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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Arthur Fidelman is an art historian of Jewish descent who has come to identify as an American and academic first and a Jew second. On arriving in Rome to carry out a study of the Christian artist Giotto, he spends some time marveling at the classical bathhouses that have been preserved in the city, struggling to comprehend their antiquity and all that they have witnessed since their construction. He is disturbed from this reverie when his eyes fall upon an unsavory-looking character whom he is quick to judge as being in search of a handout from him.

This other man, whose name is Susskind, greets Arthur in Hebrew, at which Fidelman is much distressed, being upset that his Jewish identity has been so easily recognized. He is moreover shocked, on explaining to Susskind what he is in Rome to do, by the other’s casual knowledge of the artist Giotto. He refuses Susskind’s request for the suit that he has with him, offering the man a dollar instead. Susskind pursues Arthur to his hotel and repeats his request for the suit. The pair have a discussion about personal responsibility, a concept which Fidelman rejects outright. He gives Susskind five dollars and sends him on his way.

Susskind is back the next day, surprising Fidelman while he is eating lunch and begging him for money which he might invest. Fidelman instead offers him a bowl of spaghetti but is not happy when Susskind suggests he cut the spaghetti, because of his accompanying intimation that the two men are not Italians and are therefore not compelled to follow Italian manners. On returning to his hotel that evening, Fidelman discovers that the first chapter of his manuscript on Giotto is gone and immediately suspects Susskind. But while he does notify the police, he does not tell them about Susskind, preferring to pursue him on his own through the streets of Rome and eventually into the city’s Jewish ghetto.

During his pursuit, he witnesses on more than one occasion evidence of the suffering endured by the Jewish people during the years of World War II, experiences which open his eyes somewhat to his own responsibility to those with whom he shares a religion. When he sees Susskind again, it is rather by accident, being during a lull in Fidelman’s search while he is visiting the Giotto mosaic in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He experiences a sudden revelation as to what the other man had been trying to teach him during their encounters, but despite his attempt to assure Susskind that he harbors no ill will toward him, the other man runs away, suggesting that Fidelman has not yet fully captured the truth of his Jewish identity—a truth which Susskind represents.

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