Free Willy


By Tina Koenig

What did Michelangelo know about David?

My husband Michael is the Goldilocks of travel. A window seat is too claustrophobic. Coach does not have enough legroom. First class is too expensive.

There are two ways to get Michael on an airplane. Book him on a flight that is less than three hours, or tell him there is an obscure Jewish heritage site that he must see.

A six-pointed lens filters Michael’s worldview and my vacations. He can find a Jewish landmark in the most goyish of places. What looks to an African rhinoceros like a muddy watering hole is actually a sacred mikvah once used by the lost tribe of Kanye West. The Great Migration? What that is the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, of course.

Did you know that one of the oldest temples in the United States is located in Savanah, Georgia? It is right down the road from Tara. I was surprised as anyone to learn that Buenos Aires, Argentina has the only kosher McDonalds outside of Israel. Michael could find a mezuzah in Machu Picchu. Finding interesting Jewish places to go is as much fun for Michael as finding the hidden afikomen on Passover.

I confess, sometimes these Jewish Heritage schleps try my patience. However, they never fail to turn up something interesting—usually a member of Chabad.

Chabad is to Judaism what Starbucks is to coffee. Its Hasidic practitioners serve up a jolt of Orthodox Judaism from every corner of the world. They really should publish a travel guide.

Alas, this story is not about Chabad. It is not about Jewish Heritage schleps. This story is about Italy, dammit.

~ ~ ~

My family is of Italian ancestry. I visited Italy once when I was in elementary school. I was long overdue for another pass through the country’s Roman ruins and humid art galleries.

Rather than going it solo, I booked a tour that would shuttle Michael and me through Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. A tour guaranteed fast entry to the Vatican, Coliseum, sites in Florence, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The hope of taking a touristy gondola ride through the smelly canals of Venice, with a hot looking tenor, had me kvelling with anticipation.

An essential part of vacation preparation is information gathering. One of my favorite sources is a little known volume published by the CIA titled The World Factbook. Besides snooping on unsuspecting Americans, the CIA keeps facts on foreigners and their interests. The agency compiles intelligence into a book that—rather surprisingly—is available for purchase. Among the facts collected are data on Catholics. According to The World Factbook, the countries with the largest Catholic population are Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States and Italy. The country where the membership of the church is the largest percentage of the population is Vatican City, at a whopping 100 percent. I made a note to include this data in the briefing book I was writing for my husband. It was important that he understand there would not be any Jewish heritage breadcrumbs scattered around Vatican City.

The CIA’s statistics came as a shock to Michael. Overwhelming numbers of Catholics and their heritage sites might dishearten a normal pathological Jewish trekker. Furthermore, a sensible fanatic might find the number of churches a good indicator that Italy was not a favorite vacation spot for the chosen people. A sensible compulsive might have some respect for the CIA’s fact-checking abilities. Dammit!

As we were packing for our trip, I made certain expectations known. I was not participating in the usual Jewish history rummager. There would be no schlepping around. I am a petite woman. I shave my legs. I am not a Mount Everest Sherpa.

“We are visiting a Catholic country. Do not expect to find Jews in Italy,” I said in a professorial tone. “There aren’t any. Not a trace. There are Romans—dead and alive. We are there to pay homage to Romans and to art.”

Michael is a bit of a stereotype with slightly coarse dark hair, a slight frame of average height, and neurotic leanings that made Seinfeld millions. And, unfortunately, like most American high school kids, he had read Shakespeare.

“That is B.S.” he said as he suffocated 12 pairs of underwear into a Ziploc baggie. “There were Jews in Italy. Shakespeare wrote about them in The Merchant of Venice.”

This sudden citation of Shakespeare made me nervous. I hit back. “You can’t believe everything Shakespeare wrote.”

Zip. He vacuum-packed a bag of socks.

“I know there were Jewish people in Venice.” He stuffed hand sanitizer into another baggie. “I read online that there is a Jewish Quarter in Venice.”

“The Jews never get a fair shake,” I announced. “It’s always a quarter. Why is it never a dollar?”

He stopped packing for a minute to process the joke.

“You stole that joke from Jackie Mason,” he said.

I had a sinking feeling about Venice and my date with the hot Italian gondola operator. I fretted that the single day we had in Venice would be spent looking for mezuzahs on the doorways of crumbling buildings.

Our first Italian tour was indeed the Vatican Museum in Rome. Michael busied himself sneaking unauthorized pictures of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s and, later, every single Bernini sculpture in the city of Rome. Finally, I thought, this obsession with all things Jewish is licked. Michael had shifted his focus to Bernini. With a name like that, he had to be an Italian.

I was relieved when we boarded the bus that would take us to Florence. At least on the bus, we were isolated from the constant admonishment, “No photos! No photos!” It chased us everywhere.

I could not say if it is true for the whole of Italy, but in Florence, size matters.

The main art attraction is Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, the Biblical figure who slew Goliath.

Known affectionately by the Italian public as “The David,” (because he’s the only one who matters) the young king has a special museum devoted to him in central Florence. Because our tour guide served espresso, I didn’t mind the seven a.m. admission time. It was early, well before other tourists arrived to wake up the museum guards and concession stand operators.

To view The David, visitors enter the Accademia Gallery through a side exhibition hall where Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves struggle to escape the bondage of white Carrera marble. As I admired the master’s work, Michael strolled toward David.

Scholars argue that the sculpture of David is Michelangelo’s greatest work; perhaps one of the greatest works of art in all of time due to its scale. Never before had a form been sculpted out of a single piece of marble that could stand on its own, without a support. Scholars believe that Michelangelo purposely engineered the sculpture so it would reflect David’s strength as told in the Bible story. Masterfully carved, the viewer meets David doing the Full Monty, with no fig leaf to shield his bat and balls.

Michael and I circled the statue several times, as our guide described the history and drama surrounding its commission. When we reached the front, Michael stood quietly, a quizzical look on his face. He leaned over to me and whispered, “Something is wrong.”

I panicked. “Did you see someone suspicious? An unattended backpack?” I tugged on the sleeve of his shirt. “Let’s get out of here.”

He shook me loose. “Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody dislikes the Italians. The French, the British, sure. Nobody is going to blow up The David.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I asked.

“There is a flaw with the sculpture,” he said.

I flipped open my Eyewitness Guide book to the section on Michelangelo. “The tour book said there were some stress cracks and that it had to be repaired.”

“It’s not that. Look closely at his penis,” he whispered.

“I’d rather not. There are people around.”

“Don’t be a prude.” He pointed shamelessly at David’s privates.

I tried to swat away his arm, but he had already reached into his backpack and whipped out a camera. The mechanical buzz of the zoom lens extended as his backpack slipped to the floor.

Click. He snapped a full-frontal shot. Click. He hustled to get a side view. Click. Click. Click. I grabbed the backpack and followed.

“King David was Jewish. He would have been circumcised,” Michael said. There was a look of disgust on his face. “This is just wrong. Does it say in the guide book that Michelangelo was an anti-Semite?”

By now, the other tourists had started to stare at us. “You’re not allowed to take pictures here,” I said nervously, hoping that he would put away the camera.

“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “This is huge.”

“I can’t argue with that. It’s a big dick. Twelve inches at least. He could have been a porn star for sure.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. This is a major conspiracy.”

When it comes to slights against the Jewish people, Michael never thinks anything is a mistake. There is always a conspiracy.

“You didn’t answer me. Do you think he’s circumcised?” he asked again.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen an adult, uncircumcised male…in person.”

I eyed Michael with curiosity. “Have you?”

“You studied art history, right?” he asked rhetorically. “Then you have to consider the question from an academic point of view. Look at it.”

The crack needled my academic haunches. I inched closer to the sculpture. “It’s hard to tell. Michelangelo was Italian and Catholic, what did he know about circumcised males? His Italian models likely came with the usual factory installed parts.”

“The model should have been Jewish,” Michael said. “This version of David looks uncircumcised.” He twisted the camera’s viewer and held it way above his own head as he continued to gather evidence of David’s ding-a-ling.

“Go ask one of the docents if Michelangelo was Jewish?” he insisted. “I’m too busy.”

“I don’t need to ask. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on his back for fifteen years. No Jewish person would do that. They would hire someone else to do it. They hired the non-Jew, Michelangelo.”

“Then ask them if this David is circumcised?”

My Italian grandparents spoke a form of country Italian that they did not pass down to me. “I have a feeling that the word circumcised is not in my Italian phrase book.”

“It sounds like a Latin word,” Michael said. “It’s probably similar in Italian. Just ask in English.”

I scanned the tourists circling David, hoping our guide was among them. No dice. She was probably in the gift shop where we, too, should have been.

A small, dark-haired man in an official-looking docent’s jacket stood talking with one of the museum guards. I approached him.

“Pardon me, may I ask a question?”

“No problem bella,” the docent replied.

The English translation of bella is beautiful. The American workplace would be infinitely more civilized if all males were required to call female customers and co-workers bella.

I pointed to the sculpture. “Is David circumcised?” I asked.

“Circus size? Yes, it is very large,” the docent said. “It is like a giant. But, no, no, no…he is not the giant. The David…he slay the giant.”

“No, you don’t understand.” I motioned to the groin area and swept my hand in a horizontal motion to suggest chopping. “Circumcised. His genitals. Cut. I made a scissors gesture with my fingers.

“Snip. Snip. Snip.”

The guide grimaced. “Gentle. I no talk about gentle. No, no, no, no. He wagged a finger in my face. “You no understand. It is a big, fierce giant. No gentle giant.”

I nodded my head in agreement and moved on. Why should this trip be different from all our other trips? How had my Italian Heritage Tour suddenly turned into a Jewish Heritage Schlep?

I had an art history professor in college who loved tackling questions about obscure details in paintings. When he did not know an answer he would say, “That’s a great question. I wonder if someone has written a thesis on that.”

As my eyes panned the walkway surrounding David, I noticed dozens of art students with sketchbooks. Perhaps one of the students cemented to the floor had written a thesis on this conundrum of the bits and pieces. I pondered a thesis title: “Free Willy, The Phallic Fallacy: Representations, Considerations and Interpretations, in Michelangelo’s Art.”

I found Michael in the gift shop, shuffling through books on David, looking for close-up photographs of his phallus maximus. He was on a quest to uncover why the greatest artist of all time would sculpt a figure who was Jewishly incorrect.

Did Michelangelo purposely overdo David? Was he unfamiliar with the Jewish ritual of trimming the cigar?

I wondered how many other tourists had stood before the statue and wondered why the Popsicle was still in its wrapper. Of greater concern was why the CIA’s World Factbook had no mention of a possible sect with ties to circumcision deniers. We were certain of one thing: this mission required an anatomical correction.

The subject of David’s dangling participle overshadowed the rest of the entire trip. Even our gondola singer’s name was David. We left Italy with no more carnal knowledge than when we arrived. It was not until we arrived home that we learned the answer.

As with all things Jewish there is an explanation–and an explanation of the explanation. Michelangelo’s representation of King David is both right and wrong. The uncircumcised Popsicle is inconsistent with modern Judaic law, but is correct according to the style of Renaissance art. According to scholars, in the time of David only the tip of the foreskin was removed. It was not until much later that the piggy came out of the blanket. The sculpture is perfectly accurate to the time of the Biblical David.

Yet, one puzzling question remains. Everywhere else in the world, a fig leaf covers the piccolo for modesty. In a copy of David made for Queen Victoria, his bone-a-part was cloaked. Why not in Florence? Why not in Italy? This leads me to one conclusion. The Italians are, and never have been, worried about covering up anything. However, if you are worried, consult with the spies and editors of The World Factbook. Perhaps they are not telling us something.

Tina Koenig travels a lot with her family. Her forthcoming collection of autobiographical stories, Confessions of a Jewish Shiksa: Stories on Faith, Family and Other Calamities, is a collection of amusing, situation-driven family tales that are as spiritually irreverent as they are socially relevant. Her stories are emotional expeditions, at times self-deprecating, at times poignant, but always narrated in a tone of mocking affection. She lives in South Florida with her family and a hidden stash of anti-anxiety medication because she doesn’t like to fly.