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Welcoming Rosh Hashanah in the Venice Ghetto

CM 11/09/2021

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Venice – Police patrolled the Campo Ghetto Nuovo as the sun set over red-tiled roofs on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.
In the square outside the Chabad House, workers set up chairs and a partition as about 45 worshipers (and some curious tourists) arrived to welcome the Jewish New Year.
Nearby, in the Ghetto Vecchio, many of the 500 members of the Jewish community of Venice gathered in the Spanish Synagogue (founded by Jews expelled from Spain in the 1490s) and the Levantine Synagogue (opened in 1538).

An accordion player at a nearby (non-kosher) café provided a musical accompaniment – “Que Sera, Sera” (during the Amidah) and “La Vie en Rose.”
After services, more than 40 guests joined a Chabad-sponsored festive meal along the banks of the Canale di Cannaregio outside the kosher Gam Gam Ristorante Ebraico.
The tables were arrayed with round challot and a variety of fruits: the traditional pomegranate seeds, and apples for dipping in honey, along with fresh dates, figs, and mangoes. The rest of the menu included salmon, chicken soup, potato salad, hummus, roasted chicken in a sweet sauce, rice and roasted quinces. A sparkling pink Muscat wine was served, and dessert was tiny squares of almond cake. 
Dinner guests included a famous Israeli entertainer, an Irish-Israeli student and his Irish-Japanese girlfriend, and a British film producer in town for the Venice Film Festival.

Yiddishkeit in Venice

Marina Ergas came from her home in the Italian Alps to celebrate the holiday in Venice because, she said, it was the nearest opportunity to experience Yiddishkeit in a Jewish community. 
Ergas, 74, grew up in Milan. She made aliyah at age 20 and for 50 years lived in Jerusalem and worked as a tour guide. She was active in the peace movement and survived the Lod Airport massacre in 1972. She’s written two books about her experiences, including the recent The Other.
As a child, Ergas often traveled to Venice with her father, movie producer Moris Ergas, when he attended the film festival. His film Kapò (1959) was nominated for an Oscar and was one of the first fictionalized treatments of the Shoah.

The Shoah in Venice

The memory of the Holocaust still haunts the ghetto. In 1944, Nazi troops gathered about 250 Venetian Jews, including Chief Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi, in the Campo and sent them to Auschwitz and a Trieste concentration camp. Only eight returned home. 
Twelve hundred Jews of Venice were able to escape thanks to the sacrifice of Giuseppe Jona, a doctor. When the Nazis occupied the city, they demanded that he bring a list of all Jews living in Venice to their headquarters. On the morning he was due to deliver the list, he burned it and took his own life. 
Brass “stumbling blocks” set in the pavement of the Campo mark the homes of those who were taken to their deaths. A monument by Arbit Blatas is dedicated to the Venetian victims of the Shoah and includes barbed wire left by the Germans.

The foundation of the Ghetto

Even before the Shoah, by the 20th century the Jewish ghetto was a shadow of its former self.
The ghetto was created by the Venetian Republic in 1516 on a small island in the Cannaregio district. The existing residents of the island were removed and replaced by about 700 Jews who lived elsewhere in Venice. 
The word “ghetto” may derive from the word for the metal foundry (ghèto) in the district. Other possible etymologies include gouda-(h) (separation) and ghetta (herd).
The ghetto’s population swelled when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal when they refused to convert to Christianity. 
The Jews of Venice were locked into their ghetto at night – and had to pay for a city watchman to keep an eye on them. They were required to identify themselves with yellow hats or badges, and they were restricted to certain professions such as money-lending (as in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) and the sale of jewelry and furs.
Despite these restrictions, Jews lived relatively freely and could practice their religion without persecution.
By the early 1600s, the ghetto reached its peak population of about 6,000, spreading beyond the original island.
By 1797, when Napoleon’s army ended the Republic of Venice and tore down the gates to the ghetto, the Jewish population had shrunk to about 3,000. 

The ghetto today

These days, only a handful of Venice’s Jews (mostly elderly) still live in the ghetto. On a typical Shabbat morning it would be common to see about three dozen men and a dozen women in one of the five ancient synagogues – Spanish, Levantine, Italian, Canton and German. Usually, the Spanish Synagogue is used in the summer, and the Levantine (which has heating) is used in the winter.
Some women were unwilling to climb the many stairs to the women’s gallery of the Levantine Synagogue, so a women’s row (with its own mechitza) was installed at the back of the men’s section.
The Venice Jewish community also has a Talmud Torah school, a mikve, a library, a retirement home, kosher hotels and kosher restaurants and bakeries.
The Jewish Museum of Venice is being renovated and has only a bookshop and a small temporary exhibit at present. Tours of the synagogues (which are not otherwise open to the public except during services) and the Jewish cemetery on the Lido (founded in 1386) can be arranged via the museum.
More information is available at www.jvenice.org and jewishvenice.org


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The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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