Do you remember the 1971 film, ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti? Aged 16 at the time, I went to see it with my parents at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair – one of their favourite haunts. I will never forget the shots of the principal character, a writer, played by Dirk Bogarde, his face etched with sadness, leaning on his walking-stick and looking into the distance, as his water-taxi glided through the mist towards the Lido for what turned out to be his last summer. As the film reaches its denouement, and a cholera epidemic sweeps through the fetid waters of Venice, he dies on the beach, his final days caught up in a reverie of infatuation from afar with a beautiful, graceful young adolescent boy.

‘Death in Venice.’ Of course, the film tells a story – told originally by the German author, Thomas Mann, and based on his experience.[1] But the film does much more than tell that story exquisitely well – through wonderful performances, stunning cinematography and the heart-wrenching tones of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The film also seals an indissoluble connection between ‘death’ and ‘Venice’ in our minds.

I visited Venice for the first time to celebrate my 50th birthday in 2005. I had to go to Venice. It seemed that I was always being told that I had to go; with a kind of urgency that did not seem to inform other suggestions for places to visit – not even Israel. I had to go, as I was told again and again, because Venice was sinking, dying, vanishing – and would be gone, for certain, within a few years, possibly, within my own lifetime. So throughout my adult life, I knew I had to visit. But of course, I would not dream of visiting in the summer: I could almost smell the stench of the ‘Death in Venice’ plague in my nostrils as I contemplated the thought. And so, my first visit was in early May 2005; a return visit to celebrate our chuppah was at the end of March the following year; and to mark our 10th wedding anniversary, a special celebratory visit the second week of September this year, when Jess also planned to do some research for her Ph.D. on the embodiment of theology in art.

As a heat wave swept through Europe – reaching British shores, too – it was evident that despite the September date, we would be in Venice during the heat… As it turned out, Venice was both very hot and fresh – with a lovely breeze on the sparkling waters. It was also very much alive. Alive with tourists, whom we largely managed to avoid – even on the packed water buses known as vaporettos – and also alive with locals: shopping, transporting goods up and down the Grand Canal, going about their daily lives and living in Venice.

From the perspective of the tourist, Venice is a breath-taking and magnificent, magical museum and showcase of treasures from the past. But contrary to expectations, people actually live there. We were staying in a hotel on the Grand Canal at San Sta in the Santa Croce district. As tourists packed the restaurants, we discovered a square, where, on one night, the locals brought their dishes and tables for a shared meal, and on another, they danced an Italian version of ballroom dancing. Meanwhile, as we walked the streets, open windows made us aware of laughter and conversations and music; the sounds of people’s lives.

Life in Venice. Yes, it’s true! And the huge revenue from tourism is helping to fund repair and to keep the waters clean. So: good news about this beautiful, watery, car-free city that manages to be both a top tourist destination and home to those who live there.

But, there is also another story to be told; a more complex story about Jewish life in Venice. The old Jewish ghetto is in Cannaregio, on the north side of the city. The word ghetto means ‘slag’, and comes from the Latin, gettare. The Venetians were the first to use the word, but they were not the first to force Jews to live in a segregated area. In 1179, the third Lateran Council of the Catholic Church decreed that Christians should not live together with Jews. And so, Jews in Venice, as in other cities across Europe lived apart from Christians. However, a further step was taken in 1516, when the Jewish area of Venice was surrounded by a wall with two gates, which were locked at night and only opened between sunrise and sunset.[2]

February this year marked the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Ghetto. The Jews of Venice remained confined for just over 280 years until following the French revolution of 1789 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the city in 1797. With the unification of Italy in 1866, the Jews of Venice eventually achieved equal status. However, after Mussolini made a pact with Hitler in the 1930s, the fate of the Jews of Italy like those of the rest of Europe was sealed. When Germany occupied Venice in 1943, around 1200 Jews were living there. Between November 9, 1943 and August 17, 1944 205 people were deported to the death camps, including the Chief Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi. By the end of the war, the Jewish population had actually increased to 1500. 20 years later, half that number resided in the city. Today, the number has fallen to 500.[3] Meanwhile, excluding the other islands in the lagoon, the city of Venice now has a population of around 60,000.[4]

Like the rest of Venice, the ghetto remains intact. In recent years, it has become a tourist destination. You can now tour the synagogues, visit a museum, purchase ritual objects, jewellery and works of art, shop for Jewish foods, eat in a Jewish restaurant that serves Israeli cuisine and even attend a beit midrash, a house of study, run by Chabad, the Lubavitch, where services are also held. So, on the face of it, it looks like Jewish life has returned to Venice. But as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Just 30 Jewish families now live in the ghetto, and for more information about Jewish life in the ghetto today, the Jewish Virtual library online directs you to Chabad.[5]

The stark reality of Jewish life in Venice today – as elsewhere in Europe – is that it has not recovered from the Sho’ah. We were forced to confront that reality even more forcibly when we visited Padua, a forty-minute train journey west of Venice. We went to Padua, principally, so that Jess could continue researching icon paintings, and in particular, view Giotto’s frescoes that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel.

While we were there, we visited the ghetto – known today as Quartiere dell’Antico Ghetto Ebraico di Padova – ‘the ancient Hebrew ghetto quarter of Padua.’ In the early 16th century, the Jews of Padua was forced to live in one area of the city, but it was not until 1601 that the area became a walled-in ghetto, with five gates that were locked at night.[6] When Napoleon’s troops entered Padua on April 20, 1797, the process of emancipation began and in August of that year, Jews were allowed to live wherever they wished, and the ghetto was renamed Via Libera, ‘Liberty Way.’[7]

But even during the locked ghetto years, the Jews of Padua enjoyed an exceptional freedom. Padua is home to a renowned university, and was the first university in the world to allow Jews to graduate – and also, incidentally, the first to permit women to graduate.[8] From 1519 to 1619 around 80 Jews obtained degrees in medicine in Padua – while from 1619 to 1721, 149 Jews graduated as physicians.[9] These Jews came not only from Italy, but from elsewhere, including Germany and Poland. The Padua Jewish community was also a centre of Jewish scholarship, and later, in the 19th century, the first rabbinic seminary in Europe to combine secular and traditional Jewish study was established there. Significantly, at times when the Jewish community was under attack from the local population, the forces of law and order came to their aid. In response to rumours that the Jews had helped Buda – Budapest – during the siege by the Austrian and Venetian armies, on 20 August 1644, the local populace rampaged through the ghetto, and certain death by fire was only avoided because of the swift intervention of the army and city authorities. A special Purim di-Buda celebrated each year thereafter was inaugurated on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Elul to commemorate the rescue of the Jews.[10]

The Jewish population of Padua was never very large. In 1616 it was 665. In 1931 it was 586. Then, in 1943, Fascist bands burned down the main Ashkenazi synagogue, and from 1943 to 1945, 85 Jews, including Rabbi Eugenio Cohen Sacerdoti, were deported to death camps. By 1948, there were 269 Jews in Padua; by 1970, 220. Today the figure stands at 200. As we discovered, when we visited the Jewish Museum, which included a tour of the only remaining synagogue, although Shabbat services are still held there, they are attended by no more than 30, mostly very elderly Jews.

So, while the main Ashkenazi synagogue, where the museum is now based was destroyed during the Sho’ah – and we saw a film at the Museum that included the moving testimony of the daughter of the Rabbi of that synagogue about the day that it was torched by the mob – the only synagogue that remains in use is also the only one that remains intact. It survived because it was hidden in the upper stories of a house in the ghetto, and so was not a visible target.

In Padua, we were confronted with an uncomfortable truth about Jewish life: visibility and vulnerability to attack on the one hand; invisibility and survival on the other. Despite the fact that the ghetto in Padua is a place on the map and the name is used by the locals – as evidenced by a large banner advertising the Sunday arts and crafts market in the ‘Ghetto Ebraico’ – the 200 Jews of Padua are largely invisible; so invisible that as I walked through the streets, my kippah provoked quizzical looks and stares. Indeed, the only Jews we encountered were visitors to Padua – in the breakfast room of our hotel and at the Jewish Museum. In both places, two of the Jews – Rabbi Michael Marmur, Principal of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and a former chair of the Reform Synagogue that I served as a rabbinic student apprentice – were people I knew! A reminder, if I needed one, that the Jewish world is very small indeed…

Like Venice, although on a smaller scale, Padua is a tourist destination with a constant stream of visitors queuing to view the Scrovegni Chapel. As its fully pedestrianised city centre revealed, it is also packed with locals and students on bicycles going about their daily lives. By contrast, the efforts that have been taken in recent years to remind people that Jewish life was once a feature of both cities, only serves to underline the loss of Jewish life in both cities.

When we recall the Sho’ah, we always speak, quite rightly, of the murder of six million Jews. Visiting Venice and Padua reminded me how of important it is to acknowledge the destruction of tens of thousands of Jewish communities during the Nazi reign of terror. It also prompted me to give thanks for the revival of Jewish life that has been going on elsewhere in Europe, including, in Eastern Europe, during the past 25 years – not least, here at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. As the New Year approaches, and with it the opportunity to renew our lives, may the awareness of the losses of our people, inspire us to redouble our efforts to contribute to the renewal of Jewish life across the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut

24th September 2016 / 21st Elul 5776

  1. A novella first published by S. Fischer Verlag in Berlin in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig.
  5. Chabad of Venice, Ghetto Nuovo, Cannaregio, Venice, Italy. Phone/Fax: 39-041-715-284. Email:
  8. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Loredan Piscopia, born in Venice in 1646, graduated in Philosophy in 1678.
  9. ‘Jewish Medical Students and Graduates at the Universities of Padua and Leiden: 1617–1740.’ Kenneth Collins (Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, Vol. 4 (1), January 2013).