Buona Sera da Roma

Good evening everyone! It has been a great, but exhausting first day in Rome. I departed the US as Shabbat came to a close. I said the blessing, “hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” the blessing that ends Shabbat and praises G-d for creating a distinction between the holy and the profane – the sacred and the everyday. It was a strange blessing to say as I embarked
on a journey that was anything but profane or everyday. It is a sacred and unique mission, the first of its kind.

It was interesting on another level, though. I was going to the Vatican, a city that is for millions, the most sacred place, but for me holds secular rather than holy value. I would be performing sacred music in a sacred place, but the music and place were unconnected with one another and the setting would not be worship. I would be meeting one of the holiest men alive, but a man who is, to me, just a man, albeit one with a great deal of power and influence. I would be working on a sacred mission of peace that would be watched through secular political and media lenses.

Just when I thought these two realms couldn’t get any more mixed up, I began to think about the attire that we were being asked to don for various occasions. In our first meeting today, we were asked (women and men alike to don tallit and yarmulke for: our meeting with the chief Rabbi of Rome and tour of the Rome synagogue, our meeting with the pope, and our concert. Of these three, none falls at a time when one would traditionally wear a tallit and none is a prayer service. Talk about mixing sacred and secular! A tallit is not like Catholic vestments. It is not a part of our everyday street clergy attire. Yet, if you are in a culture where religious leaders are identified by their clothing, doesn’t it make sense that we should have some way to identify ourselves as religious leaders? When in a Rome….

I am conflicted over these questions, and have begun raising them with my colleagues. It will be interesting to see how the discussion plays itself out over the next couple of days. I will respect the decisions of the organizers of this sacred event. But I am fascinated to hear what you think:
For the pope: tallit and yarmulke, just yarmulke, or up to the individual?
For the chief rabbi: same question as above, but what about the question of women. If the women cantors arrive in yarmulkes, will that distract from our mission by alienating the Rabbi. We have been asked to wear long skirts in order to respect his sacred space. Isn’t wearing a yarmulke going to somewhat cancel out the gesture of goodwill? Would wearing a tallit at the wrong time of day and in a non-prayer service risk making us look ignorant or, worse yet, that we were trying to offend?
For the concert: should we wear tallitot in order to create the visual impression of clergy for our non-Jewish audience?

P.S. I blame all bad writing on jet-lag!
P.P.S for TBT people… See anyone familiar?


12 thoughts on “Buona Sera da Roma

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  1. First of all, which tallit did you choose?
    As far as the larger question is concerned, I am struck by the request that because your role is to be professional Jews, you are asked to dress in an easily indentifiable way. The religious injunctions are irrelevant. Maybe the powers that be wish you to have some uniform that people can notice and use to differentiate you from everybody else. You are that American Jewish group. But wait until they hear you SING!!!

    1. I brought the blue one with, “Shiru la’Shem shir chadash.”. It’s the atarah with the music on it. I figured it matched the occasion and would look good with a suit.

  2. First of all, how cute is your mom?! Yes Just wait until they hear you sing.
    Now down to the business at hand, WHAT! Oh my goodness. What a mixed up mess this dress thing is. I think that when you meet the Chief Rabbi there is nothing wrong with wearing kippot, but no need for tallitot, since you will not be praying. If you are meeting the Pope separately from the time when you are singing for him then again kippot are fine. Wearing tallitot during the singing of sacred music, even if it is not officially a prayerful time seems fitting, especially for this occasion. So, there you have it. That is my opinion.
    You have my love and good wishes. Also, please send George my good wishes, too.

  3. My family and I are so happy you arrived safely. We are also thrilled to read your blog. We feel very connected to your mission and to you. Regarding the question of “Jewish garb”, my feeling is that tallitot and kippot are not costumes but ritual clothing for prayer and reverence. What does it mean to look “Jewish”? )(Althiough your mother has provided you with many beautiful tallitot and you have exquisite kippot, some of which you’ve made).
    Enjoy every moment! Best wishes to David. Is George really there?
    Love, Nancy and family

  4. Sally, the issues you raise are undoubtedly ones that all of you are grappling with, but I think the choice of garments was chosen more for symbolism and to distinguish you as Jewish clergy. The planners probably want a ceremonial look as well as a way of marking you as professionals. Obviously, someone in the planning management lacks a clear understanding of the appropriateness of what they are asking you to wear. Like you say, “when in Rome..” and remember that the REAL product of all this is to help improve Catholic/Jewish dialogue and relations. Keep the bigger picture in mind and when you sing, the rest doesn’t matter. BTW, I love reading your blog and Alan Mason’s info as well. Getting a great perspective on your trip. Love to David G, George, Alan, and David B. Wish I was there with all of you.

  5. Hi Cantor Neff:
    Great blog post! We feel like we’re in Rome with you (and George Bryant)! We don’t have any answers to your profound questions and dilemmas. But…. Zoe says you should make an “educated choice” about your questions. Eva says “just wear the yarmulke”. Jeffrey says he “doesn’t envy your dilemma – but it’s a slippery slope when you compromise your traditions to represent your traditions. How to represent what makes us unique while coming together to celebrate what we have in common – and to not become entertainment and a 2 dimensional representation of who we are? What does a Jew look like, anyway?” Oy. And to maintain respect for your hosts at the same time. We look forward to following you on your historic journey! All the best from Nyack.

  6. These are powerful questions you raise here, about very personal issues. I will put in my 2 cents, but, first, I hope this does not detract from the joy of this exceptional occasion. Purely as museum (in and of themselves) and historical sites, the Vatican City and the entire city of Rome are unbelievable places to visit. You will have a wonderful time, your singing will be magnificent, and I hope you enjoy every second of the whole experience. Don’t forget to order hot chocolate.

    I am confused, and somewhat distressed, that such a meaningful issue was not addressed and opened to group discussion, long before the trip began, since what each individual wears will reflect not only the feelings and beliefs of the group as a whole, but of each individual. What we think about what is worn is irrelevant, but you all should have been permitted the opportunity to be true to your own beliefs. That means a clear choice of: let’s work out what will be worn in each situation, and why, and if you are uncomfortable with it, don’t come.

    As for the issues of what to wear, and when, you have many audiences other than your own conscience. You need to decide exactly whose opinion you care about. The pope and Vatican will absolutely know the strictest interpretation of the rules and to what degree you are or are not following them. They will probably know better than you do, how the chief rabbi will feel about whatever choice you make. (By the way, did anyone consult him?) Do you care what they think about your choice of apparel? Do you believe that your choice of apparel will influence their feelings about Jews? If you do, does that justify doing anything to your apparel, which you would not have done merely to change their opinion?

    Most Catholic laypersons will be uninformed about, and probably not notice or care what you wear. My guess is that the same divisions and opinions exist in the Muslim world, and in the larger Christian denominations. Again, do you care what they think about your choice of apparel? Do you believe that your choice of apparel will influence their feelings about Jews? If you do, does that justify doing anything to your apparel, which you would not have done merely to change their opinion?

    However, you have already committed to represent the group at this point. Once that commitment has been made, are you, or are you not also committed to go along with its dress code. (It seems to me that you feel that you are so committed, and are merely struggling with your conscience. Not that this is a “merely” sort of thing.

    I guess you can see that I feel each of you need to make personal decisions, and that for each of you these may be different. Peter Pan was right! Who said being an adult was going to be fun? Enjoy anyway.

    My prayers are with you. Love, M.

  7. What a marvelous journey you are on as an ambassador of our movement and our congregation. May the mission you are on help build strong and substantive bridges for generations to come!

    To travel with colleagues is like no other experience, the bond … and the questioning! A few thoughts from Nyack….

    The balance between informed autonomy and the will of the community, as you know, is one we struggle with each day. Some may keep kosher and others may not, but what we do in the synagogue is a communal decision that we all must respect. And the decisions made most often are not left to a vote of the majority, but come from the leadership of the community (in our case, from lay leaders with the input of clergy).

    At TBT we leave religious attire solely up to the individual but often this is not the case, even at a Reform congregation. Many synagogues set guidelines for those who will be called to the Torah, for example, by requiring a talit for all and/or that a woman’s shoulders are covered.

    The expression “When in Rome…” is grounded in Jewish text. We are taught to follow the laws and customs of the place, providing that they are not forbidden by our own tradition. In this case, it appears that although wearing a talit is not your usual practice, there is nothing forbidden about doing so except for the halachic provision that women should not wear a talit (which your own practice negates).

    All of this to say that the leaders of the trip have a responsibility to set guidelines that they believe will further the goals of the mission. Wearing a talit for the concert seems appropriate. You will be singing our sacred music in a religious setting where clergy vestments are at the heart of Catholic tradition. You are on a mission as clergy and therefore it will serve the goals of the trip to put forth a visual image of clergy as opposed to any other choir. A kipah alone will not serve this purpose because it will not show up in pictures and in the vatican it will not differentiate your group from others in a signficant way. If wearing a talit was ‘prohibited’ for some reason in our tradition, then creating a visual image would not be appropriate reasoning, but in this case I do not see any reason that it cannot be worn and there are many good reasons to do so. When we participate in the interfaith Thanksgiving service we wear a talit, and I think this is a similar situation.

    The decision to wear a talit to visit the Chief Rabbi, however, is confusing at best. Did I mention the joy the traveling with colleagues… and the questioning!

    Enjoy every moment, take lots of pictures (or at least have David takes lots of pictures), and know that we all take great pride in having you as our cantor!


  8. Hi Sally, I agree with Brian about the “visual image” of clergy during the Catholic aspects of the trip. I regard the wearing of a tallit when visiting with the Chief Rabbi on a par with curtsying to the queen, wearing modest clothing at the Kotel, etc. I wonder how the Chief Rabbi feels about women clergy, let alone having a woman wearing a tallit! Maybe he’ll be just as uncomfortable! Just enjoy the day, and, if the Chief Rabbi isn’t wearing his tallit, you take yours off!! Love, Hil

  9. Enjoying your photography, your blogging, and especially your latest conundrum. Perhaps we will ask the students at the Academy what they think, and when you get back, we can discuss it. How interesting that we have a different set of guidelines for the Pope than we do for the Chief Rabbi. I wonder how your group will resolve it, and what our students will think, once they come to understand the dilemma.
    And, oh, yes, there’s singing too!!
    We miss you back here, but love the electronic letters home.


  10. So funny to see George in your pics, so great that he gets to share this experience! I hope you are having an amazing time, and by now you must be awake getting ready to sing for the Pope, how awesome is that?!! Have soooo much fun, I bet you will sound beautiful as always. :o) Safe travels! TBT misses you!

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