Reviving the Renaissance temples of Venice's Jewish Ghetto

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Reviving the Renaissance temples of Venice's Jewish Ghetto
The Canton Synagogue, built in Venice, Italy in 1532, whose gilded woodwork, curtains and lamps are being cleaned and restored, April 21, 2022. An $11 million project is underway to restore three decaying synagogues in Venice and preserve the city’s history of harboring European Jews. Gus Powell/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

VENICE.- Walking into the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Italy, in the Cannaregio section of this watery city, you would not know that there are five ornate synagogues nestled behind the walls of the nondescript tenements that date back to the 16th century.

The temples were built on the top floor — according to Jewish law, synagogues should be the tallest structures in a given area — and had to be hidden because Jews were not allowed to pray openly. Those houses of worship were a lifeline for the estimated 5,000 Jews who lived in the ghetto at its most populous — a place to gather, celebrate rites of passage, take refuge from a world that didn’t want them.

These days, the number of Jews in Venice has dwindled to 450, and the synagogues have fallen into disrepair. But an effort is underway to rejuvenate the three most needy of them — restoring the wooden pews, cleaning the terrazzo floors and repairing the painted ceilings.

“These buildings are crying for help,” said David Landau, an Israeli art historian and businessman who lives between Switzerland and Venice and is leading fundraising for the project. “I got so frustrated when I came here and saw everything was crumbling. We have to get this done. It’s a question of honor. Art for me is fundamental to my life, and being a Jew is fundamental to my life.”

The project, which has been underway for about three years, is focused on the German Synagogue, called the Scuola Tedesca, built in 1528; the Canton Synagogue (possibly French, and from 1532); and the Italian Synagogue, circa 1570. Each national community insisted on its own place of worship. Venice was a relative safe harbor for Jews from across Europe, Landau said, because the city allowed them to earn a living — and live without the threat of violence or death.

Estimated at a cost of about $11 million, $6.4 million has been raised so far. The project’s supporters include Ronald Lauder, the Jerome Levy Foundation, British and French members of the Rothschild family, Save Venice, the World Monuments Fund and smaller contributors.

“These synagogues are little gems,” said Shelby White, the founding trustee of the Jerome Levy Foundation. “It’s important to not lose this sense of where the Jews were and what they contributed. It speaks to how they survived despite the obstacles.”

The synagogues exemplify the paradox of the Venice Ghetto: It sheltered Jews but also restricted them to the 1.5-acre area. Poorer families were crowded into the low-ceilinged rooms. The professional classes were able to decorate their spaces with opulent furnishings.

“We were in a way protected in the ghetto and at the same time segregated,” said Dario Calimani, president of the Jewish Community in Venice, a nonprofit that supports Jewish life in the city. “They didn’t want the Jews to mix up with Christians because there was a danger, in their view, that Jews would convert Christians to Judaism.”

Residents became religious, Landau said, because the only place to have sufficient light and air in those days was the top-floor temples.

Known as the Project for the Restoration of the Renaissance Synagogues of Venice, the effort will try to re-create the experience of that past, how one had to walk through rooms with bent heads and endure extreme temperatures.

“We want visitors to have a sense of what it felt like; it was difficult living,” said Landau. “I would like people to know: This is who we are. This is what we’ve done.”

The undertaking aims to upgrade the overall visitor experience, improving the circulation from one building to the next, refreshing the bookstore and café and creating a 10-minute film about the history of the Jews in Venice.

A ground-floor museum will expand, with the help of three newly acquired properties, and will feature galleries for temporary exhibitions to encourage locals’ repeat visits.

The museum’s chronology will go backward, from the 20th century and the Holocaust (250 Jews were taken to Auschwitz from Venice, Landau said); to the 19th century, when Jews were able to prosper, owning banks and founding the insurance company Generali; to the great thinkers, philosophers, doctors and poets of the 18th and 17th centuries; to the great books printed in Hebrew in the 16th century and the arrival of the refugees who built the temples.

The project aims to increase annual attendance to 250,000 from 70,000, in part by reinvigorating the synagogues.

“They haven’t been maintained and preserved for decades because of lack of funds,” Calimani said. “What we’re trying to do now is value this patrimony, give new life to the ghetto that once was not even looked at. We want the ghetto to live again.”

The restoration is addressing the woodwork, gilding, Torah arks and bimahs, or altars. Torah finials and hanging brass oil lamps will be buffed, Torah covers repaired, windows and curtains revitalized. Many of these objects are still used in Jewish festivals.

Two pieces of 16th-century silver survive; the rest, mostly from the 18th century, was all saved. Half was hidden in a safe under the bimah of a synagogue so that even the Germans could not find it. The other half, delivered to the fascist authority by the mayor of Venice, was restituted by the Italian state after the war.

The synagogues have some of their original Torahs, prayer books and other documents, and the project will shore up the library, which was threatened by a flood in 2019. “We don’t want to be in that situation ever again,” Landau said.

Each of the temples is distinct in design, with different distinguishing features. The German synagogue was constructed by a group of Ashkenazi Jews with five large windows that overlook the ghetto’s central square, or campo. In the relatively small Canton Synagogue, embellished in the baroque era, a series of gilded wooden panels illustrate episodes from Exodus.

Given the ongoing risks of antisemitic violence, security systems are being created in consultation with Israeli security officials, Landau said, with bulletproof windows on the ground floor.

All of these efforts, Landau said, are about preserving an important chapter of history, educating the public and honoring the memory of those who made the Venice ghetto home. “It’s not just a building a mausoleum,” he said. “It’s about building a live institution.

“Twenty people from my family were killed in Auschwitz,” Landau added. “I think I owe it to them to make sure this is a celebration of life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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