People often ask me how I came to write Intimate Strangers, a book about Rome and its Jewish and Catholic communities. That question is addressed in the first pages of the book where I tell the story of how I learned that Jewish families were sheltered in the Vatican and saved from death during the days of the Nazi occupation of Rome.
Not in the book is the simple personal fact that my partner Shirley strongly encouraged me to write a book about Roman Jews during our early trips to Rome. And my former wife Rosa Lowinger, after a year in Rome as a recipient of the Rome Prize similarly encouraged me to go to Rome because it was a city made for an archaeologist. However, Intimate Strangers rests on two other pillars.
The first has to do with the theme of the book that identifies the notion of a metaphorical Jewish-Catholic family which can be found throughout the centuries in the Jewish presence in Rome. From the Ghetto which was joked about in early Modern Rome as the result of a get, a Jewish bill of divorce given to the Jews by the Pope, to the numerous Catholic homes where Jews were welcomed in order to rescue them from the Germans in 1943-1944, Jews and Catholics continually pressed up against the boundaries of family and used the language of family to describe their relationships.
My original family was quite small. I was an only child, and when my parents died during my teen years it shrank even more. I had a loving aunt, uncle and cousin, who, also an only child, was like my sister. But outside of those three I felt bereft. Much later, when I began writing Intimate Strangers all three of those relatives had died as well. My only family was my son Ben to whom I dedicated the book along with Shirley.
But in college I had met David Bonanno. We became good friends and during his recovery from a near deadly automobile accident, I came to know his large Italian family: parents, his brother, his sister, and eventually their spouses and children and the spouses of their children. And of course I loved Dave’s wife Kathy and their children. During our 49 year friendship we went through everything together, weddings and divorces (mine), births and adoptions. I used to joke that we were the only two friends who were both arrested by the FBI in Washington D.C., at a peace rally and the KGB in Moscow, for visiting Soviet Jews. Everyone said we were like brothers.
By the time I came to write Intimate Strangers, Dave and much of his family had died. But his memory and the presence of all those loving people were always there when I wrote about what I called the “family” of Jews and Catholics in Rome.
The second pillar upon which Intimate Strangers is built is the story of the town of Le Chambon in France, the town that saved thousands of Jewish families and children during World War II. The story of Le Chambon was told by Philip Hallie in his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed published in 1979. The people of Le Chambon accomplished their rescue through non-violence and an uncompromising ability to risk their lives for strangers. In fact, in a later book, In the Eye of the Hurricane, Phil expressed his wonderment at those who could “treat outsiders as intimates.” I was lucky enough to have Phil as a teacher at Wesleyan University and after graduation, Dave and I went to hear him speak about Le Chambon at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. I came away from that lecture and from reading Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed with a simple idea that I repeated to myself throughout my writing of Intimate Strangers: “Goodness has a History, too.” I do not know if Phil put it in exactly those words, but in writing a history of a Jewish community there is the temptation to write a story of victims, and only victims; to write what Salo Baron called “lachrymose history.” Indeed, the history of Jews and Catholics in Rome has some very dark chapters. But Jews were not always, and in every respect, victims. Goodness has a History too. I made sure that such a History was a part of my book.
Much of what went into writing of Intimate Strangers does not appear in the book. That must be the case with all publications. I cannot help but wonder what unwritten circumstances were behind some of the books I love.