Letter from Rome: Incarcerated by Beauty
Alberto Lecco’s forebears are there in the shadows amid the startling beauty of Rome, clustered in cramped synagogues for centuries.
The bridge crossing the sparkling waters of the Tiber leads me to the hospital where his body lies. I am early for the funeral; Rome is just beginning to stir. The swarms of motor scooters, like angry insects, race past me along the river’s banks.
A clean-shaven attendant wearing a priest’s collar ushers me to the room where he lies. How much I had dreamed of his visiting me in Jerusalem, the twisting alleys of the Old City reflecting his never-ceasing wonder at the mystery of all creation. I move beside him and open a Book of Psalms. The words tumble awkwardly from my lips, pale, thin shadows of what lies in my heart.
I met him decades ago in an overgrown Turkish cemetery overlooking the Bosporus. Or perhaps it was on an overcrowded Greek steamer chugging through the Aegean Sea. Alberto Lecco, a Jewish Italian doctor who survived the Holocaust and became a prolific writer; an English-speaking iconoclast who rattled my provincial values. I followed him through the bazaars and winding back alleys of Istanbul, entranced by the conflicting currents that enveloped him—life’s breathtaking beauty against the horrors he had endured. And Istanbul, with its decaying majesty; its squat, bulky mosques; its manic, thundering traffic suddenly became a foil for his inner turmoil—praising, condemning, jibing the clusters of Turks while coaxing me with every gesture to grasp my Jewishness, to express it, explore it without shame, to embrace it as an intrinsic part of my being. Some inexplicable bond existed between us, as if in a previous incarnation we had been brothers.
Perhaps because of him, I found my way to Israel. Yet he himself returned to Rome, producing a stream of novels, essays and poems rooted in the engima of human nature.
“I believed in my own dizziness,” he wrote in My American Judith. “In delirium and temporal infinity, in our ability to live within it as in the womb of our earth crouched and waiting for nothing.”
All of which I was oblivious to as I grappled with the unyielding Israeli landscape. Alberto Lecco? A blurred figure in a distant world; a hypersensitive European Jew still sifting the ashes of a continent now sheathed in high-tech miracles.
The terror brought him into my life again. Week after week he called me; after every bombing, every shooting, every spasm that shook the land, my phone rang. His voice clung to me; even in the deepest silences of the night I could sense him, as though a thin, precious filament bound us together.
“Go visit him,” my wife said, appalled at my willingness to squat on my haunches until this tired, elderly writer honored me with a visit. “How long,” she asked, “since you’ve seen him?”
Twenty years. But I am a hard nut to crack. A sea of personal debts makes me balk at a trip to Rome. Yet his voice carries a disturbing flutter, as though he feels the Arab terror fueling the anti-Semitism now rife in Europe. As if since the Holocaust he has been searching relentlessly for man’s sanity. In his voice, some profound despair that made me throw off economics and make that leap across the Mediterranean.
We landed in Rome in the evening, at a small airport used by Italian military planes and an occasional charter flight. I moved toward the bus stop, large knitted yarmulke on my head, generating a sudden burst of tension: Italians on line for the bus all glaring, and I can almost hear them whisper: “That’s one of those bearded Jewish settlers!”
Hand shooting up to my head, echoes of long-dead Italian ghetto Jews emerging from my subconscious. The skullcap vanishes without a trace. Fifteen minutes into the Italian landscape, and the descendants of Titus have rolled out the red carpet.
The bus driver admits that he goes to the center of Rome, but he himself sells no tickets.
He points at the terminal building. “There. Kiosks.” He says he’ll wait another 10 minutes. I lunge out of the bus, leaving my wife and luggage behind. Kiosk to kiosk, I am doing a slalom run through the building. “Sorry,” I hear repeatedly, “just sold the last one.’’ My fingers do a quick check of my head; maybe it sprouted another yarmulke; maybe it’s the beard, or maybe I just smell Jewish. Then suddenly, my heart leaps in a flash of terrifying intuition: The driver lied about waiting! I pivot furiously, rush across the glassy floor, out the door: The bus stop is empty! My God! And the passports, the money, the tickets are with me. And she doesn’t even have Alberto’s address!
Legs pumping insanely, I dash across the road toward a cluster of taxis, ready to fork over 100 euros to chase after the bus. And then I see her beneath a street lamp, suitcases beside her. “You didn’t actually think I’d stay on the bus, did you?” So Israeli. Thank God.
Two hours later, we emerge from a stale-smelling, rattling subway onto Piazza Venetia: The startling beauty of Rome is concentrated beneath brilliant quartz lighting. Before me is the immense palace where Il Duce himself thundered. The walls glow radiant with power, with the seeds of ancient conquests as though Mussolini himself still roams the balconies, the Roman legions still clattering across the piazza. And
I suddenly sense Alberto’s forebears in the shadows, wrapped in their prayer shawls, phylacteries, clustered in cramped synagogues for centuries. Rome has welcomed me.
Alberto kisses me on both cheeks and I introduce my wife, Leah. Age has brought him changes, but the bond remains. I see in him a profound humanity, infused with an almost obsessive love of this city. Alberto and Rome are one. To understand him I must discover Rome, but my super-cheap charter flight allows me only 24 hours to crack the city’s secrets.
At daybreak, Jerusalem is gone from my mind. Leah and I are crossing the Garibaldi Bridge. On the other side is the neighborhood known even today as “The Ghetto.” The streets are narrower, the buildings plainer. During the Middle Ages, the Ghetto was small, surrounded by a wall with five gates; a crucible of disease and deprivation. I can feel Alberto following me as I walk along. His poetry echoes in my mind: “I ran the most desperate race ever run by man, along the streets of this hell, behind my child woman, behind my mother’s madness, and I myself became ashes.”
Yet the Ghetto contains its own astonishing twist: At the edge, the Lugotevere Synagogue rests near the banks of the Tiber. Its size, its beauty startle me, as though Alberto’s ancestors have somehow emerged from the sordid ghetto; giving birth to a Jewish Michelangelo, reshaping some vision of the Temple the Romans destroyed and planting it here, beside their glorious river. “My revolts,” Alberto writes, “were burning still beneath the ashes of ancient names.”
But the clock is ticking, ticking. Where to go now, to find the heart of Rome?
We are walking between massive stone columns beneath a vast colonnade. Other folks like us are moving toward St. Peter’s Square, lugging guidebooks and cameras, seeking some degree of piety. I peer at them, occasionally catching an eye. Where is the evil that brought my people such misery? They say an old man, dressed in holy vestments, perched on a balcony above the square signed the chit on deprivation, isolation. But when I get there, I see no one. On the rooftops, statues of the Apostles glisten in the sunlight. The view from the dome is breathtaking: courtyards, buildings, manicured greenery spread out endlessly in perfect accord. At that moment, I see through Alberto’s eyes the incredible harmonics of Rome.
Just one other place on my list demands a visit.
The sun is touching the horizon as we reach it. The gate is closed now with heavy chains. We move in a slow circle around the Coliseum, tiers of blackened, pockmarked stone arches like vast eyeless sockets. A temple of death; the soulmates of Titus delivering my people to shrieking crowds, to the starved lions and blood-soaked sands.
Around and around I go, along the tracks of my ancestors, and Alberto, in my mind, passing through his own endless night. “Who could give me back,” he writes, “the childish face of my death wish from the days of Auschwitz?”
The sun has set. The amphitheater is silent, without grief. I have come full circle.
In the morning, Alberto makes us coffee. He seems tired, older somehow. As if I have brought him a dark memory from those bitter ancient days. Outside a hard rain beats down. The 24 hours have passed. He phones a taxi to take us to the airport. And as he escorts us to the door, I see him framed in that elegant hallway; incarcerated by the beauty here just as those statues of the Apostles are frozen on the rooftops of St. Peter’s. In his gaze, a sudden, unmistakable yearning. “Shalom! Shalom!” he cries. Then we pass out of the building into the rain-drenched Roman streets.