Around the Jewish World: Culture Festival in Venice Inspires Jewish Community

Standing-room-only crowds made the recent Jewish Culture Festival in Venice a resounding success, so much so that the lagoon city’s tiny Jewish community hopes that it will become a regular biennial event.

“It will exceeded our expectations,” said the president of Venice’s Jewish community, Sandro Romanelli. “It was our first such festival, and as such a sort of trial run.”

The enthusiastic public response to the Nov. 19-26 festival has encouraged community leaders to pursue their goal of founding an international Jewish study center in the historic ghetto here. The festival also focused attention on the increasing interest in Jewish culture and heritage in Italy as well as in other European countries.

“It was a banner, a strong signal pointing along the line we want to follow in our hopes to transform transient tourism here into a more concrete presence with a Jewish studies center,” said Romanelli.

Although only 500 Jews live in Venice today – 300 of them in the city center – Jews have lived in Venice since the Middle Ages. The city boasts what is probably the richest and best preserved collection of Jewish monuments in Europe.

The ancient Jewish cemetery on the Lido was founded in 1386, and its oldest identified tombstone, dating from 1389, predates the oldest known tombstone in Prague’s famous Old Jewish Cemetery by half a century.

The Venice Ghetto, established in 1516 on the site of former iron foundry, was Europe’s first mandatory Jewish ghetto. The very word “ghetto” is believed to come from “getto,” the Venetian word for foundry. Italian, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Levantine Jews all lived in the cramped area of the ghetto and had their own synagogues. At the community’s height, some 5,000 Jews lived there.

Five exquisite and highly ornate synagogues dating back to the 16th century, several small prayer rooms and the distinctive multistoried ghetto architecture still exist, looking much as they did centuries ago.

The tall ghetto tenement buildings are unique in Venice: Within the cramped confines of the ghetto, the only way to achieve more living space was to build up. There is also a Jewish museum and library.

The Jewish community hopes to use this rich patrimony as a basis for its planned study center, which it would like to house in what is now the community’s old-age home.

“It all depends on money,” said Romanelli. “We are looking for support.”

The home, which has only a handful of residents, would be transformed into a kosher restaurant as well as a residence for scholars and other visitors.

“Jewish Venice, as a crossroads and meeting point of peoples on the road to peace, wants to offer, as in the times of its greatest splendor, hospitality and culture to all those who seek it,” said Venice Rabbi Roberto della Rocca. “We hope that the theater and musical performances, the film series, the conferences and the entire festival as a whole will, besides being a sign of a vibrant culture, constitute the cornerstone of our great project,” he said.

The festival featured a mix of film, performance, lectures and exhibits, and drew standing-room audiences to most of its major events.

A banner hung from one of the bridges across the Grand Canal advertising the festival, and blue-and-white festival posters plastered the walls of the city’s narrow pedestrian alleys.

There were lectures on topics ranging from Jewish jokes to the Song Of Songs, as well as round-table discussions and performances. Performers included a ballet troupe from Pisa, the internationally known charinetist Giora Feidman and Bulgarian-born Moni Ovadia, an Italian performance artist who specializes in shows based on Yiddish song and Jewish humor.

During the weeklong festival, a local Jewish-run restaurant opened a kosher kitchen, an exhibition of Jewish books was set up in the middle of the historic ghetto square and special tours of Jewish sites were offered.

Concerts and performances sere sold out, and a round-table conference on Jewish memory was so crowded that dozens of people were turned away at the door – creating angry scenes outside.

The success of the festival reflects a mounting interest in Jewish culture on the part of non-Jews, a trend in several European countries during the past few years.

Visitors to Venice’s Jewish museum have risen sharply, almost doubling over the past five years to more than 60,000 people annually.

Jewish culture festivals are regular events in Germany, Poland, Austria and other countries.

Jewish studies programs abound, both on a local and university level. On local Venice community center recently began a course in Yiddish.

Indeed, much of the renewed interest in Jewish culture is in Yiddish, or in East European Jewish culture, and many of the events at the Venice Festival reflected Eastern European rather than Italian Jewish traditions.

Jewish scholar Ugo Caffaz, the Venice festival’s artistic director, noted this revival of interest in Jewish and Yiddish culture. He said that underlying the decision to program a festival was the desire to broaden knowledge of this culture. “But the deepest reason is really in the messages that come from this culture,” said Caffaz.

“In a moment in which we see a great crisis of values, of skepticism almost to the point of suicidal nihilism, to propose a program that is so rich and positive – indeed, because of the trials to which the Jewish people were subjected and which they survived – is a contribution toward the joyous living of everyday life,” he said.

“Having to choose a place where to stage a festival of Jewish culture, we could not fail to think of Venice, where the most international of possible Judaisms transpired,” he said.

Community leaders said they would like a festival to be held every two years.

“But we will have to find bigger venues,” said one organizer.

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