The first time I came to this island universe was by walking, along the bridge over the void that surrounds it, the lagoon. The lagoon once protected Venice from the barbarian hordes of the early Middle Ages, and now protects it from petrol-driven wheeled vehicles – not completely, since Mussolini built this three-mile bridge, which allows vehicles to get to one industrial corner of the city. I had been hitchhiking, and cars had to be left at Mestre on the mainland.
The next five times, we arrived the best way, by train. The station opens broadly onto the Grand Canal, and you cross the Ponte Scalzi (“bridge of the barefoot ones”) into the maze of the city.
Now, for the first and what will be the last time, we arrived by air and then the water bus across the lagoon. I got to see coastal marshes dissected by winding channels, still looking the way Venice may have looked before the refugees from the mainland sought safety amid the waters and began to build the islets into the dense villages that compose the city.
We arrived at the time of the Full Moon – the first Full Moon after the autumn equinox.
Full Moon over the church of the Miracoli.
And this explained what happened when we went looking for our supper in the Ghetto. Tilly had learned that there was at least one kosher restaurant with good vegetarian (and other) food.
Venice’s Ghetto was the world’s first. (One of many supposed explanations of the word is that there had been getti, “foundries,” on the site, but the phonology doesn’t fit.) Here the city’s Jews were segregated from 1516 till Napoleon put an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797. The Ghetto is a compact area in the north of the city, bounded on one side by the waterway called the Cannaregio. This was one of the many places where the water level – which is the level of the Adriatic Sea, and the world ocean – came up to, and often splashed over, the street level. What will happen to Venice with the rising of the sea? – the sea which protected her and to which she was “married” with the throwing of a ring.
The house fronts along the fondamenta, the waterside way, seemed to form a solid town wall for the Ghetto, pierced only by sottoporteghi, dark roofed passages. We tried this one. To our surprise, as soon as we emerged from its inner end we were beside the door of the restaurant, whose name is Gam Gam.
Inside, a crowd filled most but not all of the seats. A tall genial man, with black hat and massive gray beard, asked us whether we had reservations or were Jewish. The answer to both being no, he had to explain to us that the restaurant was in special use because “It’s one of the three high holidays of the Jewish year.”
Of course! It was Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles: half a lunar month after Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Young Moon that is the beginning of the year. I should have known this, because I had just been writing about Rosh Ha-Shanah. It was unusual this year in that it coincided with the moving Islamic New Year, and also in that it fell as late as October.
Succot is one of the more attractive religious festivals. (If you try to google it, don’t be distracted by succotash, with which it has no connection.) Sukkôth, as you might spell it if thinking of classical Hebrew, or Sukkos in Ashkenazi pronunciation, is the plural of sukkah, a temporary hut. It refers both to the stick shade-shelters roofed with leaves, set up in the fields during the season of harvest, and to the tents of the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness. So the feast is sometimes called, in two senses, the In-Gathering.
It lasts a week, so we couldn’t come on a later day either. But when the big man, politely ushering us out, heard why we had come, he said: “Oh, you are vegetarian? There is plenty for you – be my guests” and made us sit down. It appeared that there was plenty from the first course, if we didn’t want the meat course for which the rest of the company was waiting.
The restaurant was L-shaped, and along each arm were long tables; we were seated at the junction, close to a large ornament that could have been Solomon’s Brazen Sea, and we felt somewhat conspicuous as excellent food was pressed on us, so much that we could scarcely find space for our plates, including side dishes of hummus and a little salver of honey, and the notoriously less-than-excellent sparkling kosher wine. Half or more of the company were young men in orthodox Jewish garb, black hat, black coat and trousers, white shirt, uncut hair; they started songs to which we all clapped, and one stood to make a long emphatic speech in Hebrew. Our host kept bustling through, along one arm of his restaurant or the other or out into the alley. When we wanted to leave, we eventually found that he was with another score or so of his guests, at a long leafy-roofed tabernacle that we hadn’t noticed, on the fondamenta beside the canal. He rebuffed our attempt to pay, but, when I asked his name, told me, “Rami.”
He was in fact Rabbi Rami Banin, leader in Venice of Chabad Lubavitch, which is a large, energetic, extreme-conservative organization within the Hasidic branch of Judaism. Lubavitch is the small Russian town where the movement started. Chabad is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah, Da’at, “wisdom, understanding, knowledge” (the first word could be written Hokhmah – it’s from the same root as Arabic words like Hakîm).
I think (may be wrong) that the main urge of Chabad is to bring Jews back to their Judaism and to pride in it, which is harmless enough. Predictably, it believes in the whole of Eretz Israel for the Jews, so we would not have done well to talk of the rights of the Palestinians. Among things we also learned later was that there are under five hundred Jews left in Venice, only a few of them live in the Ghetto, and those that do have some reservations about Chabad. Many of our friends at the Succot feast were probably from other parts of the world. We later met a group of them walking around a distant district to greet Jewish families with the date-palm frond, citron fruit, and willow twig, symbols of Succot.
Any visit to this archipelago of a city leaves me wanting to add to my notes about “Venice as Maze.”