Jewish Venice Longs to Return to its Scholarly Roots

A sign indicating the Jewish ghetto in Italy. March 17, 2016.(Religio/Chavie Lieber)

A sign indicating the Jewish ghetto in Italy. March 17, 2016.(Religio/Chavie Lieber)

VENICE — There was a time when this ancient Italian city was considered a significant Jewish community — not just in Italy, but across the world.

Jews thrived in Venice in the Middle Ages — and all this despite the fact that Christian authorities forced the Jews to live in a separate, secluded part of Venice beginning in 1516. In fact, the word ghetto comes from this city where an old foundry, known in an old Venetian dialect as a “getto,” was located. As Jewish life flourished in Venice, and so did its scholarly position.

In the 1500’s, Venice was the global Hebrew printing capital for nearly 300 years. Major works on the Talmud and Hebrew Bible were published here.  With such important books of Jewish tradition coming out of the city, Venice also became known for producing exceptional scholars during the Middle Ages; rabbis like Eliyahu Bachur, Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen, and Azaria Piccio Figo. There were world-renowned kabbalists — like Mosheh Zacuto and Abraham Rovigo — as well as and anti-kabbalists like Leon of Modena.

These days, it’s hard to see Venice as a Jewish community that once thrived with scholarly influence. The city’s current community has seen nothing but years of population decrease, with many families moving to bigger Italian cities like Rome or Milan, or emigrating to Israel. Today there are only some 400 Jews still living in the city, and only about 250 of them are active members of the local synagogue. Despite the small number of restaurants, bakeries, art shops, and a museum that cater to tourists, there’s little to the narrow, cobblestone streets that make up the small neighborhood of Venice’s Jewish ghetto that indicate it once a major anchor of Jewish life in Europe.

But while Venice’s scholarly reputation might be a notion of the past, for Shalom Bahbout, a 72-year-old Libyan native and chief rabbi of Venice, it can also be leveraged as a window into the future. Bahbout was appointed chief Rabbi of Venice in June of 2014, after he led communities in Naples and Bologna, and previously ran the cultural department of Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the official body that unites the Italian Jewish community. Bahbout is tasked with the difficult mission of breathing life back into Venice’s Jewish community, and in his mind, the only way to do this is to recreate Venice’s scholarly prominence.

“Venice, with its Torah studies, used to be the crown jewel of Italy,” Bahbout says one recent spring morning over lunch in the Venice Jewish ghetto. “I want to transform the Torah learning here.”

The Jewish ghetto of Venice memorialized its 500th anniversary this year, in March. Bahbout believes this is an opportunity to reflect on how the shrinking community can flourish. In his mind, restoring Venice back to being a center of Jewish scholarship and education could very well be the answer.

“I think that Venice, seen as an Italian community, is a challenge,” Bahbout said. “But if it can begin to become an international community, many people will begin to arrive to Venice. It can be a place for everyone.”

Currently, Bahbout is in talks with the president of the Venice International University to start a partnering Jewish studies program, to be held in the ghetto. While Bahbout declines to share specific details of what this program will look like, he says this type of program will be beneficial for both Venice’s Jewish community and students who will come to study.

“If we open a Jewish studies program here, surely more people would come visit Venice,” he muses. “It’s a nice town, we have so much here, and people speak English. We just have to change the image.”

Bahbout adds that there would be plenty of original projects a new Jewish studies program in the Venice ghetto could accomplish. For one thing, there are dozens of old manuscripts, written by Jewish scholars living in Venice generations ago. Never published, they sit in Venice’s synagogues, practically waiting for resurrection. Bahbout believes translating and publishing the works could be a fruitful research opportunity for visiting students.

Bahbout hasn’t stopped trying to revive the existing Venice community itself. Since starting his position, he’s started daily prayer services in the synagogue, expanded Torah studies for the community’s youth from one day a week (Sunday school) to five days a week, and helped start a kosher restaurant, Ghimel Garden, by offering his kashrut certification in order for the place to operate under rabbinic supervision.

But Venice’s shrinking population — and the growing list of reasons for both Jews and non-Jews alike to leave the city — is something he can’t ignore. A city that was once considered the grand metropolis of Europe and a crossroads of commercial trade, Venice is now home to just 58,000 residents — a populace that is down 50 percent over the last 30 years. It’s picturesque streets that twist and turn into canals have turned the city into one that’s inconvenient for business, and so it’s become more and more isolated over the years. The city’s ancient façade might be good for aesthetic, but it doesn’t help the economy: In 2014, Forbes referred to it as a city that’s “been left behind.” Real estate is expensive, and the four million tourists that visit the city annual are essentially the only things that drive the city’s finances; careers outside of tourism are hard to find, leaving many young people with no choice but to move elsewhere.

“Venice doesn’t offer that much to young people and so many of us are escaping,” says Susanna Calimani, a 31-year-old Venice native who, with her family, was a part of the Venice Jewish community until she was 20, and now works for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. “We don’t want to invest time and energy into a career then have to open a restaurant or rent flats in order to stay.”

Naturally, Venice’s shrinking population has had effects on its Jewish community; with decreasing numbers attending synagogue, communal life has been tough — especially when there’s no school.

“School is the most important thing in Judaism, in terms of the future, and if there is no school, sooner or later you will have to move because for many people, it’s not an option you can just skip,” says Ursula Subatzus, a senior guide at the Jewish Museum of Rome and friend of Bahbout’s. “There aren’t a lot of options in Venice. In Rome, for example, if kids go to public school, there are still things they can be involved in outside of school that Venice doesn’t have. That’s why it’s just easier to live in a big city.”

Bahbout is not the only person who believes promoting Venice into an international center of Jewish study can help the dwindling community. Shaul Bassi, an English literature professor at the Venice International University and Venice native, has been running a secular Jewish institution for the last two years called Beit Venezia, which creates fellowships for artists and academics to study and create in Venice (in a previous incarnation, the institution was called The Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, but it branded itself recently as a more cultural movement). Bassi has been coordinating a committee that is planning events throughout the year that fundraise for the community and commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Venice ghetto. Some planned events include a major exhibit on Jewish life in Venice at the city’s main landmark, the Doge’s Palace, which opens in June, as well as an outside performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in July, in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice will preside over a mock trial of the character Shylock.

Bassi plans to team up with Bahbout once the program with the International University kicks off; he’s also interested in working with schools like Columbia University and Tel Aviv University, who have exchange programs in Venice. Like Bahbout, he believes that turning Venice into a location for Jewish studies and culture is key to the community’s survival.

“If we still understand community, in the old fashion sense, we’re not dying, we’re dead!” Bassi says. “We sit on an amazing heritage and treasure. And majority of the people take it for granted and don’t understand that it can be the key to the future.”

Bassi feels promoting Venice’s rich heritage to the Jewish arts, culture, and academic world, will make more people want a stake in the community. By turning Venice into an international center of study, Bassi believes the community won’t just benefit from the numbers — it will also enjoy a fresh dose of diversity. Case in point, he says: last fall, Beit Venetzia invited eight graphic artists from all over the world to live in Venice for three weeks and create their own interpretations of the Passover story from Haggadah excerpts. The artists’ results were then created into three plates that went on display at the Venice Jewish museum during Passover, with commercial prints sold in Jerusalem.

“It was a magical combination; we brought students to a unique environment and they gave us a new perspective and new energy,” Bassi says.

Welcoming foreigners into the fold will be tricky for the community, Bassi admits. Some older members of the Venice community are opposed, as they see a need to keep the community insular in order to preserve its rich history and traditions. But Bahbout and Bassi believe they will eventually come around, and they point to the Chabad Lubavitch sect as proof that accepting foreigners can help a community. Some 10 years ago, Chabad opened a Jewish center of its own, complete with a study hall and a kosher restaurant, Gam Gam. This turf war of sorts has created tension between the two battling communities; the Chabad is mainly seen as an outsider because it prefers to run things on its own terms and is not particularly interested in working with the community, Bassi says (it declined Bahbout’s request to add his rabbinic supervision to Gam Gam for example).

“For eight years, Chabad was thriving on the absence of the community. They colonized the space, and they were incredibly clever,” Bassi says.

He adds that after years of watching Chabad host hundreds of tourists every single week for Shabbat meals, and develop a reputation for creating a thriving Jewish atmosphere in Venice, the community is now reluctantly beginning to see foreigners less wearingly.

“I think now more people realize that we have to change the mentality and be open,” says Antonio Moretti, a 56-year-old Venice resident who traces his roots in Venice back 150 years. “We still want to maintain our tradition but it’s not good to be so territorial.”

Both Bahbout and Bassi hope that the events surrounding the ghetto’s 500th anniversary will bring some publicity to the community, and that fundraising attempts will help them set aside resources for upcoming events that will help kick off their vision.

Certainly not everyone in Venice is on board. There are old-school community members who prefer Venice stay small and insular. Calimani, for one, believes Venice as a studying center is merely a “a symptom to a problem, instead of a cure,” and does not think temporary residents will help solve the problem of Venice’s Jewish community losing numbers. But for Bahbout and Bassi, status quo is no longer an option, and they hope their efforts will drive many to stay.

“Some people believe it’s impossible [to grow into an international community] but I don’t think they are right,” Bahbout says. “I think there’s a chance, especially for a community that’s survived for more than 500 years. I think if we reinforce this image, that we’re committed to education and culture, it can help people rediscover Jewish Venice.”

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