October 10th marked the 200th birthday of the great Italian composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi. Verdi’s music played an important role in inspiring the Risorgimento – the reunification of Italy into a single state. In the years preceding and following the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 under King Victor Emanuel, with various parts of Italy under foreign occupation, the chant of Italian nationalists became: “Viva Verdi!”.
Italian crowds took up the slogan “Viva Verdi!” under the very noses of men like Johann Radetzky, the Austrian general who ruled Venice, and the Habsburg (Austrian) King Franz Joseph I who ruled the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in the north of Italy, bordering Austria.
To these foreign dictators, the adulation of a composer seemed harmless enough. Little did they realise that “Viva Verdi!” was the Italian nationalists’ coded acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia (Viva Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy).
As a coded nationalist slogan it was a clever ruse. However, it was actually a testament of poverty: the only reason that Italian patriots were reduced to this trick was that they were not (yet) independent in their own homeland.
I was vividly reminded of this when I ascended the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site in the world. After immersing in the mikveh early in the morning, I ascended the Mount together with a couple of dozen other devout Jews, men and women.
The ritual is well-known. Before being admitted to our holiest site, a policeman told us the rules: it is forbidden to pray, even in a whisper; it is forbidden to display any Jewish or Israeli item (a flag, for example, or a tallit); no Jewish (or any non-Muslim) form of devotion is allowed.
I came up with an inventive solution. I set the countdown alarm on my cell-phone for five minutes. When it rang I pulled my cell-phone out of my pocket, hit the off button, put it to my ear, and as though answering a phone call I said aloud, “Sh’ma Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem echad”.
Within seconds a policeman was by my side, snarling at me, “You know it’s forbidden to pray”. I said into the phone “Just a moment, please”, still as though I was talking to someone, then turned to the policeman. “What do you mean, pray?” I asked him in surprised innocence. “That’s how I always answer the phone.”
The heart of our country is still under foreign occupation.
Some time later I took out my camera and simultaneously began reciting the Aleinu prayer under my breath. Adjusting my camera, as though looking for the best angle for a shot of the golden dome, I came to the phrase “Va’anachnu kor’im u-mishtachavim…” – “And we bow and prostrate and give thanks before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He…”, and with those words I dropped to my knees, kneeling and bowing towards the [estimated] site of the Holy of Holies. I successfully disguised my prostration as merely finding the perfect camera angle.
Exiting the Temple Mount later, I reflected on my ruses. Yes, I had successfully tricked the police and the Waqf (the Islamic trust) who control our holy site. But the fact that I – like all Jews there – was reduced to this chicanery is actually a testament of poverty.
This is what we have sunk to. Like the Italians of more than a century and a half ago, the heart of our country is still under foreign occupation.
After decades of struggle, the Papal State was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy on 20th September 1870, completing the reunification of Italy, and less than half a year later, on 3rd February 1871 Rome officially became the capital of Italy. The cheap tricks of chanting “Viva Verdi!” became irrelevant for the liberated Italians in their free and united homeland.
This is the time for us, in our homeland, to not merely pray and hope and look forward to the day when we will truly be free and sovereign in our homeland, but to actively work for that day – to work for the day when every Jew will be free to pray, loudly and unafraid, in our holiest of all places.