Synagogue in Jewish Ghetto. 5 windows behind Aron Kodesh, face Jerusalem
Venice houses on Grand Canal
Our Cruise part 3
Tuesday 24th May was the 5th day of our cruise and we spent it at sea, sailing through the Straits of Messina, the toe and heel of Italy on one side and Sicily on the other. With no land tours and all the passengers on board in the daytime, the first time since our holiday began, we thought overcrowding would be an issue. We obviously felt the presence of many more people but it did in no way spoil our pleasure. There were more contestants at the trivia games, increasing the fun.
One or two days out, I noticed that the lifts/elevators had the day of the week imbedded in the floor as one stepped in. I thought each one of the lifts was named, Monday, Tuesday, etc., until I realized it was to keep the passengers from losing track of time, something easily done when no schedule needs to be kept. I laughed at my initial lack of perception.
We were to visit Venice on Wednesday and Thursday and then Ravenna on Friday 27th May. Having found no places of Jewish interest in Ravenna for me to explore, I had initially decided to give it a pass. Referring to our ‘daily planner’ I saw a lecture was to be held on the art and artists of Venice. I love art, Vincent van Gogh being my favorite artist. (Yes, I know, he wasn’t a Venetian.) I even indulge in a little drawing and painting myself. Our house is my gallery, where many ‘Toby’ (my nom de peniculus – the name I use on my artwork) originals are on show.
I arrived for the lecture and the audience sat widely dispersed in the almost empty Pacifica Theatre. No one ever wants to sit ‘up front’, probably a reminder of our schooldays, trying to avoid the teacher’s attention. Sandi, a tall, well-built lady with neatly coiffured fair hair, about the same age as the average cruiser, gave the lecture. She is an art historian at the University of Arkansas, her broad Southern accent reminding me of the three days I spent in New Orleans a few years ago. To break the ice Sandi chatted with some members of the audience, including myself, and asked from where we had come. When I replied Israel, she went into great detail – she was a great talker, quite verbose actually - describing the warnings she had been given about navigating Israeli security checks on her first visit several years previously. She had expected the process to be extremely trying and unpleasant, but as she put it, “their country, their rules”. Her experience was without incident and she had a very positive impression of Israel. This pleased me, having read of the unnecessary cock-ups made on occasion by Israeli security personnel. The art and architecture of Venice was to be the initial lecture. The three Venetian artists discussed were Titian, most of who’s works are to be found outside of Venice, Tintoretto, with many paintings in St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace and Veronese with many paintings that are to be found in the Doge’s Palace on St. Mark’s Square. All three also have many works in Museums and Galleries around the world. Sandi explained some of the more famous paintings, pointing out that important people wore dark blue and the wealthier the subjects, the more red was used in the painting. A winged lion represents St. Mark, one of the four evangelists, whose remains are traditionally, but not actually, buried in the Basilica which bears his name. The following morning prior to our arrival in Venice, Sandi gave a lecture on the art in the churches and other religious sites of Ravenna. Showing us slides of the mosaics impressed me so much that I decided to visit Ravenna and at least one of its churches, in spite of my dictum, ‘if you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all.’ The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, the daughter of one emperor, and wife of another, and the Basilica of San Vitale seemed to be two of the eight Ravenna UNESCO Heritage sites most interesting, and being within the same compound, it would not tire me too much. I was not disappointed. Both buildings have the most remarkable mosaics. Sandi reminded us that the artists worked by candlelight, something we never think about. If one can separate the religion from the exquisite craftsmanship, Christianity has given the world some truly wonderful art.
A ‘Vaporetto’ or water-bus, had been arranged to take us from the ship directly to St. Mark’s Square. It was early afternoon, shortly after lunch. The journey took about twenty hot, smelly minutes before reaching our destination. The noise petrol fumes and none-too-clean canals, added nothing to the sights and sounds of Venice. St. Mark’s Basilica was draped in scaffolding and a billboard advertising clothes or sunglasses or both. I don’t know which came first, the scaffold or the commercial, but I was shocked and disappointed. What would the kotel look like if ‘Emporio Armani’ used it to support a giant ‘David Beckham’ poster? I am of course, not thinking of the religious implications.
We set off for the much vaunted, Rialto Bridge. Never have so many hot, thirsty, sweaty people been squashed into such a small maze of tiny dirty streets. Viewed from above, I imagined a giant ant farm. The shops sold the same repetitive wares and the purchase of a bottle of water needed a phone call to my bank to raise my credit ceiling. The glass tea sets and dinner services were beautiful, too beautiful. Unless one is a lady dowager, who entertains very important people, they have no practical use. Some of the glass vases were very big and very ugly and some massive horse’s heads reminded me of the ‘Godfather’.
We as Israelis are always looking to avoid our noisy, obnoxious, fellow countrymen, but one will meet fellow Jews, mainly Americans in the strangest of places. I was waiting for Jill outside the public conveniences, two young American ladies were standing talking.
“Where do you come from?” I asked
“America,” one replied.
“That I know, but from where in America?”
“Oh that’s where all the rich people live,” I said, with not a little chutzpa. What the hell, I’d never see them again!
“Well we’re not all rich, but yes, I suppose most people in the state are well off.”
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“Oh, I have a cousin, he lives somewhere in Israel with about six or seven kids.”
“He’s religious, I assume.”
“Yes, he’s a rabbi somewhere.”
Jill emerged ready to continue traipsing to find the Rialto Bridge. “Hon, come meet fellow tribe members,” I said.
Our new and fleeting acquaintances laughed at my terminology.
We continued our little chat for a few minutes, wished each other well and that was that.
I found the touristy side of Venice truly depressing. The Venetians are not blind to the fate of their city and have been leaving in droves for many years, unable to live crowded in narrow streets, with the noise and smell and dirty canals. After my obvious disappointment with what I had seen, I feel that if no controls are imposed on the city, will Venice still be viable a hundred years? A new tax on overnight visitors is to be instituted in August 2011, which the authorities hope will raise additional monies for restoration and maintenance. Will this be enough?
I knew the rich Jewish history of Venice, and had done my homework and searched the Internet. The next morning Jill and I made our way across the dockyards to a train/light rail station suspended overhead. This is called a ‘People Mover’. There are three ‘stops’, our point of embarkation being the middle one. At the cost of one Euro, put in the slot, the passengers enter, walk up the stairs and go to the appropriate of the two platforms. At this point there are two sets of rails. Two vehicles approach from opposite directions and stop. Doors open and passengers get on and off. After a designated time a warning bell sounds, the doors close and the train takes off, arriving at the destination in about three minutes. All is automated and there appears to be no staff. It goes from Tronchetto, an artificial island built in the 1960’s for parking cars and buses, to Piazzale Roma, another smelly depressing area for parking cars and buses, more crowded but centrally located on the Grand Canal. Nearby is a bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava which aroused as much ire and passion as did our own in Jerusalem.
The Venice Ghetto  was by contrast to the touristy St. Marks area, very tranquil. Quiet residential streets, criss-crossing the smaller canals which, except for the Grand Canal, make up the waterways of Venice. The Jewish Ghetto has five shuls, all on the top floor, above the homes, and so in direct contact with heaven, as Jewish law dictates, but only two arein use, one in winter, because it has heating, and the other in summer.A memorial for the Holocaust, the Jewish Museum and some of the shuls overlook a very quite piazza. The shuls were built on the top floor, as Jewish law requires that the roof of a synagogue be in direct contact with Heaven, and it was illegal at one time to build separate synagogues in Venice. The shuls can be seen from the street as each has five geometrically similar windows behind the aron kodesh, facing Jerusalem. This design was to enable Jews to know in which building a shul could be found. A group of about twenty, mainly Americans, toured the Ghetto. I always find delving into Jewish history where it was made, fascinating, inspiring, but also bearing World War II in mind, mentally exhausting.
If one wants to enjoy Venice, it is probably best to visit in winter.