Naples is a city filled with life. One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, its narrow streets, pulsing shops and overlooking volcano make it one of the most unique places in Europe. But if there’s one thing that comes to mind at the mention of the city of Naples, it’s got to be pizza. Barstool Sports might claim New Haven to be the world’s pizza capital, but Naples will always be synonymous with the world’s most popular food.

From a Jewish perspective, Naples is credited with providing refuge to thousands of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Despite pressure from the Spanish royals Ferdinand and Isabella to deny the Jews safe haven, the king of Naples - also called Ferdinand - allowed the Spanish Jews to stay. But more on that soon.

Pizza - already mentioned in 997 and seemingly going back to Roman times (the word pizza is said to be a twist on the ancient ‘pita’) - was reborn with the creation of the Neapolitan Pizza, or Pizza Margherita in 1889. Its sauce, mozzarella and basil represented the colors of the Italian flag in honor of a visit to Naples by Italy’s first queen, Margherita.

There are many differences between a New York pizza and the Margherita, but one of the most noticeable is the basil leaves on top (you can find basil on other pizzas too, but with the Neapolitan it’s a necessity). Basil means ‘royal’ in Greek - in France it’s called the royal herb - and lots of credit goes to Rafaele Esposito, creator of the Margherita, for thinking of putting it on a pizza. Basil on its own is kind of sharp, and it had a pretty negative reputation for years. On pizza, though, it was a big win. Basil is just one example of a somewhat bitter taste that, when used right, adds just the right boost to what might otherwise have been blasé. It was the cherry on top of Naples’ gift to the world.

Now back to the Jewish perspective. The expulsion from Spain was one of many tragedies which occurred during this time of summer. Beforehand there had been the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Babylon around in 422 BCE, the destruction of the second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, the ‘Sin of the Golden Calf’ a millennium earlier and more.

How do we deal with these painful events? With challenges in general? One way to view challenges is like basil on pizza. While it alone seems sharp, it adds a certain depth of flavor stemming precisely from its somewhat peppery taste. But, like basil, that works when the challenge is difficult but manageable, when it has a tangy taste but can be easily imagined as being delicious. In the Jewish experience, it’s akin to Yom Kippur. Fasting for twenty five hours, and sitting in a synagogue for many of those hours, is pretty tough. Yet it's not that hard to see how it can be beneficial from a spiritual standpoint - even enjoyable - once a year. 

The calamities which befell the Jewish people historically during the summer months, specifically during the three weeks between the 17th day of the month of Tammuz (which was yesterday), and the the 9th day of the month of Av - both of which are days of fasting - were no ‘basil’. They were unimaginable, unanswerable and inexplicable. What do we do with them?

Like we said, there is no answer. But what we can do is to make our world a kinder and holier place - in unimaginable ways. Not only like basil on pizza, but real, awesome change for the better. We can treat our families, fellow Jews and fellow human beings with unconditional, limitless love and compassion. Not only when it makes sense, not only when we feel it will make us a better person. But always.

We can flip history on its head and introduce the unimaginable and inexplicable into our lives, and to the world - in a positive way. Unimaginable positivity. Inexplicable generosity and caring. Find someone who needs uplifting and make their day. Share the infinite gift of Torah, Mitzvahs and Jewish tradition with a family member or friend. If the unimaginable and inexplicable could be done in a negative way, it can certainly be done in the positive. 

And there'll still be time, once in a while, to settle down with family and friends around a good, Neapolitan pizza.

Rabbi Avrohom