Keeping Judaism Alive in Venice

I was sitting with Rabbi Elia Richetti in the information office of the Jewish Community of Venice (JCV), located in the Ghetto. The then chief rabbi of Venice told me a story: A tour guide is taking a group through Venice’s Jewish Ghetto and remarks that there are no Jews left there. But then a man sticks his head out of an apartment window above and says, “Don’t trust him, I’m here!” Discovering the Jewish Ghetto is like finding an old treasure trying to preserve its identity and emerge stronger in the modern world — a relic struggling for relevance. The majority of the city’s 450 Jews do not live there, but the Ghetto is the heart of the Jewish Venetian community, where centuries of Jewish tradition merge with modern day life. This is the first place in Europe where Jews were segregated, beginning in 1516, until Napoleon arrived in 1797 and tore down the gates. This is the place where five ethnic groups of Jews arrived in different waves of immigration, enjoying its golden age in the 1600s when Jewish commerce and scholarship flourished. This is where a vibrant Jewish cultural center grew, where the first Talmud was printed. The Ghetto today is where the official Jewish Community of Venice strives to attract more visitors with its museum and synagogues; where ChabadLubavitch has settled in its usual enthusiastic fashion, offering worship services and a free Friday night dinner at its restaurant; where a few Jewish shopkeepers entice tourists with art works and ritual objects; where some Israelis have come to work. Here you can visit four of the five centuries-old synagogues; eat kosher food; stop for a chat at the community’s information center; view the Holocaust memorial created by Lithuanian sculptor Arvit Blatas — all in the area of a large campo (square). This where I spent many days during a month-long visit to Venice last summer. There are still Jews living in the Ghetto — but only about 30. More important, the Jews of Venice are making an effort to keep Judaism alive in their city, to attract more Jews to visit, study and even to live. I saw evidence of their efforts, as I roamed the Ghetto, talking to residents, business people and visitors and to Jews living in other parts of the city. The task is difficult, but there is hope and a feeling of cautious optimism as the Ghetto approaches its 500th anniversary in 2016. The Jewish presence in Venice is actually even older than in the Ghetto. Many Jewish merchants and moneylenders visited and worked in the city beginning in the 10th century but didn’t really settle until the 13th century. Since the 1500s, that presence has been continuous. “We don’t want Venice to become another Pitigliano,” said Shaul Bassi, whose family has lived in Venice for generations. He was referring to the almost zero Jewish presence in the lovely town of Pitigliano, which once had a flourishing Jewish community. A professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Shaul is also the director of the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, which promotes and facilitates academic study, research and learning in Jewish studies and the enhancement of Jewish life and culture in the Ghetto. Shaul has been developing a program in which Jews from all over the world can engage in Jewish life and studies in Venice. “We need to interact,” he emphasized. This past April, for example, the center brought three prominent Jewish authors to Venice. Its motto is: “Live, learn and create in Jewish Venice.” The decline in the Jewish population, he noted, is due to both general difficulties in Venice, such as the lack of jobs and housing, and also Jewish factors, such as intermarriage and the lack of an alternative to an Orthodox community. Shaul fit me into his busy schedule, as he was off to Sweden the next day to participate in Paideia’s Project Incubator, an intensive two-week boot camp for people involved in innovative projects dedicated to advancing European Jewish culture. In recent years, the official Jewish community has been opening itself more to tourists. The problem, according to Shaul, is that they have tended to see tourists more as a problem than as an opportunity. The cultural reclaiming of the Ghetto began in the late 1970s with a campaign, he said, that ironically began with the slogan, “Let’s revive the Jewish cemetery.” The community has a legacy of keeping Judaism private, so how do you revive a community that is used to being quiet, he questioned. Jewish life has been created inward for historical and architectural reasons, but also for security reasons, he explained. When Chabad started lighting its giant menorah in the Ghetto, people were shocked, said Shaul. “It was like having your teenage daughter walk naked in the street.” Perhaps motivated by Chabad’s presence, which began in 1986, the JCV opened an office on the street where people can get information about the Ghetto, Shabbat services and Venetian Jewish life. I was welcomed by Nechama Dina Minkowitz, who was standing outside the office, beckoning visitorswith her warmth and wealth of information. “We don’t want the Ghetto to become another museum. We can do more to make Jewish life thrive here,” she said, echoing Shaul. Born in Israel, Nechama Dina later lived in the United States. When she married an Italian, she moved to Venice where her husband worked at Balthazar, a kosher restaurant that was operating when I visited but has since closed. The restaurant is attached to a 16-room hotel (both under new ownership), which makes it possible for visiting Jews to do candle lighting, go to the mikvah and attend services, all within the Ghetto. Some 200,000 Jews visit Venice every year, according to Nechama Dina, and 8,000 eat kosher. The community wants to increase their awareness, she said, “preservation through awareness.” And, she pointed to a local map, “most of the city has a natural eruv, because of the walls.” Looking at the demographics of the community, Nechama Dina said, the age range is mostly 45 to 90. There are a handful of young singles, who have to look to Milan and Rome for Jewish activities. The “intermarriage guilt is not as heavy as it is in the United States,” she noted, though you are cut off in some ways if you intermarry: You can’t be called to the Torah. What is it like to be a Jewish woman here? I asked, the lives of Jewish women being my constant area of interest. “The women — they do a lot of shlepping!” she said. “When you have a kosher home, you think differently. Eating out is limited. The community orders kosher food from Milan once a month — and we aren’t charged for shipping. “There is a beautiful culture that has survived and thrived for hundreds of years; it’s very intellectual,” continued Nechama Dina. “Women in the community have a long history of being intellectuals and professionals — not typical housewives but professors, psychologists, teachers, librarians.” I think back to something Shaul had mentioned a few days before, about the Venetian Jewish women: They lead a “schizophrenic” life, where “in their work they are progressives, but in the Jewish community they play traditional roles. They don’t even know about things like women reading from the Torah.” A bit of history: According to Micaela Procaccia, historian and archivist at Italy’s National Archives, Italian Jewish women “have always been rather independent compared to the Christian women of their time” (from “Jewish Women 2000: Conference Papers from the Hadassah Research Institute on Jewish Women International Scholarly Exchanges 1997-1998.” During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Italian Jewish women often acted as financial agents for their husbands, had access to monetary funds and worked in a variety of financial roles — as merchants, moneylenders, brokers, experts in precious metals and partners in stores. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Jewish women in Rome were taught to read Hebrew prayers and some learned to read the Bible. There were Jewish women scribes in the 14th century and a woman who led other women in prayer. In medieval times, there were feisty women in the Venice Ghetto who put on tefillin and sat with the men in shul. In Modena, during the Renaissance, when the Torah was taken out of the ark, women would loudly curse men and ask for vengeance against those who had slighted them (according to historian Howard Adelman). The bat mitzvah ceremony began to be celebrated in the middle of the 19th century. The status of women varied from city to city and changed with the times. During the first 15 years of the 20th century, the position of Jewish women was a subject of fierce debate, according to Procaccia, as Jewish men tried to hold back the women, restricting them to the roles of wife and mother. Nechama Dina reeled off some facts about today’s community. The JCV holds the rights to the five synagogues, some buildings, the old-age home and museum. There’s a Talmud Torah with about 20 children. The community center has kosher kitchens, a lecture hall for groups that visit and a playground. It sponsors activities ranging from a barbeque for Lag B’Omer to women’s belly dancing classes. They do a girl-naming ceremony in the synagogue when a baby is one month old (a tradition since the 18th century) and a community havdalah service. “We’re trying to get more people involved than in the past,” she emphasized. The community is also trying to bring Jews from other places in Italy and from Europe and Israel to live in the Ghetto. There is now a musician from Israel, with his wife, a singer from Australia. Another woman, with two children and a husband in the gold jewelry business, is from Milan. But in general, reflecting the general problem in the city, jobs are scarce and people leave. And so, too, will this cheerleader for the Venice Jewish community. Nechama Dina is moving on — to Brooklyn, New York, where she and her husband can be part of a larger Orthodox community. Rabbi Richetti has an interesting history, and I am always fascinated by Jews who can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years. He told me that his forebears left Spain in 1492. The family lived in Venice until the 1730s, then split into two branches: One stayed in Venice (many were physicians; one founded the old-age home); his branch went to Galitzia and later to Trieste, and he was born in Milan. He studied in Jerusalem, served as rabbi in Israel, Milan and Trieste and came to Venice nine years ago. To make changes in the community, you have to change minds, he explained. Most Jews in Italy are not religious, he continued, but they want their synagogues to be strictly religious. People want to make their synagogues more attractive, but they don’t want women cantors or mixed seating. This past February, Rabbi Richetti retired, and Rabbi Gili Benyamin, born in Israel of Yemenite descent, has taken over. In a recent e-mail, Rabbi Benyamin shared his thoughts on strengthening the Jewish community: “My main goal in Venice is to integrate the youth and attract them to attend religious activities. We need to strengthen their Jewish identity and save them from intermarriage. So my greatest challenge is to bring them back to their roots, source and origin, so they will be proud of their Judaism.” Sounds familiar! In response to my questions about whether he envisions any change in the role of women, Rabbi Benyamin wrote: “Venetian Jewish women are strong and smart — and women are at the heart of everything in Judaism. The women of our community are very active and are leading many activities. They are the very ambassadors at the forefront of our community and our Jewish Italian identity.” He added that he’ll soon start a Talmud class for women, in addition to the one he recently began for men. Wanting to talk to some of the newcomers, I visited the shop/art gallery of Israeli artist Michal Meron. She and her husband, Elon Baker, moved to the Ghetto seven years ago, where they own two galleries. One shows Israeli artists; the other exhibits Michal’s paintings and is where she works and lives. Elon, a publisher, pointed out that his wife’s best work — and it surely is beautiful — is her lively illustrated Torah scroll, filled with delightful folk art figures. He tried to sell me on a fundraising project for Na’amat USA: Buy her Torah and then get people to pay money to have their names inscribed in various places throughout the scroll. We talked about her work. Though she is not religious, calling herself “Yom Kippur Judein” (born in Israel, she grew up in Austria), her inspiration for both her naïve paintings and her abstract work comes from the Torah and Jewish history and events. “I love my roots,” she said enthusiastically and would like to make a “historic show about the life of Jews.” The shop is filled with her colorful paintings of scenes from Jewish life in Italy and elsewhere, of Jewish holidays, synagogues, ketubbot. (She also has a gallery in Old Jaffa.) Her Meron Haggadah is an exuberant work. One of the subjects of her paintings, I was happy to discover, is Sara Coppio Sullam (1594-1641), a Venetian Jewish poet and intellectual who I have been doing some research on. I asked about the community’s relationship with Israel. “It’s very positive,” Michal said, adding that it celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut and has been very supportive of the plight of Gilad Shalit. The new president of the JCV wants the Ghetto to become “more Israelified,” she noted, to have more businesses owned by Israelis. Michal’s youngest son, Nevo, is studying shoe design in Italy. Sitting at a worktable, he was drawing attractive eggplant- (or perhaps radicchio-) colored women’s shoes. He chimed in when the discussion turned to whether Israelis really want peace. Michal pointed out that after World War II, there was nothing in the Ghetto, it was forgotten. But when the Jewish Museum opened, there was a “new Jewish dynamic.” Then came Chabad, “another dynamic.” Michal and her husband add much to the Jewish flavor of the Ghetto, but they, too, would like to return to Israel some day. Our chat was interrupted by a deluge of Jewish tourists from Spain, England, the United States and Canada. Everyone was buying. You can purchase an original painting or good reproductions in various sizes and on different types of paper. A teenager from Manchester, England, argued with his mother. He wanted her to pay for a print he liked. She told him to use his bar mitzvah money! I left while business was good, but not before getting a charming picture of a Shabbat celebration in Italy. My last stop: the kosher bakery for some raisin kugel. My day was complete. Another afternoon in the Ghetto. David’s Shop sparkles. The 27- year-old store is filled with wonderful Murano glass items — jewelry, Jewish ritual objects and souvenirs — at good prices. Jewish owner Davide Curiel told me that his family has lived in Venice since 1492. His sister, Doriana, makes the work on display and is the only woman creating glass objects in Venice. She works across the campo and lives in the apartment where Davide was born (in 1959), in a building now filled with Jews. I headed across the square and entered her slightly ajar door. Doriana was placing the glass in her kiln but was glad to have a visitor and showed me her newest work — lovely mosaic and murrhine glass mezuzot. A bit farther down the street, I stopped at Magic Stone Travel Service. I’d been told the owner is a Jewish woman. Gaia Rava, it turned out, was born in Venice. Her family goes back six generations there, and she thinks before that from Spain. “We are Sephardic.” Gaia has been involved in the travel business for 20 years, and she can arrange a wedding for you in the Ghetto, or a bar mitzvah or other celebrations. For 12 years, she’s been organizing the annual meetings of the American Joint Distribution Committee, though Jewish travel groups are not her main business. She proudly held up her cat, Moon, so he could be included in a photo. I headed off to a pre-arranged meeting on a bench in the campo with Rita Dayan, the wife of the assistant rabbi. No, she is not related to Moshe Dayan. She and her husband Avraham have been living in the Ghetto for six years. The president of the JCV offered her husband the job of assistant rabbi, and they came, never having seen Venice. Rita is originally from Alexandria, Egypt, and her husband from Israel; for about a year and a half, he was the chief rabbi of Egypt. He still travels there to organize minyans and for certain holidays. She works in the JCV office. The Ghetto has become more of a destination for religious tourists, Rita told me. I recalled the three gondolas full of Orthodox Jews I had seen the day before, singing as they sailed down one of the many canals. It’s the only place for them to have a Jewish roof over their heads and kosher food, she said, adding that Austrian Jews come just for Shabbat. “Everyone here is family, though we are different kinds of Jews — and there are many ties through marriage.” Rita hopes that some of the young people will return and that the community can bring in more young families She pointed out that the security official at the Spanish synagogue is from Israel, along with his wife and three children. Next stop: Ikona Gallery, an attractive space renovated from the ground up by owner Ziva Kraus and opened as a photo gallery in 2003. Ziva had owned galleries in other parts of Venice previously, but she likes the Ghetto and is “happy to be here.” Her father, a lawyer from Croatia, managed to survive the Holocaust by crossing into Italy, then going to Switzerland, where he met her mother, who had survived imprisonment in Slovenia. Originally from Zagreb, Ziva came to Venice in 1971. Her twin brother is president of the Jewish community in Zagreb. Most of the exhibitions are of a non-Jewish nature, she said, but some are related to Jewish themes, such as Yom Hashoah. Not an observant Jew, Ziva sees religion as a private matter and emphasizes the importance of the Jewish connection as a matter of conscience. A recent show, “Photography and Memory,” brought together striking images from the collections of the Foundation Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Milan and the Library and Archive Renato Maestro of the Jewish Community of Venice along with photos by Michele Levis, which “provide clues about the lives of Italian and Venetian Jews,” said Ziva. “It is my belief that discovering the exhibition against the Ghetto and its campo lends it a special resonance that heightens and enhances our interpretation, or understanding, of our relationship with life.” Ziva gave me a book based on the exhibition, also called Fotografia e Memoria, which juxtaposes pre-war and recent photos of Jewish life in Italy. In the foreward, Shaul Bassi wrote: “With appropriate humility, there are gathered here photos that document life before and after the caesura of the Holocaust, dialectically uniting the piercing feeling of loss for those who are no longer, with a heartfelt longing of hope for those who are, who continue to live.” On the eve of World War II, there were about 1,500 Jews living in the Ghetto. During the Holocaust, 247 Venetian Jews were deported by the Nazis; only eight returned. A visit to the Library Renato Maestro is predictably fruitless as far as research, as most of the works are in Italian and languages other than English. But there I met two interesting women. A mother and daughter, both professors at the University of Florence, have been researching their family history going back to Venice in the 1700s. The family name is Treves on the mother’s side (a famous name in Venetian Jewish banking). It seems that several generations ago, she had “grandparents” (or more likely great grandparents) that wanted to intermarry and needed approval from the Pope. The family has been Catholic ever since. The mother proudly unfolds an enormous family tree. In the most centrally located place in the Ghetto, looking out at the campo, is the Chabad office. It was filled with young men, among them several students from other parts of Europe, hovering over computers. Some had come for a short summer visit, to help in some way; some were studying in the small rabbinical yeshiva, across the campo, which also serves as the space for holding prayer services. Outside the office, a few enthusiastic men were doing the usual Chabad thing: encouraging men to come in and put on tefillin. I was looking for Shachar Banin, wife of the Chabad director, Rabbi Bamy Banin, whom I had e-mailed before leaving New York. We met a couple of times over the next few days. She is probably the busiest woman I have ever met. Sitting on a bench in the campo, as two of her three children played around us, we talked about women’s souls and roles, and the future of Jewish life in Venice. Shachar is relentlessly positive. Her work, the work of Chabad, she explained, is “to plant seeds in the Jewish community — and it will grow. These seeds bring life and hope and they show the strength of the community that once lived here; they represent the continuation of the beautiful Jewish history.” Chabad, she said, goes out to the community; they know all the Jews; they bring food and items for the holidays. The students volunteer in the general community with the ambulance boats and soup kitchens. Her husband runs the year-long rabbinical program, which he started. There were no daily minyans until Chabad came in 1986. When I asked about tensions between Chabad and the Jewish community of Venice, which some people had mentioned, Shachar diplomatically observed: “[The divisions] are not in the Torah — they are man-made — we’re all Jews in the Ghetto.” She insisted there are no tensions, but others had given me examples of Chabad not recognizing the Orthodox status of the community. I decided not to pursue the issue and move on to women. Women have inherent spiritually elevated souls, according to the Torah, said Shachar. Though I have my problems with the role of women and lack of equality in Orthodox Judaism, and could argue about a number of issues, I decided to just listen to what she has to say about women’s importance in Judaism. Originally from the United States, Shachar was brought up in a Reform synagogue where she was the first woman to wear a kippa. As we talked, she seemed sort of OK with Jewish women who want to expand their traditional roles, but questioned their motives: “Is it just an ego thing?” Of course women should pray and study, she noted, “but we all have a job to do, and if you don’t do it, who will? The woman sets the atmosphere; she is the foundation of the home. Even if you have Mr. Mom and she’s a CEO, women are on a spiritually higher level than men. We don’t need to wear a kippa — it brings the self down. We must use the ego in the right way. Women have the command from God to keep the world going, to affect change…. It’s all about making a place for God to live with us in the physical world. Do your job, do the mitzvot, that’s it; you don’t have to worry about the minor things.” She is glad she’s not required to go to Saturday morning services and can just relax. She also told me that if a woman takes a post-menopausal dunk in the mikveh, never having done it before, it’s as if she’s done it all her life. It’s a good deal, I thought, and later considered doing it. But then what about my intention? Shachar is like the CEO of the Ghetto. She oversees Gam Gam, the Chabad restaurant, where she runs the kitchen, creates dishes and the menu, orders meat from Vienna and dairy from France and Israel. (All the workers in the restaurant are men, I noticed on Shabbat.) She started a day school for the young children. She takes care of her three kids; e-mails people from all over the world; helps out at the office, talks to tourists. It was late afternoon and I was hungry, so I headed off to Chabad’s pizza shop, close to Gam Gam. It was one of the best slices I’ve ever had. The next day, I took a vaporetto (public boat transportation) to the island of Lido to see the Jewish cemetery. Indeed, the community has been “reviving” the cemetery — straightening gravestones, doing new landscaping. I spent hours roaming the acres of gravesites that date from the late 1300s to the present. Bathed in a patchwork of sunlight and shade, and ranging from well groomed to rustic, the terrain is covered with all kinds of markers — columns, steles, burial covers — and sarcophagi. A recent gravesite was decorated with Israeli flags. I was particularly intrigued by the headstones displaying photos of the deceased. Looking at the faces of the serious and stately women, I wondered about the lives they led centuries ago. Friday night brought me back to Chabad. The small prayer room was filled with tourists from many places. I sat next to a woman from Manchester, England. Originally from Ireland, she moved her family to Manchester to live among a larger Jewish population. A group of beautiful young women from Australia sat behind me. I met them again at Gam Gam, for the second round of the crowded freilach dinners that Chabad serves, for free, on Shabbat. The women have completed school and are traveling — and I suppose looking for nice observant guys. The following Shabbat, I attended the magnificent Spanish Synagogue, one of two functioning shuls in the Ghetto. Four of the Ghetto’s five shuls can be visited — they were built according to ethnic groups: Ashkenazi (French and German), Sephardic (Spanish), Italian and Levantine (Greek and Turkey). Founded by Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s, the Spanish Synagogue is used from Passover until the High Holy Days when the Levantine shul takes over. The four-story stone building was constructed in 1580 and restored during 1635 to 1654. Like the other synagogues, it was “hidden” in order to be tolerated by non-Jews: The exterior gives no sign of it being a house of worship. Jews from around the world packed the synagogue. I sat in the seat of one of the Sullam women, according to a tiny bronze plaque. With my eyes half closed, I could be davening with Sara Coppio Sullam in 1620 and perhaps the next night attending one of her salons. But I was sitting next to a quite elderly woman who said, in very limited English, that she had just come from Israel and that she once had a bat mitzvah in this synagogue. She read each word of the siddur softly out loud, usually ahead of the rabbi. Dressed in the sort of housecoat common to Venetian women, I wondered how she came from Israel; she was not with one of the many groups. Curious, I looked for her after the service, and tried to find someone who knew her. Then I saw her disappear way down the street, walking with two canes, in the direction of the hotel. — or perhaps the old-age home. The Levantine Synagogue, just a few steps away, was built between 1538 and 1561. This, too, has a modest façade but is lavishly adorned inside. A few minutes of walking took me to the Jewish Museum. On the floors above it is the German Synagogue (Scola Grande Tedesca), the oldest shul in Venice, built by the Ashkenazi community in 1528. Its five arched windows, representing the Five Books of Moses, are the only clue to its religious purpose. The shul’s plan is asymmetrical, with the women’s gallery set high and close to the ceiling, looking like a Venetian theater of the 18th century Next door is the Canton Synagogue, built by Ashkenazim, probably French, in 1531. It is recognizable from the outside only by the wooden cupola that appears among the roofs. And adjacent to this shul is the Scola Italiana, built around 1571, also with five large windows. The Jewish Museum is small but full of interesting objects from the Ghetto’s past: tallit covers, circumcision instruments, Torahs, silver ritual objects. On the first floor is a modern, spacious bookstore and café where you can get coffee and Italian Jewish pastries. So what about the future? I think about Shaul’s vision for an academic program in which scholars, students, artists and writers can live in the Ghetto’s unique historical environment and interact with the local community — a program capable of restoring the Ghetto to “its most positive historical vocation.” Instead of the melancholic and nostalgic place the Ghetto can seem to be, he dreams of a “new cultural traffic capable of creating a vivacious, pluralistic, international Jewish life.” I wish the Jews of Venice well. The combined visions of people like Shaul, the community activists and the Chabadniks bode well for the life of the Ghetto. The much younger me would consider opening a bagel shop there. The older me hopes that I can contribute to their recovery in some small way. Ciao and l’hitraot — I’ll be back.

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