NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

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