August 2, 2013

Our Dinner with Roy

Colosseum by Roman moonlight
Packing for our trip to Rome, we messaged a friend who had spent time there. “Any tips?” we asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Go for dinner with Roy.”

If anyone has ever seen the movie My Dinner with Andre, they will know what we experienced.  We arranged to meet Roy at a kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto.

 It turned out that Roy was an American who fell in love with Italy, art history and archeology. He dedicated his life to this passion, becoming a world- renowned expert on Italian art and Michelangelo and is the co- author of the book Secrets of the Sistine Chapel.

Our table was outdoors on a bustling cobble stoned street. We ate authentic Roman Jewish cuisine and toasted with a Chardonnay from the Golan Heights. We felt at home.

“Do Jews live here today?” we asked.

He answered that the Jewish Ghetto is now a trendy neighborhood. The kosher restaurants are filled with native Romans who are not necessarily Jewish as these eateries are known to have some of the best food in the city.

“Did you know that many Roman dishes are actually from the Jews?” he asked.

“You are eating 2,000-year-old recipes,” he said, as we crunched on a fried artichoke Hebraica style.

Roy with my daughter Aviva.
Roy is an expert on the Sistine Chapel. Not only is the local expert an Observant Jew, the priests often ask him to translate Latin. We asked him how this happened and he explained that after many visits to the Vatican as a guide and countless hours spent staring up at the ceiling, he started to notice some unusual details in Michelangelo’s paintings.

He researched and discovered that Michelangelo had a strained relationship with the Pope who commissioned the Sistine Chapel. The painter also felt bitter about the power and corruption in the Church during those times. Then Roy discovered that Michelangelo, who was originally from Florence, grew up learning Jewish mystical texts.

Aided by this background history and the help of a co-author who had an indepth knowledge of the Tanach ( the Jewish Torah and writings of the Prophets), they deciphered the art. The result is a fascinating story of Dan Brownesque mystery and intrigue. Roy has earned the respect of the Vatican as one of its best tour guides. He takes dignitaries on tour and speaks worldwide as an authority on the subject.

“Do you tour the Vatican wearing your kippa?” we asked.

“Sure,” he answered. “I wear a white kippa as it is easier for my group to spot me in the crowd. I am proud to be the only one wearing a white head covering in the Vatica---aside from the Pope.”

We asked Roy about whether Jewish law permits Jews to tour churches and he explained that there were differing opinions, but the Ramban said it was fine. We had gone to the Sistine Chapel earlier in the day, drawn by the beauty of Michelangelo's art, and not for the religious significance.

We talked and we talked, suddenly hearing the clinking of glass. Waiters folded tablecloths and rearranged the tables. It was just like My Dinner With Andre. 

Fountain in the Jewish Ghetto
We walked along the ancient street, our footsteps echoing. At the end of the road were ruins, soaring columns backlit  by a full  moon. Roy explained that these were the remains of a Colosseum, the blueprint for the larger Colosseum we had seen earlier in the day. It was also once a theater, the place where Roman dignitaries gathered and socialized. 

Below were ruins that looked like ancient stalls.  This was once Rome's fish market. Being a fishmonger was one of the few jobs that was given to the Jews. We imagined the thick crowds milling in the Ghetto,  the fishy smells, the sounds of chopping, of scales creaking of coins clanking. 

It was all eerily silent, yet these cobbled alleys, carved stones and ancient recipes are a testament to Europe's oldest Jewish community.

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