For someone living in a very sheltered and homogeneous religious community in Israel there’s something really special about visiting Italy. It’s not only the fact that one hardly sees Jews in the street or that everywhere you go there are churches and religious symbols (which is an issue worth discussing it itself). For me it’s the reality that there is hardly any Jewish infrastructure to depend on. I’m on my own. Of course in the main cities there are small Jewish communities and one can find a few Shuls spread around and even a Kosher restaurant here and there. The point is that I need to actively seek Jewish resources. They won’t automatically fall into my lap.
A Religious Greenhouse
In the town I live there are many Shuls on every street and of every Orthodox tradition and Nusach. There are countless religious schools, Seminaries and Yeshivas in the city. Every grocery and supermarket is not only Kosher but Glatt Kosher (and you can choose which Kashrut you’d like to bring in your home). Every male inhabitant wears a Kippa (and most wear hats and jackets too) and every women and girl is dressed modestly. There are a few exceptions here and there, but they are an anomaly. If you want to study Torah there are hundreds of different Shiurim (classes) a day in the city and if you seek a study partner there are organizations to match you up. One is totally immersed in Judaism whether you ask for it or not.
That is why I get a kick from occasionally going to a place like Italy. After a few days abroad where nothing remotely Jewish can be taken for granted, I learn to appreciate a bit more the spiritual luxury of living in a religious town in Israel. We had to bring our own Kosher food and finding a Minyan to Daven was a major challenge. I didn’t feel comfortable walking around with my Tzitzit hanging out of my pants. Walking around Venice and Florence with all the christian symbols made me feel far more Jewish than when I’m at home. Being immersed in a Torah environment can cause you to “forget” what being Jewish means because there is no “them” vs. “us” to remind us who we really are.
The Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness
Over 20 years ago I studied in the Kollel in Amsterdam (the ONLY Kollel and not one of the Kollels 🙂 ). Rabbonim from Israel would arrive in the city to collect money for their institutions and most of them came to visit the Kollel. One of them was Rav Moshe Aharon Stern zt”l the Mashgiach of the Kaminetz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He’d give us a pep-talk and I remember one of them distinctly.
In order to give us some encouragement for our decision to study in Europe, Rav Stern told us that there are advantages to living in Kiryat Mattersdorf in Jerusalem but also advantages to living in Amsterdam. Equally so, there are disadvantages in living in either place.
Living in the strictly religious neighborhood of Kiryat Mattersdorf (where Rav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg zt”l resided) meant that all your religious needs are met and there are very few temptations. On the other hand one might not have any “antibodies” to face spiritually damaging situations because you have no opportunities to develop an immune system. A child who grew up there could easily fall when he or she is confronted with religious challenges.
Developing an Immune System
Living in Amsterdam meant you had to struggle with many aspects of daily Jewish living. We used to drive every six weeks to Antwerp, Belgium (a 300 km round trip) to get Glatt Kosher supplies. If you missed the regular Minyan there generally wasn’t a second chance. I know people who avoided putting a Mezuzah on their doorway as a result of the Holocaust when 80% of the Jewish population was murdered.
When you have to struggle with your Jewish identity and face challenges every day, you develop a clear sense of right and wrong, “them” and “us” and one is a bit more “vaccinated” to some extent to overcome temptations.
Rav Stern remarked that this didn’t mean he was encouraging people to live in a spiritual wilderness because not everyone is built for the challenge, but if you do live in a place like Amsterdam. there are long-term benefits for the soul.
With Rav Stern’s words still ringing in my ears, it was nice being in the “wilderness” of the Roman Empire last month. For a few short days I felt so much more Jewish 🙂