On Hanukkah, Looking for Myself in the World's Oldest Ghetto

Back home in Melbourne, I tend to distance myself from the Jewish community. But on a winter's day in Venice, I sought out the smells and sounds that define who I am and where I belong.

Frittelle, an Italian version of sufganiyot that Venetian Jews eat on Hanukkah.
David Bachar

My Hanukkah in Venice began with a lukewarm, under-baked sufganiya that’s status as “chocolate flavored” came, apparently, from the daub of Nutella on its top. I had resisted panettone, biscotti and panforte on my walk from Santa Lucia train station through the foggy Christmas-lit streets to the world’s oldest Jewish ghetto, enviously watching tourists remove their gloves to warm their hands around mugs of thick Italian hot chocolate. Now, I was left with the taste of stale oil in my mouth as I searched for a bin to dispose of my kosher-bakery disappointment.

Behind the heavy door of the Levantine Synagogue, one of five in the 500-year-old ghetto, a service was in progress for the local Venetian Jewish community. The centuries-old community rarely invites visitors to partake in their gatherings. Chabad, however, had advertised a menorah-lighting ceremony for Jewish visitors at 5:15 P.M. in the central square. The Chabad community, having arrived in Venice in the 1980s, is more receptive than the original Venetian Jews – who sometimes refer to themselves the "real Venetians" – to the floods of tourists descending on the world’s most romantic city, hungry for crumbs of authentic culture. When I arrived at 5 P.M. for the Chabad event, dozens of fur-clad women and impeccably-dressed men were streaming out of the synagogue, kissing profusely and wishing each other chag sameach. Feeling an outsider, I texted my only Venetian-Jewish friend Susanna Calimani: “Hey, I’m in the ghetto. You around?"

The main square of the Venetian Ghetto.
Archaeodontosaurus / Wikimedia Commons

Having lived in the nearby town of Treviso for more than a year on a fellowship with the creative studio Fabrica, I visit Venice often, but have found it challenging—especially given my meagre Italian skills—to penetrate the tight-knit Venetian Jewish community. Growing up in the near 50,000-strong Jewish population of Melbourne, Australia, I tended to distance myself from the community, rather than seek it out, but on a winter’s night on the other side of the globe, I wanted to light a Hanukkah candle with fellow Jews—to recall if not religion, then the rituals of my late-grandparents’ home.

Venice is so visitor-orientated that sometimes it can seem as if people don’t really live there. Venetian friends have told me about times they’ve been asked what time the city “closes,” as though it were Disneyland. Sightseers daily outnumber the historic center’s 55,000 residents, who are struggling to preserve the island’s eroding identity and foundations—literally crumbling due to the hundreds of cruise ships that dock at the island each year. In the peak summer period, there can be 20 tourists to every Venetian.

So I’m not surprised by the cool reception of Susanna’s mother, Anne, who we encounter on the ground floor of her apartment. Susanna has invited me to dinner. They yell at each other in Italian for a bit. I pick up something about radicchio and potatoes. Then Anne disappears out the front door. “Don’t worry,” Susanna tells me, “She’s just stressed because she didn’t know how many people were coming for dinner.” I may not understand what it is to be Venetian, but Jewish-mother-lack-of-food-angst is an emotion I am well acquainted with. When Anne returns to the apartment, she embraces me and says: “It’s not your fault!” Guilt, anxiety; I am beginning to feel at home.

With heritage in Venice as far back as they can trace, the Calimani’s home is filled with Italian-Jewish literature and artwork. Another guest, who happens to be a curator at Ferrara’s Jewish Museum, gives me an impromptu lesson on the art of Emanuele Luzzati; the prolific painter whose work, she says, is basically a prerequisite in any educated Italian-Jewish home. On the crammed bookcases, I notice titles that also have their place on my parents’ shelves. Amos Oz, Chaim Potok, Eli Wiesel—each has explored what it means to be a Jew in their respective eras and lands.

Having remained in their ghetto for half a century, through inquisitions and world wars, the Venetian Jews are unrivalled when it comes to preserving identity. And like all Italians, they transmit much of this rich history through, what else, but food.

On the chag of oil in the land of olive oil, everything is, well, oily. “We joke that if the food’s not a finger-deep in oil, it’s not good,” Susanna tells me over a glass of Veneto wine. After cheese-oozing lasagna, salmon and branzino steeped in oil, boiled potatoes in oil, fennel in oil, latkes and oily apple cake, we end with what true Venetian Jews eat on Hanukkah: the Italian version of sufganiyot, frittelle. These crisp raisin doughnuts cast my earlier blunder into a distant memory and remind me that sometimes, belonging comes in the form of a deep-fried ball of dough.

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian freelance journalist and fellow at Fabrica Research Centre in Italy, covering society and the environment. You can read more of her work here