The horror and hope I saw in Rome

So the Romans erected an arch and Coliseum to celebrate their victory over Judea. Where are they now?

Contact Editor
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko,

Rome
Rome
Flash 90

It was a trip I would never forget. On our way to Israel, my wife and I stopped in Rome for a tour of the city. What sounded like a benign tour of a European city, ended up being a traumatizing and reinvigorating trip, shedding light on the past and future of the Jewish people.

As we approached the Colosseum in ancient Rome, we marveled at its greatness; 157 feet high with a circumference of 620 feet, it was a sight hard to ignore. At its peak, the Colosseum would seat more than 50,000 people from a city that was the center of Western Civilization. At the same time, a flashback from the past, could not let me rest.

As we watched the beauty of the structure and its adjoining arches and buildings, 2000 years later, I could not help myself from hearing the cries and the jiggles of the chains of 97,000 slaves from destroyed Judea described in the writings of Josephus. I could hear the echoes of the shouts of my brothers and sisters--those who led proud and meaningful lives in the beautiful mountains of Judea-- now living in slavery and humiliation in Rome. I could hear the heartbreaking screams of Jewish women who led dedicated and dignified lives in their regal homes in Judea, now living in shame and disgrace in a foreign land, with cruel and merciless slave owners as their masters.

I recalled the recently deciphered inscription found near the Colosseum which read "The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new Amphitheatre erected with the spoils of war", the war being the recent destruction of Jerusalem. I can just imagine the vessels of which I read in reverence in the book of Exodus—the Menorah, the Table, the Altar, and more—in front of my eyes, in the exact spot it was featured to the Roman people, celebrating "Judea Capta"- Judea has been captured.

Tragedy did not end there. Some 60 years later, after the brutal crushing of the Bar Kochva rebellion, thousands of Jews who survived the Roman mass slaughter, were also sent to Rome - as slaves. One can just imagine the horror of going from being a proud and pious land owner in Judea to being an abused and perpetually tortured slave in a foreign land, under an idolatrous and cruel foreign people.

Those voices and collective memories haunted me as I remembered one of the most difficult times in our people's history. But then I looked around and saw no Romans.

We had stopped in Rome on the way to Israel for Pesach, and during the Holiday, on a late evening, we headed over to the Old City and the Western Wall. It was 12:30 AM, a time one can assume a quiet and peaceful walk through the beautiful streets of Jerusalem. Again, things turned out differently that I had expected.

Walking the streets of Jerusalem—at midnight- we were slowed down by tens of thousands of Jewish people heading over to the Western Wall, and this was at the slower time of the day.

Proud Jews, living in the land of Israel, speaking the language of Israel, and celebrating the God of Israel, were all coalescing to head to the Western Wall. "For there is a day, the watchers shall call on the mountains of Ephraim; Rise! Let us go up to Zion, to the Lord, our God"(Jeremiah 31)

I reflected back on the Colosseum. I remembered seeing mostly tourists at the site; no Roman's, no gladiators, no Caesar, no Latin being spoken--just remnants of an Empire that is no longer. Suddenly the Colosseum no longer seemed glorious or glamorous, it was just a sad relic of a bygone past.

As the Jewish people continue to face adversaries, challenges, difficulties, and failures, I look to the Colosseum and remember:Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people continue to live on. We should never forget the difficulties we have been through or those who we have lost during those perilous times. But we must always remember: losing hope is never an option for the Jewish people. Am Yisrael Chai

 ​