Christ-haunted Hero: The forgotten Story of Rabbi Israel Zolli
Conversions are like snowflakes no one is like another. Each and every story of how Christ pulls a soul to himself is special, unique, delicately powerful. Each story is touched with redemptive beauty. Even the story of the five-year-old child who prays with his mother contains more than enough unexpected wonder and truthful beauty to make even the fattest angel dance. But the story of Israel Zolli is not about a child on bended knee. It is of a heroic rabbi caught in the maelstrom of World War II .
A Christ haunted life
Rabbi Zolli was one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century. A leading European Jewish intellectual, chief rabbi of Rome, who converted to Christianity in 1944. Not much had been written about him the Jewish community considers him a heretic to his faith, and a traitor to his race. To Jesus, he is a trophy of grace.
He was born in 1881 in what now is the Ukraine. As a young man, he worked in Florence where he also did his rabbinical studies. He became professor at the University of Padua and was named vice-rabbi of Trieste. In 1918, he became chief rabbi of the city.
During this period, Zolli led a divided life. In public, the life of a rabbi celebrating certain number of rituals and shepherding the jewish community. But alone with the Torah, he lived the life of a writer and thinker. This latter work eventually brought him onto the road leading to Christ.
Prepare the way of The Lord
Before God does a work whether in redemption history or on human soul he begins by preparing the way. The same can be said of Zolli’s conversion. Before he publicly confession, the winds of providence were preparing him.
One such preparation was the slow pull of intellectual curiosity. He had always been attracted to the Gospel. As a young rabbi studying the Old Testament, he could not just stop at the end of it: so he continued, and read the New Testament. For him, it was the natural continuation of the Old.
He had always been attracted to the figure of Christ on the cross in which he saw the evidence of His being the “Suffering Servant of God” spoken of by Isaiah. Something he did not speak publicly about until after his conversion. Like Hazel Motes in Flannery O’conners’ Wise Blood, who was haunted by the Compelling Christ. For Zolli like Motes, “Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing”
In 1938, he wrote The Nazarene in which he explored the exegetical problems concerning the relations between the Old and the New Testaments. Soon after publication, he was transferred to Rome and named chief rabbi of the city. Seen as a rabbi who could build bridges and keep the peace continued his work both in public and in private where amidst his prayers and thoughts Christ moved from tree to tree in the back of his mind.
In 1942, the winds of providence began to stir again as the storms of war raged in Europe. By September 1943 the Nazis occupied Rome. The War had now come to Rome. Under Mussolini the Jews had been marginalized but not mistreated.
Now a Nazi officer named Kappler demanded 110 pounds of gold in place of the Jews. The Jews feverishly managed to collect 77 pounds. The chief Rabbi Zolli realized his helplessness. For the first time he stepped into the Vatican and begged Pope Pius XII: “The New Testament must not abandon the Old Testament!” The Pope was so moved that by that afternoon, the remaining 33 pounds of gold was collected from the parishes of Rome. But Kappler took the Jews as well as the gold as rabbi Zolli begged in vain for him to take him as a trophy instead. His life for his people. A substitution to pay a ransom and satisfy wrath but Zoolli’s pleas went unheard. He was not the one to represent and redeem his people. Christ once again move from tree to tree in the back of his mind.
From the betrayal and disappointment a great courage arose in him settling into an otherworldly resolve. He walked away from that meeting determined to protect his community. Diplomacy had failed but all his cards had not yet been played. He had only began to fight.
The deportation of the Jews from Rome was fixed for 16 October 1943. Rabbi Zolli called on the Vatican once again. They began at once smuggling Jews out of Rome. Out of the 8000 Jews of Rome, they managed to get 4447 Jews hidden in over 150 monasteries and parish houses, hidden against the threat of the highest punishment from the Nazis. Till the threat was over, they were provided with all they needed for survival.
Haunted no more
The Americans freed Rome in June 1944. Yet Rabbi Zolli seemed to be caught in a deeper battle. Father Dezza, a Jesuit and friend of Zolli tells of a conversation they had on August 15, 1944. Zolli had come to him and revealed the tension of his soul : “How can I continue living in this way when I think very often of Christ and I love Him?”
In October 1944, all tension was put to rest by the living Christ. On the holy day of Yom Kippur (day of Atonement), Zolli had an extraordinary experience which would come to be decisive. He was in the synagogue in contemplation and suddenly, in a vision He saw Christ beside him. Christ said to him: “You are here for the last time: from now on you will follow Me.” That was it. Zolli was profoundly moved, visibly shaken and spiritually renewed. He had went to his knees a Rabbi but rose a Christian.
At home that evening, he did not want to say anything to his family, but his wife told him that while he was in the synagogue celebrating Yom Kippur, she too had seen a figure of Christ next to him. His daughter Miriam, who was then 18, added that she had seen Jesus in a dream. For Rabbi Zolli it was the last sign he needed. He resigned from the synagogue and on 17 February 1945, Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and his wife made public confessions of faith in Christ and received a Christian baptism identifying them as a follower of Christ.
After 40 years of rabbinical studies with fingers blackened by ink from hours of study, a tired rabbi weary from war’s bitter sting, and weak from protecting his flock rose from the waters to find God was already there, with him, face to face.
Epilogue: Certainty of the mountains
In an interview after his baptism the good rabbi was asked why he had given up the synagogue for the Church, he gave an answer that showed he had a keen understanding of biblical realities: “But I have not given it up. Christianity is the integration of the synagogue. The synagogue was a promise, and Christianity is the fulfillment of that promise. The synagogue pointed to Christianity: Christianity presupposes the synagogue. So you see, one cannot exist without the other. What I converted to was the living Christianity.”
“Then you believe that the Messiah has come?” the interviewer asked.
“Yes, positively,” replied Zolli. “I have believed it for many years. And now I am so firmly convinced of the truth of it that I can face the whole world and defend my faith with the certainty and solidity of the mountains.
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