With a twinkle in his eye, my grandfather liked to ask us, “What do you say to the Pope on Yom Kippur?” Then he would divulge the answer: “Good yontiff, Pontiff!”  (Yontiff is Yiddish for the Hebrew yom tov, meaning simply ‘good day,’ but signifying a holiday.)

My grandfather, whom we called Papa, passed away in 1968. I was sixteen and not particularly concerned with Jewish-Catholic relations, so I never asked my grandfather what he thought about Vatican ll, the council that from 1962 to 1965 reshaped Catholic rituals and opened inter-faith doors.  I don’t know if my grandfather’s delight in his joke bespoke affection for the Pope and appreciation of the changes taking place or if it was just the joy of wordplay.

On January 17th, Pope Francis paid a formal visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome, the third pope to do so in modern history.  It was quite an occasion. While reading an article about it in Ha-Aretz, I watched a wonderful short video


and then found my way to the nearly two hour version. This had me mesmerized for nearly an hour:


Before entering the synagogue, the Pope placed wreaths at memorial plaques for Holocaust victims and for a boy of two who was killed when the Palestine Liberation Organization attacked the site in 1982.  Then the pontiff strolled amiably with a gray-haired man in a yarmulke and with a stylishly dressed, youthful woman.  I wondered, “Is this the rabbi and perhaps a woman on his staff, or his wife?”  Then the Pope spent nearly 15 minutes moving through the synagogue, shaking hands with everyone he passed by.  He seemed to be genuinely interested in meeting the people present, an elegant crowd whom we would identify as Modern Orthodox; many yarmulkes, few beards.  As the Pope schmoozed, the cantors sang; except for the organ (rather than an orchestra), we could have been at the opera.  Finally the Pope ascended the bimah, where he greeted the cantors, all of them in white robes.  (Evidently they have the same costume designer.)  Once the Pope and the Rabbi were seated, the young woman we saw earlier went to the podium.

My very limited Italian comprehension was acquired singing Italian art songs in high school and watching Fellini films in college.  Still, I could catch enough of the woman’s speech to stay glued to my computer screen.  It turns out that she is Ruth Dureghello, who just last summer, at the age of 48, became the first woman to serve as president of the Jewish Community of Rome.  In contrast to the smiling and cheerfulness of the Pope’s arrival in the scola (the shul), Ms. Dureghello’s address was the heart of seriousness, focusing on anti-Semitism and terrorism, which of course the Pope also addressed in his gracious remarks.  Some moments in the president’s speech especially caught my notice.

When the speaker made reference to Pope John Paul ll, she followed his name with the Hebrew phrase, “Zichrono l’vraka” (May his memory be a blessing).  We usually employ this term when referring to departed members of a Jewish family or community, and it touched me deeply to hear it used in this inclusive way.  By honoring the memory of the Pope John Paul, the speaker brought honor on the community and the custom.

It was also charming to hear the pontiff addressed as “Papa Francesco,” somehow far more endearing than the English “Pope Francis.”  At the close of her talk, Ms. Dureghello spoke of hope, quoting a line from the prayer book: “L’taken olam b’malchut shaddai” (To repair and realign the world with the kingdom of God).  (You can find this at the 44 minute mark.) I felt that I was witnessing a moment of tikkun, a fixing, a realignment for Jewish-Catholic history.

While pondering this, I happened, coincidentally, to come across an article penned in 1862 by the German-Jewish intellectual Moses Hess and titled, “Rome and Jerusalem.” (The Zionist Reader, edited by Arthur Hertzberg, editor, JPS, 1997).  In contrast to the warmth in the Great Synagogue, Hess holds up Rome and Jerusalem as opposites, one representative of ancient oppression and the other of ongoing hope.  What would Hess have thought had he lived a hundred years and heard the news of Vatican ll?

In ancient times, cities had their own deities who became part of a regional pantheon.  As scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky has written of Ur in ancient Sumer, the city was a “locus of divinity.”  How our attitudes have changed!  These days most of us find spiritual nourishment in the nature rather than in society.  But seeing the Pope, the Rabbi and the President of Rome’s community go far beyond civility, into open expressions of respect and affection, can remind us of the holiness to be found in our great cities.

[For a more about Ruth Dureghello see http://alainelkanninterviews.com/ruth-dureghello/].

 Rabbi Naomi Steinberg

January 26, 2016