look at me and asked if I was Jewish. He and his family, who owned the shop, were Jews from Morocco and Lebanon. He wanted to know where my family was from; I told him Lithuania, but with a caveat of an oral account of being Spanish or Italian, once upon a time. My grandmother’s last name was Sabad. “That’s a very Sephardic name,” he said, nodding.

Rome is small. The guidebooks are terrifying, because the options seem endless, but in the central city, nothing is very far apart. We set out from our hostel near the train station, and fifteen minutes later we caught glimpses of the Coliseum between streets. The Jewish Ghetto is right on the Tiber. The walls and gates are long gone, as are the original buildings and layout (gleefully destroyed after 1870, the year of the Emancipation of Roman Jews, the last in Italy still so confined). Four kosher restaurants occupy a street behind the main synagogue. We chose one at random; I ate the best artichoke I’ve ever had in my life, and that was just the appetizer. Our waiter was an Egyptian Jew named Shiri, and possibly the most gorgeous human being I’d ever seen up close.

At the Museo Ebraico, also the home of a living community, the security was tight: the memory of a terrorist attack in 1982 that killed a toddler has remained fresh. We had to search for an entrance, go through checkpoints, and we weren’t allowed to take photos of certain areas. The ticket included a mandatory guided tour; it was the only way to see the Tempio Maggiore, another triumphal edifice built high in 1904.

The Museo Ebraico was a vibrant experience, a proud display of points along a continuous Jewish experience. We learned that there are about 35,000 Jews in Italy, about 14,000 of whom live in Rome. About 4,000 of them are Libyan Jews who fled Tripoli after pogroms in response to the 1967 War. In the collection we saw incredible embroidered Torah covers, oral histories from locals, original copies of papal edicts outlining the rights of Roman Jews, evidence of Jews in Classical Rome, fascist-era letters and propaganda—clearly the list goes on.

I was struck by the weight the museum gave the Holocaust. Certainly it was a feature: one plaque in the ghetto lists the names of Jewish Italians who died fighting in the World Wars; another soberly memorializes the 235 students at this school who were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. Most haunting is the Nazi ransom on Jewish Romans, in which they promised safety in exchange for 110 pounds of gold, if it could be collected in 48 hours. Needless to say, the pact was not honored. Still, there is a joyous undercurrent to the Museo Ebraico; the most-mentioned historical event is not the Shoah but the abolition of the ghetto.

Jerusalem, Israel

Within minutes of reuniting with my aunt and uncle, whom I had not seen since 1991, I was laughing. My mom and my aunt insist they are very different people, but I saw them in each other: the way they moved, the way they held their hands, the way their faces changed as they listened and spoke. We spent a lot of time just talking and hanging out—in fact, one evening my aunt and I were up until 2 a.m., rambling like friends in a freshman dorm. My uncle smiled and reminded me that she doesn’t have a chance to gab like this: she doesn’t have any daughters.

My cousin was supposed to meet us at the Central Bus Station, but it was his girlfriend who showed up to collect us. I fell in love with her in about five minutes. Probably half my conversations with my aunt included her wondering when he would propose, and why he hadn’t yet. The four of us went out the night we arrived, my cousin, his girlfriend, my friend and me. I had sachlab and quickly fell in love with that too. By nature I’m a night owl, and even though we’d had a long day in transit, I thought I could get used to this long, late schedule.

We took it easy in Israel, after two breakneck weeks in Italy and Spain. We’d wake up, my aunt would feed us (and feed us… and feed us!), and then we would catch a bus, to see the Old City or the Dead Sea or wherever else we were headed that day. For whatever reason, I was more content to just hang out than actively record this leg of the trip, so the pictures I have of Israel are mostly of the Wadi David. In the evenings we’d have more meals and more conversation. Not only was it a relief after all that travel, but I began to feel quite close to my aunt and uncle and cousin. We all got along incredibly well, and I found myself wishing we could see each other more often.

Our last full day was a Saturday. We had seats on a 1 a.m. sherut taxi to the airport; I had to constantly refrain from thinking of it as a cheroot, which is a kind of cigar. I’m not used to consciously, regularly setting aside a day for relaxation. At home, Saturday is the day I get things accomplished, like writing or decorating or grocery shopping. My cousin and his girlfriend invited us to her apartment for the afternoon: she had assembled a gorgeous picnic, which we took at a little park nearby. It was quiet and peaceful, and after the food we all just lay there in the shade of the pines. I could get used to this too, I thought.

Three days after we left Jerusalem, my cousin asked his girlfriend to marry him. My aunt, of course, was jokingly aggravated that he hadn’t done so while we were there, so we could have had a party, but hey, all’s well that ends well. If schedules and plane tickets work out, there are worse reasons to visit than for a fabulously well-matched wedding.

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