Postcard — October 25, 2019, 2:34 pm

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Elettra Pauletto:

Weekly Review October 25, 2016, 12:22 pm

Weekly Review

Donald Trump vows to sue women who accuse him of sexual assault, a train derails in Cameroon, and the Cubs win the pennant

Weekly Review September 13, 2016, 4:37 pm

Weekly Review

Russian forces launch airstrikes in Syria, Hillary Clinton gets pneumonia, and a woman in Oklahoma marries her daughter

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today