Venice is where it all began for the Western Sephardim (though there may be some antecedents in Ferrara). It was there that the first openly Jewish Western Sephardic (“S&P”) community was organised . It was upon that model that all of the other congregations that came afterwards decided to follow. Amsterdam even adopted the name Talmud Tora, and their bylaws, directly from the Venetian Jews. Prior to Venice, the Western Sephardim of Portugal (former conversos who left the Peninsula and returned to open Jewish life) were simply absorbed into pre-existing Sephardic communties, such as in the Ottoman Empire. That would all change with Venice.
Venetian Jewish life and the Ghetto preceded the establishment of the Sephardic community there. Italian and then German Jews had lived in Venice since the Middle Ages. The Ghetto was formed in 1515 (Ghetto Novo). The Levantine (Eastern Sephardic) community was only established in 1554 (Ghetto Vecchio). Then in 1584 another community was established, the Ponentine (Western Sephardic). The communities not only prayed according to their own rite, but they were also considered independent legal bodies, with their own terms of settlement, economic privileges, and tax requirements. It was only in the 1700’s, during a period of decline, that they all merged into one larger kahal, though they continued to pray in their separate congregations.
Today, one can visit most of the synagogues in the Ghetto on tours run by the Jewish Museum. For the most part though, only the Sephardic synagogues are still in use. The Levantine and Spanish synagogues are located opposite each other and are each used for half of the year. Essentially though, it is only the Western Sephardic rite that remains today in Venice (aside for the more recently arrived Hasidic Chabad). I prayed with them on two weekday mornings in the Luzzato Bet Midrash, located on the ground floor of the Levantine Synagogue. I was pleased to hear how similar their Torah reading was to that at Bevis Marks and other S&P synagogues.
I had the pleasure to then accompany the community’s younger rabbi, Avraham Dayan, to the Spanish synagogue to assist him with rolling and dressing the sefarim. There, in the striking and imposing baroque-style synagogue, we spoke about our Western Sephardic communties. We also discussed various elements of the minhag, such as what is done (or not done!) with hakafot on Simhat Torah, dressing up on Purim, or saying birkat kohanim.
Simply walking the streets and along the canals of Venice is an elevating experience. As I took in the smell of the salty sea water, and heard it lap against the canal walls, I found myself imagining what the bustling city must have been like 500 years ago. It was along its narrow alleys, and in its deap sea ports, that Sephardic Jews were able to find refuge from their many wanderings.The Ghetto (marking 500 years since its establishment) may have limited Jews in some ways, but it also created an environment in which Jewish life, scholarship, music, and commerce flourished. It is not so surprising then that the Jewish communties of the Ghetto became the model for so many other communities that would soon sprout up in ever greater freedom in Western Europe and in the Americas.
The Jewish community of Venice today is of course far smaller than it once was. I was therefore impressed with how hard they’ve worked to welcome so many thousands of visitors, while at the same time maintaining the traditions that have made their community so very special in the first place. I took note of their unique model and hope to implement some of those self-same strategies at Bevis Marks. Even so many centuries later, I still found myself inspired by the Jews of Venice.
See here for thoughts on The Merchant of Venice