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The Missing Jewish Ghetto of Trieste

I wanted to stay on the cruise boat to sunbathe, but my mother wanted to see The Jewish Ghetto of Trieste. This was her hobby. She would try to find somewhere Jewish at every port of the cruise. When we went to the Caribbean, we saw the famous sand synagogue of Curacao.  During a trip to Croatia, we visited a gloomy synagogue in Split, which was filled with names of children who had died in the Holocaust. I remember although the sun was so bright outside and the weather was burning hot, the synagogue was cold and filled with dark shadows, with a very old rabbi with eyes that were red-rimmed beneath his thick glasses.

Passover was celebrated on the cruise and my mother and I found ourselves with a table of Argentinian Jews. None of them spoke English, but we communicated with a few words of Hebrew and the clinking of wine glasses. All the men wore yarmulkes. I had not seen them on the cruise until that Passover night and then completely forgot about the group until our tour to The Jewish Ghetto of Trieste.

What finally convinced me to join my mother was James Joyce. James Joyce had lived in Trieste, and I had a huge crush on a Columbia University Senior named Ewan who would only talk about his Ulysses seminar. He wasn’t interested in a Barnard College freshman and was obsessed with a woman named Molly Bloom. Trieste was supposed to have the best gelato in Italy, and one of the cruise waitresses had confided in me that the men in Trieste were “bellissimo.” So I decided to join my mother in search of sweet temptations. 

My mother read me the tour itinerary at breakfast: an opera house, a cathedral, Scala James Joyce, (Yes, Ewan!) and The Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish Ghetto, my mother told me, was created from an order of the authorities and was a compulsory residence for Jews from 1684 to 1785.  Not only would we visit the surviving houses of the ghetto, but the synagogue too. None of these attractions seemed as exciting to me as gelato and having a photo of me standing next to a statue of James Joyce. 

We were a small group that morning; no more than eight and I recognized one of the Argentinians from the Passover service. He was a short dark young man wearing a black suit too warm for the hot weather. I barely noticed his yarmulke until the tour guide, a tall woman wearing large sunglasses and a red suit, told him to take his “hat” off.

“Excuse me,” my mother said to the tour guide.

“It is risky for him to wear it,” the tour guide answered. 

One of the women in the group must have been Argentine too and translated the tour guide’s message. The young man looked angry, but took off his yarmulka and stored it in his bag. I stared at the tour operator. She wore very high heels for someone conducting a walking tour, and her hair looked so black that it could have been dyed with shoe polish. What did she mean it was risky? I was about to ask the tour guide this question but she whisked the group to the Piazza Unità d’Italia, Europe’s largest square located by the sea. There were at least fifteen gelato stands but our tour guide was in a hurry and quickly ushered us to stand in line in front of James Joyce’s house. My mother did take a photograph but unfortunately, as we discovered a week later, placed her finger over the lens so the picture was permanently lost. I was growing quickly bored by the tour guide’s quick patter, the lethargy of our group in the day’s heat and the hilly cobblestone streets that the tour guide so deftly maneuvered in her heels but made my own legs ache. The Argentine man, even though he had a full head of hair, seemed almost bald without his yarmulke. He stayed in the back of our group and focused more on the birds in the sky than any sites. Before I knew it, the tour guide had returned us to the cruise ship. 

“Grazie,” the tour guide told us with a little bow. “I hope you enjoyed our little trip to Trieste.”

“I hope she’s not expecting a tip,” I heard someone mutter behind me.

“We did not see The Jewish Ghetto,” my mother said loudly.

“Excuse me?”

The way the tour guide looked at my mother did something to me. Even though her eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, I knew her stare was cold and dismissive.

“That’s right,” I said, taking out my brochure. “It says right here on the itinerary.  A visit to the legendary Jewish Ghetto of Trieste. “

The tour guide took the guide a little too forcefully out of my hand.  She glanced at it and frowned. “A mistake,” she said, returning the brochure to me. 

“I think not,” my mother said, using that voice I knew so well when I was in trouble.

The tour guide pouted. “They did not tell me this was included on the tour.”

“Then take us there now,” I told her.

The Argentine man placed his yarmulke on his head. Our small group surrounded the tour guide. I thought she would be scared but she just laughed.

“No matter what country you are from, you are all the same.” She turned around and walked away, her high heels clicking on the concrete pavement. Later, my mother complained to the cruise tour operator, who dutifully took notes. That night, I saw the man with the yarmulke sitting alone in a chair in the cruise lobby, staring down at his hands. He seemed ashamed. Did he wish he had fought back and insisted he wear his yarmulke? Or was this just one of many fights that he decided to forgo because he was on vacation?

Now I am unsure if the tour guide had actually said something else. It was difficult to hear with the roar of the cruise boat behind us and her thick Italian accent.  But I understood her meaning. Before, safe in my own Jewish ghetto of the Upper West Side, I didn’t know what it was really like to be a Jew somewhere else. I understood when I was in London when a man who had been eagerly talking to me saw my Star of David pendant and then turned and walked into another room. I understood in Paris when my taxi driver went on a rampage about that “dirty Jew Sarkozy and his Jew-loving Italian whore of a wife.” I understood it in Lodz, Poland when I asked about the synagogue at the hotel and the concierge said she would return with my directions and then picked up her phone and spoke for ten minutes. Her message was received.

Everywhere, even here in America, there are many missing Jewish Ghettos in Trieste.  That lost photograph of me in Trieste will always be a symbol. Although we may have never found that Italian Jewish ghetto, I would soon discover what it means to be a Jew in a world that still tries to hide us.