The first part of this journal of a trip to Italy told of
Florence and Venice. In Florence, two officials of the Jewish
community there told of the services and activities of the
small community there. Although, as was obvious, not all the
Jews are observant, the official observed that there was no
distorted Judaism there: everything was based on traditional
Judaism which people either did or did not observe.
In Venice the author found remnants of a rich history, but
nothing in the present. Typical was a store whose sign
advertised "Jewish Sweets" but whose contents were non-kosher
meats. This part continues with a description of some
Venetian synagogues and the cemeteries.
The Sephardic Shul
The Sephardic synagogue is the largest synagogue in Venice
and apparently the only that has been in continual use since
its founding. It was built in the last half of the sixteenth
century (1555 or 1584--5315) by Sephardic Jews and perhaps
marranos immigrating to Venice.
In 1635 (5395) and again in the nineteenth century, the
synagogue underwent extensive renovations, always in keeping
with the theme of understated beauty. The building is free
standing, although from the outside it looks like any other
building, as was the practice at the time, except for its
vaulted windows inserted into the walls at set intervals.
Today on the building's facade there is a memorial plaque for
the two hundred Venetian Jews who perished in the
The Synagogue That Was Saved
On the arch of the entranceway we read the posuk, "Ashrei
yoshvei veisecho od yehalelucho seloh." There is also an
arch over the aron kodesh, inscribed with the words,
Da Lifnei Mi Atoh Omeid. The doors of the aron
have an inscription of the words, shivisi Hashem lenegdi
somid, alongside a picture of the luchos habris
and "1755(5515)." A small plaque on the bimah notes
that on erev Rosh Hashanah in 1848 (5608), an Austrian
bomb fell on the synagogue. The synagogue was unharmed. The
bimah and aron hakodesh are raised, and
stairways on either side lead to it. The ezras noshim
was built around the main sanctuary. The walls of the
synagogue are decorated. This synagogue, however, is closed
Let's move on to the new ghetto. We first encounter the
simpler and more modest Italian synagogue. The last synagogue
to be built in the ghetto was built in 1575 (5335) by Italian
Jews, whose meager monetary resources echoed their small
numbers. One sees neither signs of remodeling nor of any
changes made throughout the years. The synagogue looks
exactly as it did when HaRav Leone di Modena held his
shiurim there. Outside, except for a small balcony,
one can barely detect the presence of a synagogue, since it
blends in so well with the surrounding buildings. But five
arched windows with a small dome adjacent to the line of the
building reveal what is hidden inside. Above the center
window there is a small decoration, which reads, "Italian
Kehillas Kodesh in the year 1575." In the entrance, with
dark, narrow stairs, there is a small piyut about a
modest, righteous person who always turns to his G-d in
prayer. How symbolic is its placement!
In the hall, there is a small plaque in memory of HaRav Izko
(Yitzchok) Pacifici, and another telling of the renovation of
the synagogue foundations in 1740 (5500) by benefactors named
Cohen, Nitza and Osimo. There are also many piyutim
signed with the name "Avrohom." The hall is quite simple,
except for the aron and the raised bimah, which
is the raised dome we see from outside meant for
illumination. The doors of the aron are etched with
unusual craftsmanship: with the luchos habris as well
as many others. Four steps surrounded by an etched wooden
banister lead to the aron. We can read the
inscription, "Work donated by Menachem Y. Gulilmi."
A Family of Bankers
The next synagogue is the "Canton," one of Italy's most
beautiful and well-preserved. Its name may have its source in
the Canton family, a family of Jewish bankers that built it
as a private Ashkenazi synagogue. Or perhaps it received its
name because of its location: "Canton" means "corner" in
Venetian. It was built during 1531- 1532 (5291) but underwent
restoration many times, as one can see by studying the
numerous dedication plaques.
One can not discern its presence from the outside, except for
a small elevated dome on a small, enclosed balcony: the
bimah (if one stands with one's back towards the
entrance to the museum and one looks up to the left, one can
make out the bimah). Here, too, the dome is for
purposes of illumination.
In one of the synagogue's two entrances, a piyut is
hung calling upon all mortals to come pour out their hearts
and turn to Hashem. The aron hakodesh is beautifully
gold-plated and engraved, and on a plaque on the left side we
read the motzei Shabbos prayer "Ato
The bimah, on the other side, adds a specter of glory
to the aron hakodesh. The adornments here are
completely original, and differ from those found in other
synagogues. They include drawings of Moshe, the Red Sea,
Jerusalem and others along the walls. A strange marble relief
is the sole decoration on the ceiling. The gold-plating was
concluded in "the month of Elul 1780 (5540)," as we read
above the entrance as well as along the entire length of the
The ezras noshim balcony is along the entire length of
the synagogue. The Museum of the History of the City's Jews
is located in this synagogue.
Finally, we reach the great German synagogue, the first to be
built in the ghetto, built by German and other European Jews
in 1529 (5289). Because of overcrowding, it seems somewhat
asymmetrical, exhibiting, perhaps, even a lack of planning.
Here, too, only five windows visible from the outside allude
to the synagogue within.
The entrance is quite modest. Above it, we read, "Beis
Knesses Hagodol Shel Minhag HaAshkenazim." There are no
pillars inside, but the architect added numerous decorations.
On both sides of the aron hakodesh there are
candelabra as well as chairs for dignitaries. The
bimah is absolutely charming, surrounded by a small
gold-plated balcony and a golden chuppah atop pillars.
Above the sides of the chuppah, we see gold-plated
pitchers. The ezras noshim is built under the ceiling
on an elliptic balcony surrounding the sanctuary. So
beautiful, yet so empty.
Official-looking ropes cordon off the area where tourists are
not allowed to tread. No sitting and no touching allowed. A
chareidi family from an English-speaking country was there.
Only the elderly father was allowed to sit on one of the
ancient wooden benches. An insignificant incident, you say?
We thought that a Jew like him should be allowed to sit
there. He, not the apathetic tourists, deserves to be able to
touch, to connect, to continue the Jewish chain from the past
to the present.
Throughout the years, whoever persisted in clinging to the
past and to Jewish life continued to speak in the Venetian
Jewish dialect. The dialect was used for a long time and
reflected a resolute mentality and way of life.
Tensions in the second half of the nineteenth century found
their way, as usual, to the Jews. Many were forced to leave
the city. Many Jews of the community left together. The
Nazis, sparing neither old people, women nor children,
brought about a fifth of Venice's Jews to concentration camps
and death, bringing the Venetian Jewish community to its
Afterwards, in the way of Jews throughout the history of the
golus, the Jewish community was revived. In its return
to Venice; in jubilation upon becoming free -- free, also,
from the binds of religion -- with all of them united in
their memory of the ghetto, Jewish institutions and
organizations were set up.
This cycle always repeats itself. Jewish spiritual life
always flourished when external conditions declined. When an
opening to the "free world" even merely the size of a needle
is unlocked, as it were, Jews immediately neglect their
Judaism. They began to enjoy economic success throughout the
country. To their credit, however, we must record that their
lives always remained centered around these same alleyways
and synagogues, the sole remnant in the world of their
We asked the guide how we could get to the Isle of Judka, the
so-called "Isle of the Jews." But he told us that, "The
conjecture that the Isle of Judka got its name because of the
Jews who lived there for so many years has no basis in fact.
In addition, it is unclear whether the word `judaka'
comes from the Venetian `yudga,' meaning, `to be
judged.' In any case, there is nothing to see there."
How is it that Venice doesn't simply sink under the weight of
so many summer tourists? When we visited the Jewish cemetery,
however, we became oblivious to the heat, the crowds and the
suffocating air. In the shade of the trees, surrounded by
overgrown, untamed plants, we tried to read the old
tombstones. Some are ancient, the engraved names barely
discernible. We can only express our amazement over the fancy
ohalim above some of the graves. Using them as an aid,
we try to imagine a time when Jewish life was thriving. But
the cemetery was quiet. The song birds added to the tranquil
feeling of eternity.
Unfortunately, it was only in a place like this that we were
able to feel the warmth of Judaism we were seeking all
A strip of land next to the cemetery separates Venice from
the Adriatic Sea. One can reach it with the "Vaporto," a
"sailing bus," number 1. The line has stations all along the
great canal. One can board the Vaporto across from the train
station. Near the Jewish ghetto, a station is marked "Ghetto"
in Hebrew and in Italian.
After about an hour you reach Lido, the last stop. As you
leave the station, turn left. Walk for about twelve minutes
along the promenade, called Riviera Elizabeta. You can see
the old Jewish cemetery at the corner of Via Chipro. Because
of renovations taking place at the time of our visit, the
gate was locked. Those buried in the cemetery are undoubtedly
tossing and turning in their graves at the soporific
spiritual state of Italian Jewry. Age-old cypress trees
attest to the age of this very old cemetery. These trees
evidently marked the edges of the cemetery when it was still
We were about to leave, but instead, decided to take a walk
along the wall. After about a minute we reached a non-Jewish
cemetery. The gatekeeper directed us to walk for another
minute until we reached the Old-New Jewish cemetery. This
cemetery was completely deserted. The gatekeeper made sure
that we put away our cameras. "Rights," he explained. We must
note that he was a likeable fellow, although we were not sure
of his national origin. In any case, he gave us the name and
phone number of someone who was supposed to be knowledgeable
about this cemetery as well as the others.
Within the walls, everything is of the past. Silence reigns
here, and filtered light coming through the foliage adds its
own, unique quality. The proximity of the canal contributes
to the charm of this particular cemetery. Imagine, if you
would, a funeral accompanied by a procession of gondolas,
with the minimum minyan accompanying the deceased.
Chessed shel emes, performed with true mesirus
nefesh by the chevra kadisha. This is not mere
hyperbole. Who among the niftarim made his final
worldly trip along the canal? Who among them hoped that this
was only a transit stop on the way to the Holy Land? Who
among them knew that this world is a mere transit stop for
the World to Come?
The Jewish Cemetery on the Isle of
On September 25, 1386 (5146), the Venetian government granted
the Jews a parcel of land on the Isle of Lido for the purpose
of burying their dead. No one knows why that location in Lido
was chosen as the fitting place.
The authorities' choice was evidently influenced by the fact
that the island was somewhat isolated from Venice, and was
barely developed at the time. It contained a beach front,
vineyards and gardens belonging to a family of nobles, and
there were a number of churches in the port. The Jews were
given a vineyard adjacent to the monastery. In the contract,
the land is described as "bleak" and "empty;" undeveloped
land suited for agricultural use. No former landowners are
named, nor is any payment mentioned. The exact measurements,
however, are listed: seventy paces by thirty paces.
The plague in the years 1630-1631 (5390-91) struck the ghetto
later than other sections of the city because of its isolated
location. Many, however, fell victim to the plague. A column
with the legend, "Jews 1631" tops a communal grave.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the area of the
cemetery became smaller and later, under French rule, rocks
suspected of being land mines were removed and the
surrounding wall was destroyed. The end of the eighteenth
century brought an end to burial in this cemetery.
The Jews then received a new plot, farther from the beach
front, on Via Chipro, described above. In 1816 (5586), the
English Consul, riding along the beach, described his
impressions: "The place where we usually ride was a Jewish
cemetery whose walls were destroyed and whose stones had been
overturned by the French. . . ."
In the summer of 1834 (5594), a stormy argument broke out in
the cemetery between two well-known figures. One of them
writes that the other left Lido in a fit of anger and ran,
"jumping from grave to grave." In the mid-nineteenth century,
a visitor notes that he found the place so completely
neglected that children were playing between the scattered,
broken headstones. Neglect reigned, and overgrown foliage and
sand hid it from passersby. Erosion and shifting sands also
contributed to the gradual disappearance of the graves.
Throughout the years, gravestones and parts of gravestones,
caskets and simple stones came to light. Like the stone
engraved with the name of the cemetery in Italian and in
Hebrew which was found at the end of the central walkway,
although it was almost completely hidden by untamed foliage.
Caskets and monuments, partially still thrust into the
ground, some scattered, peek through a maze of clover and
ivy. Many of them are crumbling, but they have remained white
because they were carved out of Istrian, or "masegna"
The place is strewn with dedications and friezes. There are
coat-of-arms signs belonging to the Sephardic and Portuguese
noble families who continued to use them even after they were
exiled from their homes and fled to Venice. A two-headed
crowned eagle belonged to the Habib (or Habiblio) family,
while a lion standing on his two hind feet belonged to the
Yeshurun-Diaz family. Some gravestones bear names decorated
with turrets or palaces with firing crevices, with forts and
with charging lions sitting on guards. These evidently belong
to Castillian exiles, and they symbolize cities or states,
not particular families.
There are also Jewish symbols. On the gravestones of
cohanim we see engraved hands, lifted in
brocho; on those of the levi'im, a pitcher and
a basin. Is the harp in memory of Dovid Hamelech or simply
denoting the deceased's love of music? Is the shofar
announcing the Redemption? Do the lulav or date tree
symbolize blessing? Is the crown symbolizing keser
Torah? Some of the gravestones are also engraved with
stars or the sun. . .
In 1929 (5689) the graves of HaRav Leone di Modena and HaRav
Elia Lewita were uncovered practically simultaneously. Adolfo
Otolenghi described the discovery: "I felt a need to speak to
him [Rav Modena] since his gravestone in the old cemetery in
Lido was only lately discovered. A wild undergrowth of grass
had completely covered it. The stone is a very modest
gravestone. Upon it we read the words that he, himself,
prescribed while still alive. To find this gravestone,
together with that of the great grammarian Elia Lewita who,
in line with many other famous personages was thought to have
disappeared forever in the depths of the earth, lit in me the
desire and duty to mention this talented author. . . . "
An additional gravestone is that of HaRav Simone Luzzato, who
served as rav after the death of HaRav di Modena. The well
known HaRav Shmuel Aboab was also buried here, although his
holy remains were later transferred to Eretz
Venice has an abundance of water, but the wellspring has
dried up. We asked our guide where we could pray
mincha. "No place," he answered.
"Do you want to tell me that these synagogues are not used
for prayer?" we asked.
"Only on the yomim noraim," he answered, "and only in
one particular synagogue, which is closed to visitors."
Five synagogues and none open for a Jew to pray?
Ostia Antiqa -- the Oldest Synagogue in
So all that remains of Italian Jewry are historical and
archaeological sites. The Jews take an active role in their
preservation, taking advantage of every bit of history to
exploit the tourist trade. If not to keep Torah and mitzvos,
at least to take advantage of their external trappings like,
for example, the ancient synagogues. Throughout the course of
our trip -- in Florence, in Venice -- anything Jewish or
formerly Jewish was a place to pay an admission fee.
But the synagogue Ostia Antiqa, which means "Antique Ostia,"
stood out from all the other synagogues we visited. No
prayers are held today in this synagogue, but the reasons are
different and completely understandable. Here, your memory
will not embarrass you. Through it, one can return to Jewish
life at the time of the Beis Hamikdosh. Can you
understand such power? For Jews coming from Genoa, Ostia
seemed to be the end of the world. Not only did they have to
cross Italy from north to south, they had to leave the cold
of Europe to join the Mediterranean warmth with all it
entails, for better and for worse.
Ostia is a small town at the mouth of the Tiber, the river
that connects Rome with the sea. From the capital city Rome,
just a short voyage and you are at the breathtaking remains
of Ostia. A few minutes, and you are touching history. No,
not history, but our nation's soul. You study the artifacts,
which at first glance seem mere well-preserved archaeological
findings. Well, maybe this is how they appear to your
ordinary tourist. But not to Jews who know about Jewish life
from "long ago." Even if there is absolutely no shade, and
the bothersome, hot southern, summer sun threatens to break
the thermometer -- one can stand there for a long time and
feel a part of true Jewry.
The synagogue is the oldest known synagogue in Europe and
perhaps in the entire world. It was discovered in 1961-1962
during two nearby archaeological expeditions. Its
identification was in doubt until two decorative strata with
well-known Jewish symbols were discovered. Except for what is
obviously the sanctuary, the building consists of a number of
rooms which parallel the life of a Jew: a study hall, an oven
to bake matzos, a mikveh, and a smaller room
which served, perhaps, as a beis din. The walls were
constructed through several varied means and show that the
building (from the fourth century) had been built on top of
an earlier building with a similar layout. The lower building
dates from the first century of the common era, almost two
thousand years ago and the time of the final years of the
Second Beis Hamikdash and its destruction.
As proof, a dedication pertaining to the original building
was found in the newer building. From this we learn that the
earlier building was also a synagogue. The complex spans an
area of over 1000 square meters.
The synagogue is located on the outskirts of the city, near
the ancient river bank, and the entrance is from Via
Severiana ("Coastal Road"). It is somewhat parallel to the
old harbor and to the main street of Ostia. It was built
according to the minhag of locating a synagogue near a
source of water to enable the water to reach the mikveh
by natural means. This custom was especially strong in
the Diaspora. Near the entrance there is a small well. It
faces east-southeast, in the direction of Yerushalayim.
Other ancient synagogues also tried to be set apart from the
city, so as not to become involved with the lives of non-
Jews, for reasons of religion as well as for security. Since
no aron kodesh was found from a later period, it was
evidently a portable one. We ascertain this also from the
dedication on the aron hakodesh, engraved on a marble
plaque. The plaque was later set into the floor of the newer
synagogue. The plaque says, "To the health of Caesar. I
created and erected at my own expense the aron that
was placed for the holy Torah from Mindis Faustus." The first
line is written in Latin while the rest is in Greek. In the
dedication, the Greek word meaning aron is
"kibutus," which means "wooden closet," usually
portable. This dedication tells us for certain that the
building served as a synagogue; it even gives us the name of
its donor. But the name is the only thing remaining today
from the Ostia community.
In 1986, the media reported that the ancient synagogue in
Ostia Antiqa was vandalized and robbed. For us, this
symbolizes the destruction of Italian Jewry at the hands of
the Jews themselves. The Jews were pained at the act of
vandalism, but for other reasons. "The pillar on the left
side of the building, that served as the aron kodesh,
was thrown to the ground. The upper part of the right pillar
suffered the same fate. The two pillar tops were removed,
thus damaging the layers over the pillars ending in
protrusions with their engraved pictures of menoras, a
lulav, esrog, and shofar. The pillar capitals
were stolen, while the protrusions were left behind. The
thieves, it seems, were evidently knowledgeable in
archaeology, for they realized that the two capitals were
copies of an original to be found in the museum in Rome; they
took original works only. The horrible act took place three
or four months ago. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities
has presented the Office of Italian Cultural Artifacts
photographic documentation of the site before and after the
robbery. The Union demands that all necessary steps be taken
to apprehend those responsible for the damage and for
restoration of the site. The Italian Jewish community is in
shock over this act. The question of preservation of the
historical, religious, and cultural tradition -- especially
when dealing with archaeological findings -- of the most
ancient Jewish Diaspora community, like the two burial caves
in Rome, has come to the fore. The Union of Italian Jewish
Communities, representing Italy's thirty-five thousand Jews,
is prepared to take upon itself the responsibility of the
care of such sites." This was the immediate response of the
As we have noted, it is not sufficient that most Italian Jews
have turned their backs on the tradition of their
forefathers, but they also want to use their forefathers'
legacy for the purpose of making a profit.
I'm a bit uncomfortable. This whole long piece about my
travels has been none other than a long eulogy about the Jews
It's a very sad article. And if you want to feel even sadder.
. . . the ancient Ostia Antiqa synagogue, well, essentially,
only the ruins of it that remain, is the only place where we
could feel a living spirit, although no prayers take place
there. But, we should remember that this survey of deserted
Italian synagogues is a representative sample of a fading
golus. This is the face of golus at the
beginning of 5760.
In the Midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta, chapter 25)
we read that Moshiach Ben Dovid is sitting across from the
entrance to Rome and changing bandages, without pause. Of
course, we cannot understand the true meaning of this
Midrash. But the mention of Rome -- even if the
reference is not to the actual city of Rome -- seems
But after all, the gemora says that Rebbe Akiva
laughed when his fellows cried about the destruction of the
Beis Hamikdosh (Makkos 24a). For he showed that
redemption can spring out of destruction.