The Jews of Venice

The setting sun in Venice (Miriam Porter photo)

There are 25 Jews living in the Jewish ghetto of Venice and I already met four of them within an hour of arriving to this gorgeous Venetian city. I had just landed from a very long overnight and sleepless flight from Toronto, but when you only have a day and a half in Venice, you don’t want to waste it sleeping, trust me.

Venice is built on canals and has no roads so the main way to get around is by walking or boat. 150 canals, 400 bridges, and 118 islands make up the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region.

A street in Venice (Miriam Porter photo)

My first images of Venice are exactly what I imagined – beauty and charm in every direction. With a permanent smile on my face I walk ten minutes from Piazzale Roma where taxis drop off to Hotel San Geremia & Alloggi Gerotto Calderan. The hotel is located minutes from shops, restaurants and canals with views of the quaint San Geremia Square from my balcony.

Although only a small number of Jews live in the ghetto, there are 460 Venetian Jews in Venice. The origin of the word “ghetto” is in dispute, but it’s highly likely the word derives from the Jewish ghetto in Venice. In 1516, a law was established that Jews must live in a particular area that had been used as a waste dump for foundries, or gettare (throw away) as it was called. During the day, Jews were permitted to leave and do business, but come nightfall they were locked in the gated island of Ghetto Nuovo. Over time the word evolved to become ghetto, and now spans cultures and ethnicities.

Sign for the Ghetto (Miriam Porter photo)

In my search for the ghetto, I cross small bridges, walk past ancient buildings with colourful flowers hanging over balconies, admire canals and charming gondolas, and then back over the exact same bridges because I am totally lost. They say the best way to explore Venice is to get lost in Venice, and this is simple to do. Eventually I discover that San Geremia was only five minutes away from the ghetto.

It’s a small square and I wander into an open door – Chabad of Venice. I speak to a polite young man that invites me for Shabbat dinner. I would have accepted his kind offer because some of the most beautiful Shabbats of my life were spent at Chabad homes, but I decline because I have a welcome dinner to attend with Intrepid Travel. It’s my first trip with Intrepid and I am eager to meet my 12 travel companions from around the world. I love what Intrepid stands for in terms of responsible tourism, supporting locals, small group travel that goes off the beaten path and taking care of the environment.

I leave Chabad and walk to the Jewish Museum of Venice, still in the Campo of the Ghetto Nuovo. This small museum, founded in 1953 by the Jewish Community of Venice, is positioned between the two most ancient Venetian synagogues and included on the museum tour. The tour highlights the cycle of Jewish festivities and history of Venetian Jews.

Chatting with staff, I discover there are two Jewish ghettos in Venice. The New Ghetto (Nuovo), where I am currently, is actually the oldest ghetto, but not far away is the Old Ghetto (Vecchio) but it’s actually newer. It has nothing to do with the historical period but simply the age of the foundries.

Murano glass displayed in David’s Shop (Miriam Porter photo)

Next to the museum is David’s Shop and I am drawn to the sparkling jewelry and laughing. Minutes later, I am also laughing with the owner of the store, David Curiel. His witty sarcasm is matched only by the fascinating stories of his family dating back 500 years in Venice. His sister Doriana, he says, was the first Jewish person to make Murano glass – ever. Jews from around the world purchase delicate and colourful treasures at David’s Shop and I don’t leave empty handed.

With the setting sun looming in the distance, the Jews of Venice get ready for Shabbat. I walk past a poster of endearing ghetto cats outside an art studio. I’m missing my kitty and ask the first stranger I see what it means. That is how I met Alon Baker and his wife Michal Meron, cat artists extraordinaire. Originally from Tel Aviv and now living in Venice, Baker smiles and says, “We are owned by five cats. Come meet them.”

Penelope the cat and Italian soldiers on the streets of Venice (Miriam Porter photo)

I skip over in happiness to meet Jewish ghetto cats. Furry Penelope saunters over and I become the feline paparazzi. Their impressive studio is packed with colourful artwork and I purchase a cat painting. Alon gives me a picture book inspired by The Venetian Ghetto with stunning illustrations by Michal. Perhaps most impressive is their Illustrated Torah Scroll designed using paintings of the 54 weekly sidrot of the Torah with texts in Hebrew and English.

(Miriam Porter photo)

Before meeting my Intrepid group for dinner, I pay respects at the ghetto’s Holocaust Memorial with a huge magen David on the Italian brick wall and say a prayer for the Venetian Jews who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps.

If the first few hours of my Venice adventures are any indication of my next week in Italy, I am off to an exciting start.