2014 Religious Trends
Genuine Jewish Spirituality: Will We Jump Into the Water?
Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.
This June, I drove into Syracuse, in the southeast part of Sicily, at night. My hotel was on the island of Ortygia, the historic center of the city and a well-known tourist destination. Ortygia is a warren of narrow streets and hidden courtyards, and it dates to the ancient Greek period. Along with mainland Syracuse, the city at its peak rivaled Athens in both size and power. People of different cultures and religions interacted regularly in its bustling squares and markets.
In the dark, Ortygia seemed almost mystical. The sea wall that surrounded the island felt as if it were hemming me in for some unknown and private revelation.
What I knew for certain was that I wanted to see the old Jewish quarter and the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, that lay underneath it. While there is no organized Jewish community today, Syracuse once had a thriving population of Jews. The greatest influx of Jews took place after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and murdered Jews or expelled them from the land of Israel. Most of the Jews who settled in Syracuse lived in their own quarter (in Ortygia), spoke their own language (Aramaic), and observed their own ritual practices.
Immersion in the mikveh was one of them. It is a ritual that I observed myself.
On my first day in Syracuse, I walked into the Jewish quarter to the hotel where the mikveh was discovered in 1993; it had been unearthed during construction on the building and opened to the public only a few years ago. The mikveh is Byzantine in style and was probably built about 1,500 years ago, making it the oldest mikveh in Europe.
As I stood in front of the hotel waiting for the tour guide to take me below ground, a group of Israeli tourists suddenly emerged and stood next to me. Since I understood Hebrew, I listened to the conversation between the guide and the group. She spoke about the history of the Jews in Syracuse, the Jewish quarter, and the mikveh that was sixty feet beneath us. A number of the Israelis looked uninterested in her words. One man asked when they were going to get to the Piazza del Duomo (a much more popular and famous site); a woman said they'd been walking all day and that she wanted to have lunch. No one seemed disappointed that they weren't going to have time to go down to the mikveh, and the group soon walked on.
Here I was, purpose-driven and excited, a North American Jew who had decided to become a rabbi, standing silently and completely disconnected from a group of other Jews, Israeli Jews, who couldn't have cared less about something that enthralled me. The ritual and sense of spirituality that inspired me had virtually nothing to do with the land (Israel) and language (Hebrew) that anchored their identities. Mine was a spiritual identity while theirs was a national one, and I felt that a great gulf separated us. I had lived in Israel for two years in my twenties and I understood the power and pull of nationality, but as I had grown older I'd come to believe that Jews needed more than language and land to thrive as a people. After all, we had lived outside of the land of Israel for two millennia and managed to keep our identities intact.
Niles Elliot Goldstein is the director of development at the Center for Interfaith Engagement and the founding rabbi of The New Shul in New York City. He is also the award-winning author or editor of nine books, most recently Gonzo Judaism and The Challenge of the Soul. His work has appeared in many national publications, including Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Huffington Post. He lives in Chicago.