Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze

July 10, 2017 at 7:29 am (Uncategorized)

I love seeing synagogues (or where synagogues once existed) wherever I travel to, be it Ashland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., Ribeauvillé, France, or Florence, Italy. They tie me to Jews around the States and the world, and each one has its own unique quality (or qualities) that I like to discover.

Some Jewish houses of worship outside the U.S. are open for tours, such as the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest (whose tour and grounds are spectacular and moving). Most, though, don’t offer tours, and they always are locked, have doors festooned with security cameras, and/or armed military or police personnel guarding the grounds.

I get it, but I hate it. I hate it because Jews’ temples and synagogues – like most of the world’s churches and cathedrals – should be places that are open for those who’d like to enter, to learn, discover, or even pray. For synagogues that are heavily guarded (inside and out) and open to the public, such as the Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze in Florence, they should beckon to the public, not turn away the curious.

Unfortunately, the latter was our experience at Florence’s glorious-looking synagogue.

I knew that at Jerusalem’s Kotel (the Western Wall), women and girls must dress modestly. That means covering legs and shoulders, and males must cover their heads. So I’d brought wraps for us ladies and a kippah (skull cap) for Dave.

At the Kotel, there are people prepared for the unprepared: They thrust kippot at the males and wraps at the “immodestly dressed” women for shrouding shoulders and legs. One may not like it, but these items (which are free and must be returned) ensure one is ready for visiting Judaism’s holiest site.

At the Duomo in Siena, and at the Vatican in Rome, women must cover as at the Kotel. (Men, however, don’t need to cover their heads). In Siena, volunteers inside the Duomo hand out free Flying Nun-type tablecloth things for women to tie around their necks. (Unflattering and odd to say the least. But their provision is a helpful gesture and appreciated.)

In Rome, just before entering Vatican City, the tour guides and police officers give fair warning to the female tourists about the cover-up dress code that applies once inside the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We knew the rules beforehand and so came prepared with extra layers for each of us gals in the Knudsen family. Always an opportunity for commerce, wraps were hawked by immigrants outside Vatican City’s walls. They weren’t free and definitely weren’t to be returned.

By contrast, at the Tempio in Florence, not one provision was in place to welcome visitors.

From the more centrally located Galleria dell’Accademia, the Knudsen and Jones’ families walked to the Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze. Each of us was interested in seeing Florence’s main synagogue, the non-Jews among us included.

Upon arriving, a sign indicates there is a small fee to enter. Only Alyssa and I wanted to pay to play, so we stepped up to the counter to do so. (To its right is a security checkpoint for individuals and bags. And outside the building’s grounds are police officers, their parked vehicles, and also heavily armed military personnel. All of them men.)

The man behind the counter and Plexiglas window took one look at Alyssa and me dressed in tank tops and shorts and said we needed to cover our shoulders and legs. We hadn’t expected this but I had two wraps in my backpack in case the Accedemia on this 95-degree F day was heavily air-conditioned. We wrapped our shoulders and then looked up expectantly at the heavy. He stood up to surveille us.

“No!” he yelled. “You cannot go in.” Alyssa then flounced out, understandably upset she was being kept from something dear to and a part of her solely because of her gender and lack of an extra layer. I held my ground and looked at the guy, quite surprised by his manner and still hoping to gain entry. “But I’m Jewish,” I said by way of explanation. His response: “Then you should know better. This is not a day at the beach!”

I felt like I’d been slapped. Like we all had been. I left shaking and mad. The modest-dress rules were not posted. The personnel offered no wraps. We were dead in the water.

I didn’t appreciate being told I was wearing the equivalent of a bikini and should have known modest dress was required to tour and view a historic place of Jewish worship. More than that, I was angry that easy entry was relegated only to euro-bearing males.

A Jewish house of worship should want to welcome guests (as long as they pass the metal-detector test). How else to foster a lesser sense of “The Other” and a greater sense of the physical and potentially emotional/spiritual beauty that Jewish institutions and Judaism itself offer? The armed-to-the-teeth militia would have swiftly taken care of any crazy meaning ill toward the Tempio (or the adjacent kosher restaurant and Chabad House). Instead, I left with my family and shocked non-Jewish friends feeling like I was the unhinged who’d done the synagogue ill.



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Museum as muse (of chaos)

July 7, 2017 at 4:21 pm (Uncategorized)

I should have known that when I first didn’t receive the promised email confirmation notice from the Uffizi’s online ticket-purchasing site, I should have double-checked we indeed had reserved slots. Home to rooms filled with works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Titian, and Michelangelo, and wide corridors lined with marble statuary on the floor and portraits near the ceiling, the Uffizi is considered a can’t-miss Florence destination. The Uffizi, on the bank of the Arno River, is listed as one of the top 10 museums on the planet.

I was there once before, in 1993 when a college student; I was very happy to return during this trip with an adult’s perspective. But I was disappointed with the visit. If you’re considering touring the Uffizi during tourist season, skip it. “Hot madhouse” doesn’t describe accurately enough the entirety of our visit.

First, one must follow unclear signage outside the museum to the line for folks with reserved tickets. We eventually found it, but then had to wait in that Tower-of-Babel queue for about 30 minutes, trying to decipher at least 50 other languages, before arriving at the window where we’d receive hard-copy entrance tickets. Uber-organized, I confidently handed the woman behind Plexiglas my printed-out confirmation information. She quickly informed me no such number or family name existed in her database.

I appreciated that she was fluent in English and very patient. But there were many things I didn’t appreciate. Such as that her mic didn’t work, so I literally had to press an ear to the barrier between us to eke out the majority of what she was saying. She kept fixing me with a rather uninterested stare, while repeating that there was nothing she could do for us, our confirmation number wasn’t in the system.

Poking at my phone, I called up an email from the ticketing website noting our confirmed status. I reluctantly handed her my cell through the Plexiglas portal. She scrolled up and down, up and down. Then turned to a colleague who took my phone. He scrolled up and down, up and down. Expressionless, he handed back the phone to the lady, who then returned it to me. I’m sorry that I can’t help you, she continued to intone, looking past me at the next stupid foreigner trying to see tons of uncircumcised penises carved from stone and more portraits of Mary and Baby Jesus than anyone can believe is housed in one building.

Finally, with Randy’s sage (and I’ve-had-enough-of-this) counsel, I requested (re)buying tickets on the spot so we could, at last, tour the museum. Sure you can! the lady responded. (Read: Anything to get you away from me.)

And so she printed tickets and then directed us to the next line in which to wait. Lest you think our first line – which snaked around one outer wall of the building – or this new line were organized affairs, you’d be wrong. All of humanity milled about, looking lost, confused, stupefied, and bent on seeing marble renditions of uncircumcised penises, come hell or high water. (“Hell” = bad choice of words given the religious nature of much of the Uffizi’s art. Scuzi.)

Eventually, we got to enter the Uffizi, go through a metal detector, decide whether or not to select the audio tour (we did. My advice: don’t.), and begin our non-linear, elbow-bumping, staid-air self-guided museum tour.

On the one hand, it was an amazing visit because one gets the privilege of seeing so many influential and historic works in one place, works that otherwise only exist on the pages of art history books. And on the other hand, it’s a frustrating experience, similar to being in the jostling Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. And on the third hand, it can be an enjoyably humorous experience. At a certain point, I simply stood back and observed the other museum-goers.

They wrestled with their recalcitrant audio-tour equipment, which resembled some of the first cell phones (and, if like mine, worked nearly as well). They squinted at placards in Italian and English, dejectedly realizing their native Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Malaysian, Mandarin, etc., didn’t help in their comprehension of what they were looking at. They sat along walls, looking bored as hell, diddling their cell phones. They snapped pictures of The Binding of Isaac, for example, while catching, too, other tourists’ arms, cameras, hats, and butts in the same frame.

Why make this effort? Because seeing 100 versions of The Annunciation in real life can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (As was viewing Michelangelo’s “David” at the nearby Galleria dell’Accademia, which we did two days later.) There is something absolutely irreplaceable about looking directly at some of the world’s most spectacular, original art.

Back in our rental, I thumbed through the owner’s French version of the Uffizi museum book. The room was quiet and had low light. I lounged on a very comfortable couch. Everything we saw at the museum was captioned and explained in straightforward text. I got to the end of the book, closed it, and sighed. Now that was a great Uffizi experience.

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Regello to Florence/Firenze

July 7, 2017 at 3:32 pm (Uncategorized)

“Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes describes the hills of Tuscany in incredibly accurate detail. I can say this, now, as we’re staying in a home via Airbnb in the Tuscan hills of Regello. It was 95 F on a recent day, and the rolling hills of recently harvested wheat, trees in seemingly every hue of green, and large homes nestled in and among said wheat and trees verily radiated the sun’s heat, down into the shady interstices that nurture myriad hens and cocks, the latter of which indeed crow at the crack of dawn.

Every view from the Knudsen-Jones hilltop is picture-postcard perfect. And in the cities we’ve had the privilege to visit – Florence/Firenze and Siena, as well as the small wine-tasting community of Greve in Chianti and tiny village of Villambroso – everything is beautifully appointed. The shop windows and shops themselves are inviting in their display of their wares. The painted, wood-slatted shutters seem from some film starring a young Isabella Rossellini. Whether its knick-knacks in Florence, medieval seals in Siena, or olive oil and grappa in Greve in Chianti, commerce beckons. At least the admiration of it.

And the vistas cannot be beat. Even Alyssa, whose nose was in a book or glued to her phone on many of our drives, commented on the stunning nature of what we were seeing, as well as a tavola as two families at dinner, on our patio. (Hayley had comments, but given her age of inching toward 14, many of them were critical and not about the scenery. They don’t earn quotes for this blog post.)

But despite all that is so wonderful to look upon and soak in, in this part of Italy, anyway, France wins. Maybe I feel that way because I can get along with such ease in France versus here, where people speak excellent Italian but often nothing else (or too little English to make a dent in any question to which I’m seeking an answer).

The drivers – whether of buses, trucks, farm equipment, cars, bikes, scooters, or motorcycles – are scary horrible. I cannot believe we didn’t witness deaths on the “streets” of our little village or those of the bustling city of Florence/Firenze or Siena. I put “streets” in quotation marks because most of them are narrow like licorice ropes, and many of them look to be pedestrian-only. But guess again: Here comes a tour bus! Jump outta way!

Laws guiding anything on wheels seem irrelevant, if non-existent. There are seemingly no marked passing lanes, for example. Because everyone just passes, willy-nilly. Around a hairpin curve. Over a hill. Around to an imposing farm vehicle, navigating a blind corner. At high speed. It is a spectacle I’d rather watch in a movie (which I have), than in the passenger seat (which I’ve done for a week now. Dave is an incredible and brave rental-car conductor. For me: no grazie).

Also, as noted before, the French stereotypically are rude-ish people. I didn’t expect to encounter that here. I expected more happy-go-lucky folks, tipsy on brunellos or chiantis, and relaxed by the sun’s warmth. Rather, whereas the French can be nose-in-the-air snotty, the Italians seem to have an edge. Not the same edge as the Israelis; the sabras are more “direct” than “edgy.” But an edge nonetheless. Perhaps it comes from driving very angry or having to constantly dart out of the way of angry drivers.

And there also is a grand sense of chaos here. Not the organized kind. But the milling-about, nobody-knows-which-end-is-up type of chaos. Maybe that fuels the edge.

Did we interact with lovely, thoughtful people, despite the language barrier? Absolutely. But we also encountered very brusque waiters, ticket-counter folks at museums who clearly detested their jobs, and shop owners seriously pissed I asked to use my card when it was a cash-only establishment (unbeknownst to me before proffering my card). Feh.

Want more specifics? Wait for or click to the next post.


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July 6, 2017 at 4:18 pm (Uncategorized)

In Calvi, Corsica, I nearly got eaten alive. And I loved every second of it. I’ll explain.

Corsica is a French island in the Mediterranean but has a history of being claimed at various times in its very long history by different factions of Italians and French, as well as the Romans before that. It has its own language, Corsican. It’s a craggy, granite island closer to the shore of Italy than France and directly north of Sardinia. It takes one and a half hours by plane from Paris to reach the 3,350 sq. mile island, and it’s a four-hour ferry ride from its northern tip to Livorno, Italy.

The island of about 320,000 permanent residents is a place famous for many things both edible and historic. For example, it’s the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and has a fruit native only to it, the cedrat, a cross between a grapefruit and an orange or lemon.

When a beginning French student – 30-ish years ago – I learned the remote island also was Napoleon’s native land. Ever since then, I wanted to see the place at least partly responsible for the man who eventually declared himself emperor. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to Corsica; it seemed out of reach and even too small on which to land a jet, let alone have an airport of its own.

In addition to Israel, our month-long trip always was going to include Italy, and we planned to travel to that part of the world with the Jones family. When piecing together our trip and poring over regional maps, I was reminded of Corsica’s proximity to Italy’s west coast. So I threw out a trial balloon that turned into the first part of our sojourn: Not one of us had been to Corsica before and everyone shared in my intrigue (well, a least in a little bit of it). So, we made it a destination.).

Dave secured a villa for the eight of us just outside the city center of Calvi, which is perhaps the second most populace city on the island of almost exclusively French-speaking people.

I was – how can I put this delicately – comme un cochon jouant dans la boue. (Read: Similar to “a pig in shit.”) I had to pinch myself each day of our eight-day stay: I once again was in France, practicing my French while lapping up the natives’, and I felt I got to touch history and a different slice of French culture.

What made it different? No offense mainland France, but on Corsica, the folks ARE NICE. And patient. And very helpful. We encountered exactly one rude Corsican, and it seemed her rancor wasn’t directed toward us but toward her job as a checker at the German grocery chain Spar. (Who wouldn’t detest that job?)

I was prepared at every turn to encounter folks unwilling to work through my accent until they could understand me. Rather, we interacted with people pleased to not have to attempt to struggle in English (nearly no one spoke English). They let us use the restrooms in their restaurants…even if we weren’t eating there but merely passing by with a full bladder. They let us enter their stores and touch their merchandise without the expectation we’d buy something.

We always got a cheerful, “Merci, bonne journee, au revoir!” whether we left a small store with its goods or empty handed. When passing people on narrow sidewalks, they’d make eye contact, smile, even say “bonjour”! This behavior caught me by surprise, again and again. In case I haven’t been clear enough, the French – in the majority of my experiences – behave the opposite of what we experienced in the parts of Corsica we got to visit. Was it the island mentality? Was it their tourism-charged industry that put them all in a hospitality-oriented frame of mind? Was it simply that Corsica is French but isn’t *really* France?

Like mainland France, the pastries are beautiful, scent entire streets from boulangeries’ open doors, and aren’t expensive. Also like mainland France, the people love their dogs; they go everywhere their humans do (the grocery store, cafes…), and said humans often ignore their precious dogs’ refuse. That irks me to no end. Especially in the heat wave that occurred during all but one of our days in Calvi. Ewwwww.

The other thing the unusual heat wrought was mosquitoes. At all times of day and night. I usually don’t get bitten by bugs; or, when I do, they’re benign and few and far between. But the Corsican mosquitoes were having none of that. Each morning I’d awake to new, red, itchy-as-hell welts and bites. Not one in our party was immune. Along with our pastries, we purchased bug spray and a lovely gel to apply after bites became angry. One morning, I emerged from bed to realize my exposed, bitten skin looked like the starry night sky. I got eaten alive. And I loved every second of it.


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Part V: The cats

July 6, 2017 at 4:07 pm (Uncategorized)

My husband once bought me the book, “The Cat Who Covered the World,” by New York Times reporter Christopher S. Wren. At first I thought it would be a silly read, but instead I raced through it. I loved the terrific journalist’s color commentary about the areas of the world he covered on his foreign-correspondent beat, all while he peppered his reporting with ditties about his family’s cat and her antics. At one point, the cat disappears (in Egypt, if I recall) and the reader hopes for the duration of the book that the cat will reappear, no worse for wear. Indeed, she does.

I’d wondered if the cat surviving its walk-about was poetic license on the part of Wren. How could a cat deal on its own, in busy places, without regular water, let alone meals?

Then, we spent a week in Israel (Tel Aviv, Caesarea, Masada, Dead Sea, Tsfat, The Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem). It quickly dawned on me how Henrietta, the cat in the book, did just fine on her own.

At Ma’agan Eden at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, at a mediocre resort that once was a working kibbutz, a kitty visited us in the cooler temps of the morning and evening. The girls quickly deduced by its rounded haunches and even the placement of its back paws that we had as a new buddy a pregnant feline.

It looked rough, maybe even a little Haight-Ashbury hippy; its claws never had been trimmed, and she clearly didn’t groom herself enough. Pieces and parts of desiccated plants were stuck in her coat. That didn’t stop the girls from paying it loads of attention and feeding it tiny bites of the meats we grilled, along with little pools of water…from our bottled water….not from the tap. Feral, the cat clearly didn’t have a single owner, nor must it have had a name. But she does now: It’s Ma’agan. If you go to visit her and her kitties, she might come when called (especially if you have a piece of kosher steak in hand).

In Jerusalem, we stayed in a terrific two-bedroom Airbnb that included a lightening-quick cook top, remote-control air conditioning, and a small balcony on which we dried our clothes (the apartment was furnished, as is typical of so many places outside the U.S., with a washer only). Our unit was part of a huge apartment complex in the center of the New City, just blocks from Jaffa Gate on one side, and a 10-minute walk to Mahane Market on the other.

The religious and secular cats of the city seemed to congregate in the complex’s outside foyer, where residents parked bikes and motorcycles, adjacent to a small enclosure in which to dump garbage and recycle plastic bottles (but no other item gets recycled there. Odd). The girls didn’t seem to have enough time in Jerusalem (three days) to tell apart the myriad cats, one from the other, so they never bestowed names on them. But every time we left our apartment and returned, the girls made sure the cats seemed happy; the girls found an area – by a tangle of electrical wires – where kind souls always left food and water, and they frequently checked it. Based on these cats’ very-loungy posture throughout the day, every day, they clearly were very well taken care of.

[Cat photo to be inserted here, once I have consistent internet coverage. Dave swore like a sailor throughout our entire trip due to unbelievably poor connectivity via wi-fi.]

And then on to Tel Aviv. It’s rife with cats, likely the majority of them feral. They reminded me a bit of the Hasids: They were everywhere and darted in and out of bushes, from behind light poles and garbage bins, from under cars and behind shady shrubs… And Hayley especially – but Alyssa, too – wanted to adopt each and every one of them. We really put our proverbial foot down and said no. We’re that tough.

(Teaser for next blog post: In Calvi, Corsica, three cats visited our rented villa, off and on [but mainly at breakfast and dinnertime]. A beautiful, sleek, gray, slinky number with green eyes the color of the Mediterranean at its most shallow, she didn’t have a name before the Knudsens got there. She now answers to Minerva.)









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