The neck of my Guitar
Jerusalem Post Aug. 18, 2004

On a warm summer night, a full yellow moon illuminates the city of Rome. Sitting on the pavement in front of the Colosseum, alongside 600,000 Italians, I'm looking forward to hearing Simon and Garfunkel singing "Sounds of Silence" and "Feelin' Groovy." This free concert is the highlight of the summer in Rome. For a vacationing Jerusalemite, this feels like unmitigated tranquility. Still, it's so hard to leave Jerusalem fully behind. Groovy as I feel singing along with all those Italians, I feel a special wonder that more than half a million people have crowded these historic streets to hear two Jewish singers from Forest Hills. Right down the street, between the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill, stands the Arch of Titus, a Roman emperor's commemoration of his triumph over the Jews in their Holy Land. Until 1948, Roman Jews refused to walk beneath the arch with its relief advertising the theft of our Temple's menora and trumpets, transported to Rome.

That tragic event of 2,000 years past is so real to me that I have forgone meat, haircuts, and swimming for nine days, then fasted and read Lamentations. Earlier that morning in a Rome synagogue I followed the consolatory words of Isaiah, "comfort, comfort my people." All these Romans listening to Simon and Garfunkel are an additional comfort. Not that Simon and Garfunkel are giving a specifically Jewish concert. Still, it would be hard to mistake them for Italians, on this continent where ethnicity is rarely taken for granted. On a trip to Israel 20 years ago, Simon reportedly wept as he said how glad he was to be in the country of his historic forefathers. Garfunkel reportedly wanted to be a cantor when he grew up.

WAITING FOR the concert to begin, I think of the history of Jews here. The Jewish community of Rome is old and well established. For so many of our ancestors, Rome was a first landing place when they were sold as slaves after the destruction of the Temple, and again after the failed Bar Kochba revolt. Seven hundred Jewish youth had to march in the triumphal procession behind the emperor's carriage. But by the time those Jewish slaves arrived, there was already a thriving Jewish community in Rome. They mourned the death of Julius Caesar. The local Jewish community redeemed many of their brethren who arrived in chains, and started them on their paths to freedom and prominence.

Here, in the home of the Vatican, a community of Jews were ordered to be preserved, the so-called "Pope's Jews," as witnesses of the supersedure of Christianity. In July 1555 Pope Paul IV issued the bull Cum Nimis Absurdum, confining Jews to a ghetto. There were earlier Jewish quarters in Europe, but none created with the authority of a papal stamp. But despite the Vatican's culpability for anti-Semitism and for failure to protect Jews in the Holocaust, despite Benito Mussolini's alliance with Hitler, Italy has been a relatively hospitable place for Jews. One needn't feel embarrassed to admit vacationing there, as opposed to so many other countries in Europe. In the ornate Rome synagogue, my seatmate during the morning services - aunt of one of the two bar-mitzva boys - speaks proudly of her family being seventh generation Roman. She tells me how the Jewish community is growing. Lots of returnees to the faith, she says. All this in Hebrew.

Back in Jerusalem, you need to cross security barriers to take part in the Ben-Yehuda Street Hutzot Ha'ir - the summer fair of ethnic food and art. Armed guards patrol both sides of the promenade. For all the talk of European cities also being targets, there is no guard in sight as the legions of music fans search for sitting space. No one is checking bags. I feel a twinge of envy.

The concert begins about an hour after the stars came out, and in summer time that is quite late. But the crowd is patient. At last, the music begins. Simon and Garfunkel, both 62, still have those wonderful voices. They sing "Old Friends," even though their friendship has been notoriously rocky. Simon supposedly had refused to perform with Garfunkel for a decade. Their biographies refer to their "first split," their "second split," their "third split."

In 1983 they reunited in Tel Aviv, of all places. How nice that they are able to pull it together, singing in exquisite harmony and to interest an audience that includes so many young people who don't even speak English. What a grand example of reconciliation they are.

Suddenly, I realize that Simon and Garfunkel should be making one more stop on their tour, wrapping up their wanderings not in Rome but in Jerusalem. They could play in front of the Windmill, with the crowd taking seats on Keren Hayesod Street, down King George, up Straus, stopping short of Shabbat Square. There are only about 600,000 residents in the whole city. There were 600,000 Jews in the country in 1948; 600,000 adult males left Egypt in the Exodus.

I look backwards and forward and imagine all these people crossing the sea and singing, as they are now. "Bridge over Troubled Waters" sounds about right."

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