Ariel ben Yitzach, known to his Greek and Roman friends as Abaris–named after the Hyperborean sage of ancient fame–was also not known to be Jewish by any of them. When some of them asked about his odd provincial accent, he’d always say he was Syrian, and he occasionally felt like a hypocrite for saying so; now, mostly, he felt scared. Five years ago, the province of Judea had been destroyed by the Bar Kochba uprising, and Hadrian’s suppression of the rebellion had been severe, and now people did not even recognize there was such a thing as “Judea.” It was now called Syria Palaestina, and while thus his lie for more than a decade had been made true, in a sense, calling himself Syrian almost felt to him even more guilt-inducing, as if he had wished so hard for his Judean roots to be forgotten that it had come to be. Perhaps, like his pseudonymous namesake, Abaris was a bit of a magician himself.
Abaris was crossing the Campus Martius, and passed by the Iseum Campense, a location he visited on many occasions. He knew his mother and father and most of his siblings would have objected if they knew he not only entered the precincts of that temple, but had in fact made many offerings inside of it for all sorts of reasons. Of all the cults practiced in Rome, that of Isis and Serapis felt the most appropriate to him, as fellow outsiders who had been taken in from the exotic east and made almost more Roman than the Romans themselves in some cases. He noticed the exterior altar and small bust of Antinous alongside the Iseum, and thought that a similar situation applied to him. Not unlike Antinous, Abaris came willingly to Rome, and became as Roman as he could be; he could do nothing about his appearance or his accent (though he worked nightly on trying to lose the latter as much as possible), and luckily, he was not given too much difficulty over his appearance by most people.
As he came closer to his own neighborhood, he saw the many small shrines outside of people’s homes with burnt offerings on them. It was Feralia for the Romans, the last day of Parentalia when one’s won dead ancestors were honored privately, but it was a public festival for doing so, and some did it as ostentatiously as they possibly could. He also knew that for his Judean ancestors and family, it was the Sabbath. He wasn’t sure if any of them were still alive after the troubles in the former province, and he felt immediately guilty that he was somehow perversely pleased that likewise Hadrian had been dead for over nine months as well. The new emperor, called “Pius” by so many, would no doubt be honoring his own ancestors as well as his adopted father, and the mausoleum that Hadrian had been building for himself and his own family had been recently completed. No doubt, fires from burnt offerings rather than cremations would soon be rising from it as well. He could almost see the immensity of the monument in the distance, though he could not tell if the columns of smoke were coming from it or from places nearby also engaging in the offerings.
When he reached his own home, he thought for a few moments. Should he do as everyone else was doing, and burn an offering outside of his home, saying a few loud prayers Dis Manibus? If he did, everyone around would surely know that he was as good a citizen as any other, if they weren’t too busy making sure everyone else knew the same thing about themselves. He was hesitant…
Inside the insula where he was living, in his own room, he took something out of a strongbox which he had carried with him from Judea all of those years ago, which he rarely saw or thought about. His family called it a teraphim, and some of the rabbis would have said it should have been burned or buried or otherwise destroyed, while others would have had advice on how to maintain it properly or to renew it if the wood rotted away entirely and it needed replacing.
The Romans made small fires on their altars for offerings of all sorts. This was the object upon which his own offerings to his ancestors should have been made, and fire would have destroyed it. How strange that such similar actions, Abaris thought, in honoring one’s dead would lead to such drastically opposed results–sacrifice and sacrilege are often only separated by the smallest of margins, he mused. The advice of his rabbi, interpreting the passage from the Devarim about the fence built around the roof, came back to him at this point.
If a burned offering would run the risk of destroying the teraphim, then an offering of fine wine as a libation would be appropriate instead. He thought of all the times in his childhood and early maturity when his family celebrated the Pesach and how enjoyable the wine was for everyone to drink and share together. Pesach was a few weeks off yet, but tonight, he would have his own version of it in the presence of his own ancestors, and the so-called “idol” that he knew truly represented them, even though many amongst his native people would have denied having such practices.
Mazel tov–indeed, the constellations which lead him to this point, though strange, were indeed good, he thought. None of it could have happened without his ancestors, and he remembered and honored them on that night, in his own strange way, in a foreign land amongst people who were doing the same thing by their own people’s customs.