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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