Sunday, December 18, 2005


Back to the ghetto


A recent visit to Venice tells me that, for many Jews, ritual and a sense of connection to Jewish civilization override theology.

I had heard that Venice was a place of romance; a magical city built on canals. But once there, we also discovered Venice's 'Jewish problem.' Two factions - one foreign, small and missionizing, the other indigenous, threatened and struggling - are engaged in a love-hate relationship.

Jews began to settle in the area in the 13th century. Venice's economic elite needed them; the Church despised them. Which is how it came to be that on March 29, 1516 the Venetian Council of Ten established the world's first ghetto for their 700 Jews:

'The Jews must all live together... in order to prevent their roaming about at night: Let there be built two Gates... which ...shall be opened in the morning... and closed at midnight by four Christian guards appointed and paid by the Jews....'

Predictably, it was to this ghetto to which we were drawn for our 'getaway' from the pressures of life in Israel. We checked into the Locanda del Ghetto Hotel. Outside our window was the ghetto courtyard where today the frailties of, and contending hopes for Jewish life in Venice play themselves out. Here is the center of the established community, whose religious life is led by Chief Rabbi Elia Richetti, as well as the power base of Chabad-Lubavitch's Rami Banin.

Both are sympathetic characters; both Italian-born, both Orthodox.

But Richetti is the conservative. He wants to preserve the local community and minister to its 300 faithful. The 300,000 Jewish tourists who visit the ghetto annually interest him only mildly.

For Banin those tourists are everything. The Chabad emissary has flawless Hebrew and American-accented English. He's singularly dedicated to spreading the rebbe's message.

The official community or kehilla 'shares' the courtyard and its environs with Lubavitch. Its Jewish museum daily draws scores of visitors - Jewish and non-Jewish alike - and is a gateway to the ghetto's five historic synagogues. There are also an old age home, art galleries, tourist shops and a kosher bakery/grocery. There's an eruv and even a mikve.

But it is Chabad's in-your-face presence that appropriates the limelight: A storefront yeshiva for a dozen American and Israeli rabbinical students, an outreach center, and the strategically located Lubavitch-run Gam-Gam restaurant.

I davened several mornings with Chabad, praying opposite a picture of the rebbe and a wall adorned with the messianic catchphrase: Yehi adoneinu moreinu v'rabbeinu melech ha'moshiah l'olam vaed! (Long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the King Messiah, for ever and ever.)

The official community distances itself from Chabad, though Richetti sometimes turns to the yeshiva boys for a minyan and certifies Gam-Gam's kashrut. As both pulpit rabbi and neighborhood coordinator, he's proud that some 20 families order meat and other kosher provisions from Milan.

The kehilla stays afloat thanks to a combination of state aid, a communal tax, and property revenue - not to mention tourism.

MEANWHILE, SLOWLY, methodically, Chabad appears committed to usurping Judaism in Venice. But this is not Bangkok; there's an indigenous community that won't roll over and die.

Chabad appears to have deep pockets. It set up shop 12 years ago and now plans to open a kindergarten (to compete with the kehilla's kindergarten attended by 12 youngsters). Richetti notes that no Jewish child has been born in Venice in three years, and is suspicious of Chabad's intentions.

But to this outsider, the competition seems like a plus.

I came to Venice with grudging admiration for Chabad. Yes, I know it's a cult dependent on the charismatic 'presence' of the rebbe, but I'd rather see Jews hook up with Chabad than with Hare Krishna. If the alternative is nihilism and alienation, I can live with Chabad's remedy. At the same time, I'm intolerant of Chabad's ability to get away with promulgating the heresy that the rebbe, who died in 1994, is the Living Messiah.

But that's theology. Let's talk supper.

After Friday night prayers in one of the historic but melancholy-looking synagogues, we went off to Gam-Gam (with its Crown Heights decor), where we experienced an evening of charm, warmth, and song. Maybe you have to be a member of the tribe to appreciate how good it feels to be gazing at a Venetian canal while singing Friday-night zemirot in the company of 150 Jews of all stripes, lands, and levels of affiliation, enjoying a free, bountiful meal waited upon by rabbis-in-training.

You'd have to be an ingrate not to appreciate Chabad's presence in Venice. I'm told that in the summer, tables are set up along the adjacent canal front to accommodate the hundreds of visiting Jews, some experiencing their first-ever Shabbat meal.

Yet I doubt Chabad is converting very many to their schismatic brand of Judaism. Eating with Lubavitch in Venice highlighted for me that what people are looking for is not theology, but ritual and Jewish camaraderie.

Travelers ready to embrace a Jewish experience don't want to think about the relationship between the Creator and the universe. What they want is an exotic synagogue service, a touch of history, and afterwards cholent, song, and companionship.

There's an outreach lesson here other streams of Judaism may want to emulate.

– From a November 15 Jerusalem Post column

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