Thursday, June 17, 2010

Italy -- Jewish Venice

 Chabadniks outside Chabad house in the Ghetto square. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is about disconnects and complexities of Jewish Venice.

In Venice, a Jewish disconnect between locals and visitors

By Ruth Ellen Gruber · June 16, 2010

VENICE, Italy (JTA) -- It was a Friday afternoon in the heart of the historic Venice Ghetto, and I was chatting with the city's chief rabbi, Elia Richetti, when his cellphone beeped.

"It's a text message from Gam-Gam Goodies, the Chabad-run pastry shop around the corner," said the bespectacled Richetti, whose wispy white beard spills down to his chest.

He read me the message, a reminder that there were still some chocolate, poppy-seed and cream-filled kosher pastries left -- and still time to pick them up before Shabbat.

"They really know how to use technology," Richetti said, smiling.

Many of the circles that make up Jewish Venice converged in that moment.

Richetti, who is also the president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, was speaking with me in the well-stocked Jewish bookstore and kosher cafe that form part of the Venice Jewish Museum, an institution founded by the Jewish community in 1953 that encompasses several of the ghetto's centuries-old synagogues.

Jews have lived in Venice since the Middle Ages; the old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido was founded in the 1300s. Venetian rulers established the ghetto as Europe's first enclosed place of Jewish segregation in 1516 on the site of an old foundry -- or getto, in the Venetian dialect.

The museum draws nearly 70,000 visitors a year, and locals say the annual number of Jewish visitors to Venice far exceeds that.

But the Venice Jewish community itself numbers fewer than 450, only a handful of whom live in the ghetto area. Only a few local Jews seek contacts with the tourists, other than as customers in their shops or bodies to make up a minyan.

"There is a paradox here," said Shaul Bassi, who heads the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, an institution founded last year aimed at fostering intellectual and cultural interaction between Jewish visitors and Jewish Venetians.

"The Jewish community as such is eroding, and many are unaffiliated or disaffected," Bassi said. "But at the same time the ghetto has never been so famous. There has never been such a profound interest in the ghetto as a site of memory."

Picking up the slack, as far as foreign tourists go, is Chabad-Lubavitch, which in two decades of activity here has become the most prominent public face of Judaism in Venice.

Read full story HERE

I spent several days in Venice a couple of weeks ago, in part to visit with an aunt and uncle who were there on vacation, and in part to update myself on the varied components of Jewish life in the Lagoon City, which I wrote about in this piece.

Besides sampling the new Chabad-run pastry shop, Gam-Gam goodies (down the street from the long-established Chabad kosher restaurant Gam-Gam), I also stopped in a new glatt kosher restaurant and cafe garden, Balthazar, located in what used to be the Jewish old-age home (and where a few elderly members of the Venice Jewish community still live.)

 Outside the Balthazar restaurant. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I also made it a point to go out to the Venice Lido to visit my friend Aldo Izzo, a retired sea captain who takes care of the historic Jewish cemeteries there. The old cemetery dates from the 14th century. Here are some pictures of it.

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber


  1. What an excellent travel story along with wonderful photos.

  2. I've read a great book (in French) "Histoire du ghetto de Venise" by Riccardo Calimani, and visited at Venice twice ... very interesting !