Monday, April 4, 2005

Rome and Religion Reflections

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Note: Originally posted on the EAGLE online community site, behind IBM's firewall on 4 April 2005, at 6:37 pm, and posted here on 24 May 2007:

With the pope's passing this weekend, I'm thinking of the trip I made to Rome in late-January and about religion altogether. I was in Rome on business, but had two days ahead of my meeting to tour around the city with colleagues.

The Vatican

The Saturday we arrive, I am so happy to be somewhere western again, as we are coming from Bangkok and cool as Bangkok is as a cultural experience, it is easier to be somewhere relatively familiar after a week of being somewhere so unfamiliar. And one of my colleagues is Italian-American and seems now to be in paradise.

We check into the hotel and eat our complimentary breakfast there; I am thrilled for the great cheeses and blood-oranges, neither of which are readily available in Bangkok.

My colleagues want to go straight to the Vatican, which we do, by 8:30 am. At the admissions booth, one of my Catholic colleagues says, "I think all Catholics should get in for free."

"I think all non-Christians should get in free," I respond, smiling.

"Good point," he says, smiling, too, realizing that I am talking in terms of a recruitment tactic.

We walk around and it is remarkable to see all of the famous modern artists the collection includes and the Sistine Chapel and all of the ornate murals along the way and I tell my colleague, I do believe that Jesus is an agent for good and that he was an amazing person, but I just can't get to the Divine part. I'm fairly sure I could have had I been raised to do so, since I tend to believe Jewish doctrine that doesn't necessarily make logical sense.

He looks at me, smiling ruefully, wishing I could understand what he understands, and we keep walking and I feel I am there for a foreign cultural ride. We see preserved popes from the past, lying in St. Peter's and it is unusual to me, but again, I realize it is just what a different culture and religion values.

I look around at St. Peter's grandeur, the church's giant majesty, and say to another Catholic colleague, "How can anyone see this and challenge the supremacy of Catholicism? Do you think this was built to glorify God, or to demonstrate the might of the Catholic Church or...?"

"Yes," he answers. And then, "Think of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Probably, it was also built for both reasons." I agree.

When we walk through the part of the Vatican Museum that exhibits all of the jeweled ritual items, I recall a Temple in Bangkok from the week before, which is likewise full of treasures. Every culture has its place for gems, it seems.


On Sunday, my two Catholic colleagues opt to go to Mass in St. Peter's Square and invite me to join them, but I prefer to spend the day with Julia, an EAGLE - Italy member.

We have a breakfast-picnic on a hilltop next to the Finnish Embassy and tell mini versions of our coming-out-stories, complete strangers that we are. It's the most at-home I have felt in 10 days. Julia is half-German, half-Italian and my heritage is Russian and I'm American, but our lesbianism gives us remarkable common ground...and our common knowledge of English, luckily for me.

Julia is generous and drives us all over Rome and particularly to where I want to go, which is especially to the Jewish Ghetto section.

There are posters pasted to walls there in Italian and Hebrew, advertising, Il giorno della memoria/Yom Hazikaron/Day of Remembrance on 27 January, which is the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, if I'm remembering correctly.

We enter the large synagogue and there will be a tour shortly. Meanwhile, there's a small museum, where we can see ritual items and it's a contrast to the Buddhist temple and the Vatican Museum; I'm whispering animatedly about the significance of each item to Julia. When I describe what Pat refers to as "the little Torahdress," I miss Pat and want her to be here with us.

We look at Torah crowns in sterling silver that are shaped like pomegranites, and with tiny bells hanging from them, and ornate Torah pointers, and utilitarian circumcision gear and castle-tower-shaped spice-boxes....And then it's time for the tour.

The tour guide is an Italian Jew and probably in her late-twenties and quite cute. I don't remember any details any longer, just the gorgeous, high-ceilinged sanctuary and the guide herself.

We take some photos in front of the synagogue, and a few other people are milling around outside it, too, and just then, a bus full of soccer players from the out-of-town professional team drives by, yelling the equivalent of "Faggots!" at all of us. At first, I'm thinking, they were yelling specifically at Julia and me, but Julia assures me that to them, everyone local is a "faggot;"it's just part of their pre-game, self-fortifying ritual.

The irony of having a gang of guys yelling this anti-gay slur at me as I stand in front of a landmark in the Ghetto, where Jews lived necessarily during the Holocaust and now a number still choose to live, does not escape me.

We head to the Jewish bookstore, where the cash register is also staffed by appealing Jewish, Italian women -- they're having a discussion about a holiday and it sounds native to them, and that's how I infer they're Jewish.

The store is a bit busy and I look around and the Italian Jewish community looks familiar, like I could be in a Jewish bookstore in New York or Chicago or Miami and the people would look similar -- except that they are more stylishly dressed than the people I've seen typically in NYC's or Chicago's or Miami's Jewish bookstores. It's not a stereotype; it's an observation: The Italians I've seen in Rome and Milan, on average, look better/more inventive in their clothing than people I've seen in the States, Jewish or otherwise.

We have lunch in a restaurant in the Ghetto and I order hot broccoli with Parmesan cheese on it. The server says it comes cold and I ask that they heat it up, or Julia does for me in Italian.

At the beginning of the day, I teach Julia an expression I think will be handy for her to know in relation to me: "high-maintenance." She doesn't get it. A few hours later, at lunch, she says, "I think I know what 'high-maintenance' means now." We laugh.

While we walk around the famous historic sites of Rome, I learn that in addition to being an IBMer, Julia's also a documentarian; she edited a film that was used for the Millennium, which tells the story of Rome's origin, including the myth of the wolf who fed the twins, as well as produced a documentary in 2001 in tribute to Piera Zanotti, an Italian lesbian pioneer.

The documentary and Julia made the rounds to all of the big GLBT film festivals in Europe and the United States: "Odio i saluti/I Hate Goodbyes."

Julia burns a DVD of it for me and graciously drops it off to me during the week. I watch it and cry at parts because of the bravery that Piera and her comrades display, and feel passion as I see still photos and current film of beautiful women, and am so grateful for who I am. The film recognizes a woman who believes that she ought to be able to be identified as a lesbian publicly and not just privately, and lives her beliefs -- since the '50s. She's a role model.

World Pride==>World Peace

While we drive and walk around, Julia describes how hectic it was for her while working on the World Pride festival that was in Rome and full-time at IBM -- and how worthwhile it was.

She smiles as we look at the infrastructure improvements of the city and says, "During World Pride we used to say, 'Isn't it great how Rome has done so much work to prepare for us?' when really, the work had been done to prepare for the Millennium celebration." Julia's a hero, too, for the millennium. Piera led the way and Julia's carrying the torch now.

I'm reminded of the front-page "New York Times" article that ran last week, on the 31st of March, where there's a photo of all the major religious leaders of Jerusalem (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) coming together in an unprecedented show of inter-faith unity to protest the upcoming World Pride 2005 in Jerusalem this summer.

My rabbi, who's mentioned in the article, since she leads the world's largest Jewish GLBT congregation, says on Friday night, "I think..." -- and Pat leans over to whisper to me, "...we ought to be given the Nobel Peace Prize this year" -- "...our [GLBT] community ought to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for how we've brought together the world's religions," the rabbi finishes.

Silence=Deaf, and Dumb/Ignorant

I'm also reminded of how I'm at dinner again recently with an IBM friend from beyond the United States -- who I wrote about here when she surprised me by coming out to me last year, as I had no idea she was a lesbian -- and how I'm telling her about a class I've just taken from a deaf rabbinic intern at my synagogue.

I tell her how he has taught us about how Judaism treats deafness and has told us about how respectful the Bible is, but how exclusive the rabbis of the Talmudwere 1,000+ years later:

Deaf people were disqualified from fulfilling commandments, the rabbis of the Talmuddeclared, since back then, deaf people had no means of communication compared to today's technologies, so most of the rabbis thought deaf people were developmentally disabled as well, and how could someone who's developmentally disabled be expected to fulfill the commandments of Judaism?

I preface this bit of learning for my friend by saying that a number of years ago while studying Talmud in Chicago, I had learned about another group that was disqualified by the Talmudic rabbis, specifically for the commandment to blow the shofar(ram's horn) on the Jewish New Year: the "toom-toom," which was Aramaic or Talmudic Hebrew for someone who's intersex.

I remember feeling excluded, since although I'm not intersex, I'm certainly androgynous. I told my friend that toom-tooms were excluded because in Jewish law, according to the Talmud, women are excluded from blowing the shofar and since the rabbis couldn't be sure which gender was predominate among toom-tooms, better to err on the side of caution because God forbid a mostly-female person fulfilled the commandment. Mind you, I've always felt excluded as a woman by Orthodox Judaism, but that's business as usual. This seemed extra-harsh.

My friend shakes her head and starts to say, "That's why -- forget it...." She doesn't want to say, "That's why I think religion can be so harmful," since she knows that I value mine and she doesn't want to offend me, so I finish the sentence for her and she affirms that it strikes her that so much trouble has come from it historically.

The next day, I remember why I want to tell her about how infuriated I was initially about the toom-tooms, so that I can tell her about some peace I gained from a classmate in this Deafness and Judaism course.

During the Deafness and Judaism class, I say, "Great! Now I'm potentially doubly-excluded if I ever go deaf!" and I talk of how bitter I felt in Chicago when I learned about exclusion of the toom-tooms.

One of the other students, I tell her, himself apparently a transgender man says, "At least the rabbis [a thousand years ago] talked about intersex people, which is remarkable. Even today, hardly anyone wants to discuss the topic."

"So to him," I tell my friend, "Any sort of discussion is at least acknowledgment of these people's existence. How's that for a positive spin?"

She answers, "...I think neglect is much worse than having a negative attitude towards someone or towards a group, so the transguy is right on....As long as "something" is at least acknowledged in its existence, it means it's being discussed, too...which is the main thing that helps eliminate the fear that most humans have about anything "strange" they don't know. Talking about "otherness" means getting to know it and that's a very good thing, of course, because we don't fear what we know."


No comments: