Venice is a magical city. It seems to float on water. Boats pass through the Grand Canal. Small tributaries navigated by colorful gondoliers flow between medieval stone buildings awash in faded pastel. Hidden bridges lead you to narrow cobblestone streets filled with tourists and eager merchants selling masks, decorative glass and, of course, pizza.
Venice is also home to a remarkable Jewish community that can trace its history over five centuries. On March 29, 1516, a growing population of Jews, including many refugees from Spain, were required to live in a relatively sparsely populated section of Venice used primarily for manufacturing. By law, Jews were restricted from most occupations, except medicine and money lending -- inspiring Shakespeare’s Shylock. Jewish men were forced to wear a yellow hat as a form of identification and Jews were not permitted to leave the locked square after dark. Thus, Venice became the first ghetto.
Until the emancipation of the Jews by Napoleon in 1797, the Venetian ghetto was the center of Jewish social, religious and economic life, a curious mix of German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Yiddish. The five synagogues constructed during the 16th and 17th centuries survive to this very day. I had the chance to visit the German, Italian, Spanish, and Levantine synagogues during my visit. Each synagogue reflected the peculiar customs and traditions of their congregants with a splash of Italian influences, identifiable by the marble work, intricate craftsmanship of the wood staircases or location of the Ark.
The Venetian Jewish community suffered persecution and deportation under fascist and Nazi occupation, but the community dedicated its energy and resources to help rebuild after the war and the ghetto is now an emerging cultural and artistic center. Today the Venetian Jewish community numbers approximately 450 people and a visitor will find a Jewish Museum, an art gallery, several Judaica shops, Pardes Rimonim, a new kosher Bed & Breakfast that will open as a full fledged kosher restaurant in February 2012.
About 20 years ago, Chabad established a center in the ghetto, attracting scores of tourists for Shabbat services and later opened a yeshiva and Gam Gam, a thriving kosher restaurant offering Israeli cuisine with a number of Italian specialties. It is an uneasy relationship between Chabad and the Venetian Jewish community, a tension between serving those who drop by Venice for a weekend, and those who call Venice home. I hope time and renewed efforts by both sides will help heal this rift.
Inspired by my friend and native Venetian Alessandra Rovati , author of one of my favorite food blogs, Dinner in Venice, I met with the young, handsome and single Chief Rabbi Benyamin and various members of the board for Shabbat and for a private tour of Jewish Venice. As we move closer to the commemoration of the cinquecentennial, the community is trying to create a cultural renaissance by creating opportunities for the next generation to support themselves in Venice. Plans are well underway for a kosher cooking school that will help tourists rediscover unique Venetian food traditions that was informed by the blend of cultures and cuisines of the ghetto’s inhabitants . Local scholars are pouring over manuscripts to detail local Jewish food traditions during the 16th and 17th centuries and bring greater historical accuracy to the cooking school curriculum.
I got a sample of what’s in store for visitors to the Venice kosher cooking program. With the help of local residents Luciano Meri Silva, Gaia Rava, and Sandra Levis (best known for sweets) I enjoyed an Artichoke Risotto, Red Mullet with Pine nuts and Raisins, and Impade, a traditional Venetian dessert with lemon zest and almond paste. This is real Italian food. I begged for my hosts to share these recipes with the Joy of Kosher community, and they graciously agreed to publish them here.
I hope I was able to share a taste of Venice with you, my dear readers. For a real taste, please make plans to discover this magical city and bring your appetite. My new friends who call Venice home have opened their hearts and kitchens and are waiting for you to arrive.