Venice is one of the glories of this world, a city that hovers between dream and reality; it is, as a famous art critic once said, “a permanent miracle.”
And, it might be added, Venice is also one of the glories of the Jewish world.
Jewish Venice is centered around the open square of the ghetto, which houses five old synagogues, the Jewish Museum of Venice, the communal offices, the large seniors’ home, and the six-story “skyscrapers,” the tallest buildings in the city. Since the ghetto could not expand outward, up was the only place to go. Today, only a few Jewish families remain.
To sit in the synagogue that dates back to 1555 on Shabbat and worship before the ornate, centuries-old ark with its many Torah scrolls — and flanked by four 10-foot candles on each side and three huge Baroque chandeliers suspended from the high ceiling — is to partake of the joy of a historic Jewish presence in this enchanting city where Jews have lived for almost 1,000 years.
To call a worshiper to the Torah, the shamash gives the man a tiny oval brass plate with the number of the aliya engraved on it. At the bima he returns it to the shamash, who replaces it in a velvet-lined box. A fascinating Venetian custom: after the priestly blessing, the kohen does not remove his tallit from over his forehead but walks (with someone’s aid) to his seat; only when he gets there does he remove his prayer shawl.
The community has a talented religious leader — Rabbi Gili Benyamin, an Israeli Yemenite who is fluent in six languages and gives the Shabbat sermon in Italian and Hebrew — a cantor (who also teaches in the Hebrew school), and a Torah reader.
A special treat offered to visitors to the museum, located in the campo, the main square, of the Ghetto Nuovo: is a video opera — by Trieste composer and klezmer band director Davide Casali — that shows, on four screens, the rhythms of Jewish life through the three daily prayers.
Gam Gam, the restaurant run in the ghetto by Chabad, offers free Shabbat meals — with zemirot — on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. (Donations on Sunday are welcome.)
Only two of the ghetto’s synagogues are in use — one during the winter, the other, the rest of the year. But on the High Holy Days, both are open to accommodate the crowds, as most of the 450 Jews registered with the community — 250 live in Venice, the rest nearby — attend.
Despite the fact that there are no Jewish gondoliers, Jews and gondolas have always been inextricably linked. For hundreds of years Jews, including rabbis, would travel to Sabbath services by gondola, the only way to attend, an activity — riding by boat — permitted on the Sabbath, if the payment is arranged before the Sabbath, or if it’s a “free ride.”
Klezmer in the piazza
Among the other great attractions in Venice — besides simply walking, traversing bridges, and venturing into side lanes — is St. Mark’s Square, one of the most harmonious places one can ever hope to see. A walking tour booked through venice-welcome.com takes visitors to the other, almost unknown Venice, where the Venetians live their daily lives, just blocks away. Other must-tour spots are the islands of Murano — for its renowned glass-blowing works — and Burano — for its exquisite lace and colorful houses.
And, of course, there are the museums and the music. Don’t miss the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, right on the Grand Canal, with works by many of the modern masters. For concerts, find the I Veneziani at the Scuolo Grande de San Teodoro and visit the Barbarigo Palace, where one evening we saw a marvelous Barber of Seville; uniquely, each act took place in a different grand room of the palace (see musicapalazzo). Another great venue is the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music; it offered Monteverdi and Vivaldi concerts at the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi and the legendary opera house, La Fenice, as well.
One evening, standing by the famous Cafe Lavena in Piazza San Marco and listening to their five-piece band, we heard a tune that sounded familiar — it was “Hava Nagila” — which segued into “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” followed by “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Mine Shteytele Belz.” During a break I walked over to the bandstand to compliment the clarinetist on his superb klezmer style. He was a non-Jew from Kishinev who had learned Jewish melodies from friends back home. When we returned next time and sat down at a table, the clarinetist noticed us and at once began playing that set of familiar Jewish melodies.
We stayed at the new Hilton Stucky Molino Hotel, situated on Giudecca Island right across from the “mainland” and easily accessible via frequent complimentary motorboat rides to Piazza San Marco. Besides its gorgeous rooms, the Hilton offers a huge buffet breakfast and snacks and drinks all day in its executive lounge. The rooftop boasts a swimming pool and a stunning view of the great lagoon and much of Venice.