VENICE (JTA) – Through a narrow, frayed sottoportico, or Venetian lane, and across a wooden walkway, there is a wide plaza surrounded by rows of multicolored buildings.
Entering the Jewish ghetto in Venice is a bit like traveling back in time. On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Senate locked up the city’s Jews near a cannon factory, in one of the earliest examples of enforced religious segregation.
Unlike their Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Christian neighbours, Venetian Jews were allowed to freely practice their religion as long as they remained inside the ghetto, paid their taxes and rents (higher than other citizens), and stuck to a few occupations: loan sharks, doctors, merchants and sellers of rags.
They endured, and over time the ghetto, crammed into the space of an acre, became the vibrant Jewish cultural capital of Europe. The first printing presses produced religious and secular works in Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish in the ghetto; the 1609 Venice Haggadah is one of the most famous examples of the book that guides the Passover seder.
centuries later, much of the architecture is in a precarious state, and the local Jewish community is much smaller than it used to be. It is taking steps – small steps at first – to reverse these trends following the failure of other large-scale campaigns.
“The population of the community probably peaked around 1630 with around 5,000 Jews of German, Italian, French and Sephardic descent. Before the Holocaust, between 1500 and 1800, they lived here. Today we are about 450 Jews,” said Paolo Navarro, vice president of the organization of the Jewish Community of Venice.
Only about 30 of those 450 still live in Ghetto Square, making up a dozen households. Over the past few decades, tourism has been a double-edged sword: it supports an economy but has caused a city-wide exodus of local Jews and non-Jews who find everyday tasks, such as shopping and shopping, difficult in a city that receives tens of millions of tourists every year.
“It’s a social issue that affects everyone, not just the Jewish community,” Navarro said.
The buildings, too close together from the start, needed a long overdue renovation to remain standing, especially since city water levels continue to rise due to climate change. In 2014, ahead of the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the ghetto in 2016, a group of philanthropists called the Venetian Heritage Council, led by renowned Jewish fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, announced a $12 million project to restore the ghetto. But the project fell through when the group could not raise enough funds to begin the restoration.
That’s when the Jewish community of Venice, a group that now owns much of the ghetto’s real estate, decided to take up the challenge. They first renovated the kosher bed and breakfast in the Ghetto, the Giardino Dei Melograni, Garden of Pomegranates. This year they are renovating the kosher restaurant next door, the Gimmel Garden, which has been closed for years, and the small but historic jewish museum, which lists Venetian Jewish history. Both buildings are due to reopen this summer.
They hope the renovations will encourage new families to live within the confines of the ghetto; the community group has enough housing to provide families of new workers at the museum and other institutions undergoing renovation. From there, the Community dreams of a broader revitalization of Jewish religious life throughout Venice. In 2019 they hired a new chief rabbi, Daniel Touitou of France, who in the 1990s was the vice rabbi of Turin.
It’s an uphill battle — in addition to the waves of tourists, most Venetian Jews are disengaged from communal life these days, said Touitou, who is Orthodox.
“People, unfortunately, are not interested in living in a Jewish way,” he said. “The past is significant, but it does not bear the risk of assimilation in the absence of practice. Many Venetian Jews lose interest in their identity.
Thanks to the COVID pandemic, the ghetto has been noticeably quieter since 2020, its narrow streets less crowded. But its Jewish artistic and cultural heritage still permeates the walls of decaying buildings.
Sardines and sweets
A tour of the Venetian Ghetto begins at the ornate Spire Bridge, made of brick and white stone, in the northwest corner of the city. Then, along the Cannaregio Canal, past the tourists sipping coffee in cafes, a dark, unassuming tunnel leads to the Jewish Quarter.
Upon entry, the first thing that visitors notice are the aromas that emerge. GamGam, a kosher restaurant run by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. The restaurant offers a menu of traditional Venetian Jewish, Israeli and Ashkenazic flavors, serving everything from Sardinia en saor – marinated sardines with onions, raisins, pine nuts – to fried artichokes with lamb to holiday staples like gefilte fish and applesauce latkes.
A little further down the tiny alley, a sign in front of a square store announces its main specialty: Dolci Ebraici, or Jewish sweets. Giovanni Volpe’s store is the most sought-after Jewish bakery in the neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to see someone outside snacking on a impade pastryreminiscent of other Sephardic biscuits filled with almond cream, or a piece of unleavened citrus bise – a small “S” shaped biscuit, a traditional Passover delicacy.
At the end of the alley, the ghetto opens onto the square once inhabited by Levantine Jews, mostly Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire. Hidden away in plain-looking buildings in the square are La Scola Spagnola (Spanish Synagogue) and La Scola Levantina (Levantine Synagogue), the last synagogues built in the neighborhood, in 1541 and 1580, respectively.
Coming from various parts of Europe, each Jewish group sought to maintain their own traditions and community spirit within the ghetto. In 1571 there were five synagogues, each dedicated to a distinct ethnic group.
The Spanish Synagogue is the only temple that has been continuously used since its founding. Said to have been designed by the famous Venetian Baroque architect Baldassare Longhena, the temple resembles the style of many contemporary Venetian monuments and palaces. Carved wooden doors on which are inscribed verses of the Psalm welcome the faithful. the bimahor prayer podium, features marble columns and the floor is made of white and gray marble tiles, arranged in a concentric square pattern.
The Schola Levantina, rebuilt in 1680, is an elegant building also attributed to Longhena. Dark wooden panels cover the square prayer hall and the 18th century bimah stands in a raised polygonal apse, covered with a domed skylight.
Of the three remaining temples in the ghetto, La Scola Grande Tedesca (German Synagogue), erected by Ashkenazi Jews in 1528, is the oldest. The bimah and Torah Ark face each other, and the long walls house 16th-century pews adorned with lion claws and floral designs. A skylight ceiling floats above the Venetian terrazzo floor, adorned with multicolored marble mosaics. The building it is in also houses the aforementioned Jewish Museum.
The contemporary community migrates between synagogues: they use the Levantine Synagogue in winter because it is heated, and the Spanish Synagogue in summer because it stays cooler.
A culture of craftsmanship
A thriving culture of Jewish craftsmen and craftsmen is still present along the tangled streets of the ghetto. A few blocks from the synagogues, the couple Michal Meron and Alon Baker run The Studio in Venicea gallery and store featuring a diverse collection of colorful artwork, ranging from original paintings depicting Jewish holidays to prints celebrating the cats of venice.
Their most popular creation is the illustrated Torah scrolls, which are inspired by the 54 weekly Torah portions and the Ten Commandments, painted on a single canvas scroll with wooden scrolls. It took four years for Michal, who is from Austria, and it is available in various double print sizes.
“The congregations and yeshivas that have purchased one have used it primarily as a teaching tool for children,” said Baker, an Italian from Trieste.
The couple, who previously lived in Haifa, also sell prints that use micrographa Jewish calligraphic technique that uses tiny Hebrew letters to construct documents, such as a ketubah marriage contract, or artwork and designs.
Several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have strained local businesses here.
“Few European Jewish tourists buy Venetian Judaic art here,” said Davide Curiel, owner of David’s shopwho designs Jewish art and Judaica.
The Curiels arrived in Venice 500 years ago from Curiel del Duero, Spain, and since then have been making Judaica glass in the city’s famous Murano style. Doriana, Davide’s sister, is the mastermind behind the meticulous designs.
By blowing glass into various colorful patterns and shapes, the duo create menorahs, shofars, mezuzahs, dreidels, kiddush cups and more using centuries-old glass techniques; their store is only one of two still making glass Judaica in Venice.
“My sister will be retiring in a few years. I am 62 years old and I have no children. When you work with glass, you create something remarkable and special. Once we are shut down, the legacy and heritage behind our craft will be completely lost,” Davide said.