This was not my first Jewish holiday away from home. Studying abroad in London, my friends tossed crumpets in the Thames for Tashlich. Living in rural Thailand, my boyfriend and I constructed our own menorah out of materials from the hardware store, eating our homemade latkes with mangoes from the backyard instead of applesauce. In college, without the use of a real kitchen, my roommate and I broke our Yom Kippur fast with dining hall cereal hoarded from breakfast the day before. Those celebrations were full of love, but also yearning for a holiday at home, the smell of my grandma’s brisket wafting through her house, the eerie silence after the booming of the shofar on the bimah at the shul I’ve attended since birth. And all of those moments spent away from home, I had at least one other Jewish person with me. Someone to share that same longing for Matzo balls, or to say the motzi with. This year, traveling alone in Italy, each one of the 4,500 miles I am away from home felt even further.
As Rosh Hashanah drew closer, I decided to seek out some company. On Monday morning, I biked through the colorful streets of Parma, Italy, to attend Rosh Hashanah services.
In Parma, Catholicism is ever-present. Giant cathedrals and basilicas tower over the town center, dwarfing every building in their path. Church bells fill the air with powerful noise constantly, and the city usually associated with ham over anything else, so… not so Jewish.
Unsurprisingly, the Jews of Parma have a complicated history, first forced out of the city in 1352 when they were accused of spreading the plague. Small communities gathered and then dissolved over the next few centuries, depending on who was in power. At the height of Jewish life here, when the synagogue was dedicated in 1867, the city housed more than 700 Jews, but anti-Semitism and migration have shrunk the community significantly. Out of the 21 official Jewish communities in Italy, Parma is now the smallest. The head rabbi lives a few hours away in Milan. On a normal week, 15 people show up to services – in its entirety, the congregation is composed of no more than 30 people. In other words, there are more Jews in my family than in this entire city.
Tucked away in a tiny alley in the city’s charming streets, the shul very purposely blends in with its surroundings. The only thing differentiating it from the shopfronts and apartments that seem to nearly swallow the exterior is a small etching of the 10 commandments carved into the third floor.
Inside, though, the building holds a distinctly Jewish feeling. As I walked up the stairs and into the lobby, I could have just as easily been entering a shul in Tel Aviv, or New Jersey, or St. Louis Park. Teenagers clogged the building’s entryway, laughing and shushing each other. The little library smelled the same as the one I used to linger in as a kid when services ran too long. The chatter of the congregants, though using Italian voices instead of Midwestern ones, filled the room with the same warmth I have always felt in spaces that feel like home.
With the help of a semi-fluent translator and my pocket dictionary, I was able to decipher some of the sermon that morning. The rabbi asked us to think about what constitutes a “Baal Shem Tov,” a good name. Reverence? Discipline? Respect? Yes, he said, but also joy. Prioritizing joy is a way to show our appreciation for everything we have been given. Even when the world makes it difficult, it is our duty to remain joyful.
After only spending one morning with the Jewish community of Parma, I can tell that finding joy is something that they do well. Centuries of persecution have forced them out, year after year. But there they were on Monday morning, welcoming a stranger who barely speaks their language with laughter and kisses on both cheeks. There they were, staying after services to schmooze. There they were, dipping apples in honey, dancing, and clapping, adding the Shofar’s sound to the chorus of church bells in the city center.
I do not know what challenges the new year will bring to our community, but I’m sure there will be plenty. We will continue to fight for our right to peacefully coexist among our neighbors, to advocate for those with less privilege than ourselves, to stand up and march and pray with our feet. The Jews in Parma are few. Their future, like ours, is uncertain. But there they were, finding joy anyway. In the new year, I hope we can all do the same.