With friends outside
the blue mosque.
I am second from right.
During the spring of my junior year at NYU, I decided to study in Florence, Italy. It was an NYU-approved site, its centralized location in Europe would allow for easy travel, the courses sounded interesting, and what would be better than four months of world-class cuisine? Little did I know this site would also afford me deeper experiences with my own religion and with others.
One erev Shabbat I attended services at Tempio Maggiore. Because the city’s only synagogue serves all denominations, men and women have to sit separately—a first for me. The prayer book was written almost entirely in Hebrew, with a smattering of Italian; the service was conducted in Hebrew; and the melodies were unfamiliar. From what I could gather, my fellow worshipers were all local residents. Too intimidated to try and interact because I spoke limited Italian, I enjoyed the hour-long service in solitude. It was hard not to be distracted by the stained-glass windows, mosaics, and carvings that together made this one of the most beautiful synagogues I had ever seen. When I did recognize a prayer, by its melody or words, I felt knowledgeable and part of a wider community.
A friend and I decided to visit Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp just outside of Munich, which is an eight-and-a-half-hour overnight train ride from Florence. To be honest, even after years of learning about the Holocaust from books and pictures in religious school, I felt removed until I read the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”) welded above the camp’s entrance. I couldn’t help but imagine the prisoners walking through the same gate, seeing the same words. I felt removed until I could stand inside the barrack and see the narrow beds which several people were forced to share each night. I felt removed until I saw the roll call square, the watchtower, the electrified fences. Though I can only begin to imagine what it might have been like to live during this time, visiting the camp allowed me the visual knowledge to begin to understand.
Maintaining my Jewish holiday practices in Florence was sometimes challenging. During Passover, for example, none of the neighborhood grocery stores sold matzah; I walked to the city’s Jewish quarter to buy a box. Two friends and I then hosted an improvised seder, using a regular dinner plate for the “seder plate” and crafting a shank bone from paper. Not having haggadot, we told the story from memory—in the oral tradition. Even so, we managed to maintain traditions from our family seders; I made charoset for the very first time, using my mom’s recipe, and it tasted great!
In four months of living in Italy, I learned more about Catholicism than I had until that time. Previously, I was only able to recognize Mary and Jesus in religious art. Now, with the help of several patient friends, I could identify many Christian icons in the works exhibited in Florence’s world-class museums. I learned how to distinguish saints on the basis of their clothing and other factors—like St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, who is often depicted with them, and because he received the stigmata (wounds of Jesus), is often seen with wounds on his hands and feet. I came to recognize Gabriel, the archangel who told the Virgin Mary she would become the mother of Jesus, from his wings (showing that he was an angel), curly blonde hair, and presence with lily flowers (to symbolize Mary’s purity and innocence).
Learning about Catholicism made me want to know more about Islam, so I made a trip to Istanbul. In Turkey’s capital city, Muslims—95% of the population—are called to prayer five times daily. Prayers are broadcast from the tops of some mosques so that people do not have to be inside a mosque to pray. Groups of worshipers often gather in parks and other public places. I sat in a prayer session at the Blue Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in the world, so named because of the light blue tiles fillingthe interior walls, ceiling, and columns. It is a stunning structure, with multiple domes and columns, beautiful stained glass windows, and high ceilings painted with blue and red designs, inscribed with words in Arabic.Islam has been practiced in this monumental mosque for longer than the U.S. has been in existence. As a tourist who was not taking part in the prayers,I sat behind a gate with my head and shoulders covered and watched as 200 worshipers crammed close together in the direction of Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, which followers of Islam consider the holiest place on Earth. The prayer service itself was short, about 15 minutes. A series of prayers corresponded with motions—worshipers cycling between kneeling, bowing, and standing as prayers were chanted. Everything was uniform, the worshipers completing the same motions at the same time. It was a marked contrast from the prayer sessions of Judaism that I was used to. Yet it was similar to worship at Tempio Maggiore in Florence in that men and women were not allowed to pray together; in the mosque, women sat behind a gate, even behind where we tourists were sitting.
Studying abroad turned out to be a meaningful way to deepen my experiences of Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam. At home I learned about the Holocaust, and at Dachau I synthesized this knowledge into understanding. At home my friends explained aspects of their religions, and abroad I delved into them in diverse, authentic ways—such as analyzing world-renowned works of art depicting New Testament scenes and sitting in a prayer session in the beautiful Blue Mosque. If you want to go deeper, I encourage you to go abroad.
—Elanna Said, a NYU graduate (May 2011) and member of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey