Some say the old lady dropped it at the bottom of the Tiber River in the end. Others believe the Roman Catholics melted it down. There’s even a theory that it’s buried with a king. As for Jewish Twitter? They think the Pope’s been hoarding a menorah and other “Jewish treasures” from the Second Temple in the Vatican’s basement for centuries.
Perpetuated since the Middle Ages, this grand conspiracy theory is nothing new. Yet suddenly there’s been an explosion of Vatican-menorah discourse on JTwitter (yes, that’s Jewish Twitter).
The Vatican when a bunch of Jews from Jtwitter raid it to get the menorah back pic.twitter.com/ufGpPIO81Q
— Aaron Fogarty (@Aaron_Fogarty_) May 6, 2020
Scrolling through the endless memes that erupted over the past few days about this ancient tale is truly the only treasure I need, but still, I wondered, why? Aside from a small news write-up about an Israeli rabbi who claims coronavirus in Rome will intensify unless the Vatican returns the oldest religious symbol in Western culture, the menorah, to Jerusalem, the trend lacks a strong news hook. So what the heck resparked this theory on Twitter? And is it actually based on any truth?
Armed with sleuthing tools (thanks Twitter advanced search!) I poured over all my research and connected the dots. So, is the Pope really hiding an ancient menorah in his basement? And why are people talking about this now? To understand the theory, we have to go back to the destruction of the Second Temple.
During the Siege of Jerusalem back in 70 CE, the Roman army, led by future emperor Titus, pillaged, plundered, and totally destroyed everything in the holy city, including the Second Temple, known as Herod’s Temple (Jews fast on Tisha B’Av in July to mark this disaster). Among other “Jewish treasures” — my new nickname — the Romans schlepped the gorgeous seven-lamp candelabra — perhaps the very one King Solomon kept in the First Temple — on their backs to its new home base at the Temple of Peace. This horrific scene is immortalized on the Arch of Titus, a glorious (and super rude) monument erected to honor Titus’ victory over the Jews that still stands in Rome.
Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, lived through the Siege of Jerusalem and recorded it in his diary, and the Midrash tells us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai actually saw the menorah at the Temple of Peace. But after living in the ironically dubbed Temple of “Peace” for 122 years, the building was burned down in 191 CE. A byzantine historian says the menorah was transferred to one of the palaces on the Palatine Hill where it stayed for centuries, but, like, couldn’t it have also just been destroyed in the fire?
Here’s where the red string on my Vatican-menorah cork board gets tangled.
There’s a rumor that in 410 CE, the Visigoths, led by King Alaric, started losing his shit and fucked things up in Rome. Alaric died months later, and as an ode to their goth papa, the Visigoths buried him with the menorah they looted from Palatine Hill. That’s what some say, anyway.
Most historians believe that the menorah was snatched from Rome by the hands of the Vandals in 455 CE during another Sack of Rome and taken to Carthage (modern day Tunisia). According to Procopius, an ancient historian, the Byzantine army swooped in and looted the hot potato in 533 CE, bringing the menorah and other Jewish booty — another nickname of mine — to Constantinople (Istanbul) for Emperor Justinian. Hold your horses, y’all, the hot potato game continues!
Procopius wrote that a Jew warned Justinian that the Jewish treasures were cursed — and that every city that housed it would be destroyed. Understandably so, the emperor built the Nea Church in Byzantine Jerusalem and stored the Temple treasure there for all to visit.
So that’s that, right? If the menorah eventually made its way back to Jerusalem, why is JTwitter demanding the Pope return what’s rightfully ours? Sigh, alas, the plot thickens.
Nu? Where’s the menorah?
Some say the Roman Jews buried the menorah in the Tiber River when Rome was under siege for their descendants to dig up later. This belief was reinforced in 1818 when a whole ass company was developed to excavate the Italian river. Unfortunately, the heist never came to fruition.
During a meeting with the Pope in 1996, the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Shimon Setreet, asked the Vatican for help to locate the Jewish vessels. As Haaretz reported, it was super awkward, and a “tense silence hovered over the room.” A decade later, Israel’s Antiquities Authority actually sent a team to search the Vatican’s storerooms and came out empty handed.
So why do some still believe this wild conspiracy theory?
Because the Vatican perpetuated it. Crazy, I know.
Okay, so here’s the deal: 12th century travel influencer and Spanish Jew Benjamin of Tudela wrote in his diary that the Jews of Rome knew the Temple vessels were hidden in a cave in the Lateran, AKA the Papal Palace. The 18th century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was also team Vatican-has-the-menorah-in-a-cave. In 1291, this mosaic in the Church of Saint John in the Lateran included an inscription proclaiming evidence that not only did Rome have the menorah, they were also hiding the Ark of the Covenant! Insert shocked face emoji!!
Fast forward to the end of the Holocaust, and the Roman Catholic Church, who’d notoriously been anti-Semitic, offered an olive branch to the Jewish community. Skeptical of the Mean Girls inviting them to eat lunch at the popular girls’ table, Jews got suspicious. The radical shift in Italy’s attitude “invigorated a notion that ‘they must be hiding something’ and that ‘something’ came to be the menorah of the Temple,” says cultural historian Professor Steven Fine, author of The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel.
Here’s the thing: Let’s say the Vandals and the Visigoths failed the great heist, and the menorah never left the Vatican. “Even if the Vatican had the menorah at one point, they definitely didn’t care about it (and why would they) and some greedy Pope would have melted down all the gold to use it for their own personal needs like has been done with other things a thousand times before,” Jewish Scholar Shayna Weiss tweeted.
She has a point. Remember the Temple of Peace? How do you think Rome afforded it? They used a bunch of the gold from the OG Jerusalem loot. Historian Fine agrees. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said that ancient artifacts go missing, for sure, but not gold ones. The myth that it’s at the bottom of the Tiber? Unlikely. But it is possible that after the Vandals pillaged Rome back in 455 CE, they melted down the menorah.
TL;DR: The treasures of the Second Temple were passed around like the hottest potatoes and most likely ended up as a pile of golden mush, or got lost in one of them Christian temples. Despite firsthand accounts over the century that the menorah was spotted in the Vatican’s basement — in 1962 one Oscar Goldman swears Pope John XXII showed him the “treasure trove” of Jewish artifacts in a “poorly lit room” — the tales are as tall as Harry Potter.
PHEW! That was a lot of history to digest. Let’s get on with it.
So what’s going on with Jewish Twitter?
Imagine the Pope waking up this week to an onslaught of hilarious Jewish memes demanding he return the menorah to Jerusalem.
the pope when he sees his twitter mentions pic.twitter.com/rHwEE7twSx
— 🏳️🌈 שירה (@shirasilkoff) May 5, 2020
Aside from that one aforementioned news article about the rabbi who claims coronavirus in Italy will worsen unless the Pope returns the Temple treasures, and that time six years ago when Israeli Councilman Arykey King said he wouldn’t greet the Pope on Mount Scopus unless he packed his suitcase with “the treasures of the Jewish people that were stolen by his predecessors,” I couldn’t find any strong reason for the Vatican-menorah myth re-up.
If you ask JTwitter who sparked the mission to go all National Treasure on the Vatican, they’ll point to Jewish Twitter celebrity (and Alma contributor) Shoshana Gottlieb, who reignited the conversation on May 3:
what a fantastic day for everybody to start talking about my favorite conspiracy theory again:
THE VATICAN HAS THE MENORAH.
— shoshana || שושנה (@TheTonightSho) May 4, 2020
Shoshana tells me she saw a conspiracy theory tweet from fellow A-list Jewish tweeter known as Maimonides Nutz. She thought it was funny and added fuel to the fire. In reality, Alex Zeldin, another JTwitter household name (@JewishWonk), held the string of yarn that Nutz pulled to get the ball of Vatican menorah memes rolling.
Alex put the conspiracy theory into the Twitter ethers as early as March of last year, and since the pandemic, he reignited his passion for the “dusty giant menorah sitting in the catacombs of the Vatican” myth on April 17 of 2020, and, most recently, this past Saturday.
On behalf of the perplexed Jewish community, I emailed Alex to get to the bottom of the explosion of memes.
“I am not a loon,” Alex began his email — an excellent opening line. He wanted me to know that he knows the myth “has no basis in reality — the menorah was lost to history in tumultuous times when Rome was being repeatedly sacked. In all likelihood, it was melted down for the gold.”
Great, we’re on the same page. “But what if it wasn’t?” he pondered.
As it turns out, imagining an ancient menorah in the Vatican is very funny. “It’s the archeological equivalent of finding your grandparent’s beloved childhood baseballs cards under the floorboard,” Alex wrote. “You know it was treasured, but how funny is it to think of all the years that you walked just above them never knowing they lied there, just waiting to be found again?”
After a trip to Italy in 2018, Alex got super into the Vatican-menorah myth and made the original meme to drive the point home. JTwitter loved it, so he kept it up.
[At the Vatican]
WE DON'T have u checked
HAVE IT the basement
it's a big menorah pic.twitter.com/icqJBxkXd4
— Alex (@JewishWonk) November 6, 2019
“Like a lot of internet culture, the amusement is driven by this dynamic that is hard to describe but you know it when you see it. Think of the moth memes that were popular not that long ago. They were random, wildly specific, and not tied to anything in particular. I had an urge to do something like that, but make it Jewish. And if it made very online Gen-Z Jews go Google and learn about Jewish history, all the better.”
Perpetuating the ridiculous myth is also a way to mock “our conspiracy-prone president,” Alex tells me.
“The most devastating thing you can do to a troll who desperately wants to be respected and taken seriously is laugh in their face. So I did.”
LIBERATE THE MENORAH FROM THE VATICAN'S BASEMENT
— Alex (@JewishWonk) April 17, 2020
It’s important to note that Alex hopes everyone remembers the real message he’s driving home: “The joke is that it’s harmless fun with a fake conspiracy, not a license to make fun of Catholics or the Pope (who I am genuinely a fan of).”
So, there you have it folks! The myth is just that — a myth. Now please enjoy my favorite jokes about The Great Menorah-Vatican Conspiracy Theory:
I’m not like other girls…
i’m not like other girls. i’m gonna take back the menorah from the vatican
— latke del rey ™ (@latkedelrey) May 5, 2020
Catholic conspiracies about Jews vs. Jewish conspiracies about Catholics:
CATHOLIC CONSPIRACIES ABOUT JEWS: they killed our god, they murder our children and bake their blood into their weird bread
JEWISH CONSPIRACIES ABOUT CATHOLICS: give us our fancy candelabra back pls
— shoshana || שושנה (@TheTonightSho) May 4, 2020
Hot girl Vatican raid:
feeling sexy might fuck around and raid the Vatican to get the menorah back for funsies 😎👍🏼
— ᴇʟɪsʜᴇᴠᴀ ✡︎ (((ig: jewishlgbt))) (@jewish_lgbt) May 4, 2020
The only anagram you need to know:
"OMIT IT HAS SEVEN BRANCHES 'NEATH IT. AMEN" is an anagram of "THE MENORAH IS IN THE VATICAN'S BASEMENT" and if that's not evidence that the popes have been secretly hiding it all this time, I don't know what is
— Notorious Jewish Ba(n)ker🔥 (@Pale_0ntologist) May 4, 2020
My personal favorite format:
omg what if we raided the Vatican to get the menorah back 😳 jk hahah …. unless? 🙈
— ✡︎(((Theo)))✡︎ ig: that.jewish.activist (@jewish_activist) May 1, 2020
National Treasure, but make it Mossad:
National Treasure but it’s Mossad getting the Menorah back from the Vatican
— (b)anal (@jack_schu_) February 8, 2020
What would we even do with the menorah?
okay but nobody seems to be asking what we’re gonna do with menorah once we get it out of the vatican? where do we keep it? this is not to say that we shouldn’t raid the pope’s basement. just that these are the kinds of questions we need to be asking.
— Poly the Peptoad (@polypeptoad) May 5, 2020
Naruto memes make a comeback
My new favorite meme is Naruto taking back the Menorah and other articles of the Beit Hamikdash from the Vatican😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/FMMbnWXqPU
— Yehuda (@broncosojrr) May 5, 2020
Do you believe the Pope’s lies?
Does the Vatican have the Menorah?
— jewdⒶs // ייִדהודה (@jewdas) May 5, 2020