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We Aren’t the People with Big Hats


Seeking out Judaism in Venice

On the afternoon before Yom Kippur, one week after my wedding and two weeks after my conversion to Judaism, I went looking for the Spanish Synagogue. It was mid-September in Venice, and the city’s central areas were still mobbed by summer tourists. I emerged from my apartment in San Marco and slipped into the flow of foot traffic ambling toward Rialto. A sea of seniors with soft tote bags stretched ahead of me. Each time I attempted to quicken my pace and pass them by, a new phalanx appeared to block me. “That’s a great place to sit!” barked one man carrying a baby stroller as he negotiated the crowds sitting on a stone bridge. Elsewhere, a woman straddled a different bridge’s railing, her dress hitched up and exposing her thighs. Her partner snapped photos of her flicking her hair as a passing gondolier shouted in Italian, “Venice is not a theme park!”

I don’t know if the woman understood the jab; she could have been from anywhere. But this bewildering scene was familiar to me. I grew up in nearby Feltre, a town at the foot of the Dolomites. While I spent part of my youth in Massachusetts with my American mother’s side of the family, I’d been to Venice many times, and remembered those narrow alleys, or calli, as they’re called in Venetian dialect. As a child, I loved the feeling of being lost down these tight passageways, which seemed to promise a great number of secrets.

But what I don’t remember during any of my visits was any sign of a Jewish community. This was why I was going in search of the Spanish Synagogue the day before Yom Kippur—part of me didn’t really believe it was there. But as I entered the Cannaregio area, I noticed a sign written in Hebrew, then another and another. Suddenly a boy wearing a kipa half-walked, half-skipped across my path, his tzitzit strings bouncing from his pockets. He darted into a nearby shop, the Melori & Rosenberg Art Gallery. I was in the right place.

The Venetian ghetto was created in 1516 when Doge Leonardo Loredan, then ruler of the independent La Serenissima Republic of Venice, issued an edict stating that Jews must be relegated to one area of the city, in which they would be locked from nightfall till dawn. The selected area had been the site of a foundry, which in Venetian dialect was known as a geto, pronounced with a soft g. The word most likely morphed into “ghetto” due to the presence of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, who pronounced the “ge” with a hard g. Although the Doge’s decision sounds draconian, in practice it meant that Jews would, for the first time, be allowed to live within the confines of the city. Before then, they’d faced a long commute from across the sea—from the mainland—if they wanted to conduct business at the lucrative heart of La Serenissima’s shipping empire.

Expanding the ghetto wasn’t allowed, so the Jews who settled there had to fashion their synagogues from existing buildings. As the Jewish community grew rapidly during the Renaissance, prohibitions against expanding the ghetto into other areas of the city forced the community to build upward rather than outward. The walls around the ghetto match the elongated residential buildings, and some calli are so narrow that they’re difficult to pass through.

Yet so much Jewish life in Venice remains hidden, even inside the boundaries set by the doge. As I rounded the corner after the Rosenberg Art Gallery, I nearly missed what I’d been looking for all along: the Spanish Synagogue, a light-colored stone building with a tall, dark wooden doorway, is indistinguishable from many other Venetian buildings. The structure, likely a former apartment building, was only allowed to be used as a synagogue as long as it did not display any outward signs of being a house of worship. Its conversion began in the 1550s in order to accommodate victims of the Alhambra Decree, which had expelled all Jews from Spain in the 1490s, bringing many to Venice in the ensuing decades. Each one of the neighborhood’s five historic synagogues sprang from the need to welcome communities fleeing waves of expulsions of Jews that took place across most of southern and eastern Europe between 1290 and 1550: the Levantine Synagogue, which was built in 1541 and is the only other synagogue in the ghetto that remains active today, was home to the Sephardic community. The Canton Synagogue, founded in 1531, is believed to have been built for French and German migrants. The Italian Synagogue, built in 1575, served the Italian community, while the German Synagogue accommodated Ashkenazi Jews arriving from Germany as early as 1528.

After Napoleon took Venice in 1797, the ghetto was dismantled and Jews were allowed to reside wherever they wanted inside the city. Those with means moved away from the ghetto, integrating into the rest of the Venetian population, where they remain today. Likewise, Venetians of other faiths and ethnicities moved into the ghetto. Jews were given equal status as citizens, which granted them the ability to attend universities, to practice any profession they wanted, and of course, to move about freely within Venetian society. It was during this time that they became more secular and merged into Christian society. Some even converted to Christianity.

Photograph of the Spanish Synagogue by Didier Descouens

I  went in the other direction. In preparation for my marriage, I had converted to Reform Judaism—the Orthodox tradition of my husband’s family, with its kosher diet and strict Shabbat observance, was out of the question for my secular lifestyle in New York City. After a brief battle with cancer, my mother passed away in February 2018; the last time I saw her standing on her own two feet was at a small engagement party she had thrown for us near her home in Massachusetts. Her death had left me without a guide—spiritual, logistical, or otherwise. In some ways, it was fortunate that the period of her death marked the beginning of my conversion schooling. It gave me a new set of rules to hold on to and to guide me as I mourned. I could no longer ask my mother for advice, so I turned to Jewish women, such as the rabbi who converted me.

But even after nine months of religious study and almost two years of observing Jewish customs, I had a difficult time making wedding plans that accommodated Reform and Orthodox expectations. The High Holidays were in September, and between Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth, there would be too much going on for my new in-laws to focus on a wedding. Despite their objections, I had my heart set on holding the ceremony in New York, and then traveling to my father’s house in the Alps with thirty-five of our friends and relatives—the plan I had agreed upon with my mother.

I felt that by sticking to the things that she had approved of, I would be honoring her. But I had to respect the wishes of the living, too. Travel during Yom Kippur is prohibited, and my husband’s family wanted to attend the service. There were no synagogues in Feltre, and those in the Alps weren’t close to where we’d be. As I started my research to accommodate my in-laws, I learned of the Spanish Synagogue, and this led me to be curious about the Jewish community in Venice, which was described as Orthodox. I felt that knowing more about them would help me to connect my new Jewish identity to my existing Italian identity. It would also be an opportunity to celebrate a major holiday for the first time as a Jew, and with my husband’s family.

The following day, when my husband and I reached the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, the man who greeted us said, “Ah, Elettra, from Feltre!” Under frantic pressure from my in-laws, who feared there wouldn’t be enough seats for them at the service, I had been emailing the synagogue since June. The kind souls answering my frantic queries had assured me that any anxiety relating to this matter was altogether unwarranted. In fact, it seemed as though we were the only group of non-Venetians who had thought to reserve spots. (Not that the synagogue was particularly busy—tickets simply allowed us to stay for the entire duration of the service.) The man ushered us inside and toward a staircase that split in two. He went up one side with my husband and motioned for me to climb the other. (My father-in-law had become so frustrated with Venice’s gondolas and ferries—modes of transportation completely foreign to him—that he spent the rest of the day at his hotel and missed services altogether.) I reached the top and found a cavernous room, stately and wide. A long corridor of light and dark marble was flanked by carved wooden pews, which complemented the carved wooden ceiling, where dark circles alternated with elongated shapes around a recessed center containing elaborate motifs. Large chandeliers with tall candles dangled from above, highlighting the dramatic flair of its Baroque style.

I gazed up and compared the churches of my youth to this unfamiliar house of worship: from dark corners and stained glass, this place was lined with tall, open windows, which let in abundant natural light and the soft chants of the Levantine congregation next door. I found my mother-in-law sitting in the wrong pew, and gently put my hand on her shoulder. The man who had walked us in heard her loud gasp and smiled at me from behind the wooden mechitzah that divided the men from the women. Its simple but delicate carvings created winding gaps that allowed me to see through to the main area of the room, where the men were absorbed in their mahzors, special prayer books reserved for the High Holidays. She insisted on staying put. “It’s so much better in the States!” she said in a hoarse whisper. “At least there they have English so you can follow along.” I sat down in the pew next to hers, which had a brass plaque inscribed with the name Elisabetta Ottolenghi. I opened the mahzor I’d grabbed from the entrance and saw no language but Hebrew.

I recalled the visits I’d made to the Orthodox Synagogue in Massachusetts, back when I was still considering converting to Orthodox Judaism, and silently disagreed with my mother-in-law. That building had seemed plain, stuffy, and somehow soulless. The carpet, the pews, the walls, and the altar were all shades of brown. The chanting—praying that takes place as song throughout Jewish services of all denominations—had been close to tone-deaf and had even sounded hesitant, as if the cantor had been on his way to dozing off. There had been plenty of people there to explain the words to me and point to the English translations, but that didn’t matter to me. No words have ever helped me come closer to understanding religion. The grand architecture of the Spanish Synagogue and the assured song of the cantor echoing through the hall made me feel far closer to God. After all, growing up Catholic in Italy makes it hard not to associate religion with beautiful architecture. Even the small village church I attended as a child was covered in frescoes, while the church of San Vittore e Corona, where my parents got married, was erected by returnees from the First Crusade and incorporates decorative elements dating back to the eleventh century.

As my mother-in-law and I sat, a woman came up behind us. She pointed to her name on the pew and whispered, “I’m Elisabetta Ottolenghi.” I felt somewhat vindicated. I knew my mother-in-law had sat in the wrong spot. After all her fretting over whether there’d be a seat for her, she hadn’t even looked for her own name. We shuffled over to the front, where we found our names on pieces of paper taped to the pews.    

Behind us, the ladies continued their davening. They didn’t strike me as particularly Orthodox. Only a few of them covered their heads, even though that is the Orthodox custom for married women. I saw that others wore jewelry, which broke the laws of the Day of Atonement. (Wedding bands, or an item that has become part of someone, could be worn as adornment.) These older ladies, who were distinguished in their mannerisms and sure of their stature, reminded me of Mirella, a longtime family friend. She’s a Venetian “DOC”—an Italian expression that means “the real deal.” A lady of the landed gentry, Mirella learned to swim in the canals back when they were still clean. For the women in the back, Venetian DOC style seemed to take priority over Jewish tradition—at least when it came to dress.

A few weeks later, I reached out to Elisabetta Ottolenghi. I wanted to know what Elisabetta’s experience as a Venetian Jew was like, particularly during her formative years, in order to help anchor my own relationship to Judaism. As it turned out, our lives had bittersweet commonalities: her brother, Alberto, was born in Feltre in 1940 while her parents were fleeing the fascist government’s racial laws, which had targeted Jews and nonwhite Italian citizens. Many Venetian families, including Elisabetta’s, took refuge in Switzerland during that grave time.

Speaking to Elisabetta, I discovered that for many, practicing Judaism was not simply following traditions that had been handed down, but an active search for faith. Those who returned to Venice after the war started connecting to their religious heritage with a newfound devotion, which had gradually dissipated since the years of the enclosed ghetto. Elisabetta, for instance, became more observant and active within the community after finding writing by her grandfather, Adolfo Ottolenghi, who had been the chief rabbi of Venice from 1912 up until he died at Auschwitz in 1944.

“People began to develop a Jewish consciousness that they didn’t have before,” said Manuela Fano, a friend of Elisabetta’s. “Now, for example, people light candles on Friday nights [to observe shabbat], which is something they didn’t do.”

A voluble woman in her seventies, Manuela is copresident of the Venice chapter of the Association of Jewish Women in Italy. Manuela’s family observed High Holiday rituals and rites of passage, like bar and bat mitzvahs, but they weren’t particularly observant. Manuela and her friends of many different faiths would lounge upon the beaches of the Lido, an island away from Venice’s main thoroughfares, but some of her fondest memories were of the Jewish community of her youth. “We were many, we had parties,” she told me with a clear sense of nostalgia.

The community has dwindled dramatically since Manuela’s youth. Simon Levis Sullam, an associate professor of modern history at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, estimates that Venetian Jews now number in the three hundreds, while Paolo Navarro Dina, councilman of the Jewish Community of Venice, puts the number around four hundred fifty. These counts do not include the fifty or so American and Israeli Chabad-Lubavitch Jews who have been trickling into Venice in recent years. The global Lubavitch movement focuses on religious outreach to secular or non-Orthodox Jews seeking to know more about their religion. In Venice, this primarily means educating tourists in Jewish religion, art, and culture. However, Lubavitchers have not integrated with the Italian Jewish community: they live in the ghetto, but they use their own synagogue which does not count among Venice’s historic synagogues. This is not surprising, given that the Lubavitch movement aims to promote greater Orthodoxy: “Officially, the [Venitian] community is Orthodox,” said Sullam, but “the majority of them practice in a way that is similar to Reform Judaism, without strict religious observance.”

Yet Venetian Jews could benefit from the outgoing spirit of the Lubavitchers. “In this community, unfortunately, we don’t know how things will pan out,” said Manuela. “Now our young people, including my daughter, don’t have time. They work abroad or in other cities. And there are so few of us, many of which are elderly. And Venice has problems of accessibility.” This is a Venice-wide problem. Tourists have outnumbered residents since the 1980s; the population has declined to less than sixty thousand in 2019. This flight has been exacerbated by rising sea levels: last year saw 121 days of high water, a phenomenon that had previously only affected the city in the winter. Several community associations have been attempting to revive local culture in Venice by organizing festivals, petitioning to keep health facilities open, and reclaiming abandoned houses, but they face an uphill battle.

Manuela says that even when she was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, most Jews married outside the faith. Manuela feels the loss in these small numbers. “We envy America a lot because they have all these different types of Judaism, like the Jubus: Jewish Buddhists! We envy them because our community, at heart, isn’t Orthodox like those people with the big hats. But we have no choice but to join them because there are too few of us to create separate communities.”

Barring the few signs in Hebrew, the Holocaust memorials that blend into stone, and other small architectural clues I had learned during my research, there was nothing that announced that I was in a historically Jewish neighborhood. I later learned that, behind the Spanish Synagogue and to the left, down the Calle Del Forno, there is a nondescript door that leads into a great, wide room that has all the tools necessary to make matzoth, amaretti, impade, and bisse. For centuries, that is where the Forno delle Azzime, or Matzo Bread Oven, has sat and only been fired for cooking Passover treats. It too was difficult to find; you needed to know where to look.

I’ve come to understand that Venice’s Jewish presence is understated, not hidden. As I learn more about what’s behind Venetian walls, I see more of that influence in other parts of the city outside of the ghetto. It’s even in the food: one of Venice’s preeminent dishes, called baccalà alla ebraica, is believed to have been first introduced by Spanish Jews. (The influence goes both ways: the Jewish Museum, which operates Venice’s only café that is under rabbinical oversight, sells a kosher Spritz.)

All of the Jewish women I met in Venice embodied that mix. They practiced their religion in a way that was so progressive it was almost secular, yet they deeply valued it. (Manuela even confessed to me that she and her daughter married gentile men and did not ask them to convert.) Their similarities to Mirella and to my own roots spoke in a language that was mine in more ways than one. At the time of my conversion, I didn’t yet know how I was going to express my Jewish identity, but spending time in Venice provided me with a calli of my own.

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