Sunday, 7 November 2021

Dancing with Zorba
and Electra on a
return visit to Crete

An improvised interpretation of syrtaki in an olive grove in Crete days after the death of Mikis Theodorakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

After a two-year absence, I returned to Crete at the end of summer, glad that the lifting of pandemic restrictions allowed me to return to the Greek island I have visited almost every year since the mid-1980s.

Young men from Ireland and England first became acquainted with parts of present-day Italy and Greece in the 18th century, when the ‘Grand Tour’ became an essential part of the education of aristocrats and gentlemen.

Their letters home were the equivalent of later postcards, texts and Facebook postings, their journals the equivalent of blog postings, and the plundered antiquities they brought back have given way to today’s souvenirs and tourist trinkets.

They probably behaved no better than Leaving Cert students now behave in Malia and Hersonissos, but they also reached other parts of Crete. Perhaps the first modern tourist to visit Rethymnon was Richard Pococke (1704-1765). He was an 18th century Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory (1756-1765) and briefly, before his death, he was Bishop of Meath (1765).

Pococke was ahead of his time: he was in Rethymnon almost a century before Robert Pashley visited Crete in 1834. A century after Pococke’s death, the English writer and artist Edward Lear visited Crete in 1864 and painted five watercolours of Rethymnon.

* * *

During my first week back in Crete, the island was immersed in three days of official mourning for the composer Mikis Theodorakis, who died in Athens but was buried in Chania.

Theodorakis is best-known outside Greece for his film scores, particularly for Zorba the Greek (1964) and the political masterpiece Z (1969). Zorba is based on a novel by the great Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis, and is remembered for the syrtaki or ‘Zorba’s Dance’ performed by Anthony Quinn.

Anthony Quinn later claimed he had improvised or even invented syrtaki. But it was choreographed for the film by Girogos Provias. It is the staple Greek folkdance, and is a mixture of the slow and fast rhythms in Greek folkdance. On our way back to Rethymnon from the monastery and beaches at Preveli, we were treated to an improvised interpretation of syrtaki in an olive grove in the Kourtaliotiko Gorge.

The Monastery of Arkadi is a national symbol of Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Three monasteries
in the mountains


I have been visiting the Monastery of Arkadi, in the mountains above Rethymnon, since I first arrived in Crete in the mid-1980s. Arkadi is a national symbol, and before Greece joined the Eurozone the monastery featured on the 100 Drachma banknote.

The monastery dates back to the 16th century, if not earlier, and is associated with important cultural figures in the history of Crete, including Georgios Chortatzis, author of the great Cretan epic poem Erofili, written in Rethymnon in 1600.

Bishop Pococke, whose travels have been published in three volumes by Dr Rachel Finnegan, visited Arkadi Monastery in 1739, and wrote: ‘It is a charming structure built around an extensive courtyard. They have a very fine refectory and in the centre of the courtyard a very pretty church with a wonderful facade in the Venetian architectural style.’

But the place of pride held by Arkadi in Greece comes from the massacre of 943 people, mostly women and children, during the Cretan resistance to Ottoman rule. The Greek War of Independence began 200 years ago in 1821, but Crete was still part of the Ottoman Empire when the massacre took place 45 years later, on 8 November 1866.

The Monastery of Preveli looks out onto the island of Gavdos, the southern-most point of Europe, and across the Libyan Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

* * *

The Monastery of Preveli, 37 km south of Rethymnon and on the south coast of Crete, stands above the famous ‘Palm Beach’ of Preveli and looks out onto the small island of Gavdos, the southern-most point of Europe, and across the Libyan Sea.

The earliest records for the monastery date back to 1594. In 1821, the Abbot of Preveli, Melchisedek Tsouderos, was a leading figure in the revolutionary events in Crete. Following the catastrophe at Arkadi, Turkish soldiers set fire to the monastery in 1867.

During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 stranded Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941, found shelter in Preveli until the Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, organised their escape to Egypt on two submarines on the nights of 31 May and 1 June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941.

The best-known relic in Preveli is the large, richly decorated silver cross brought back from Constantinople by Abbot Ephrem. It is said to contain a relic of the true cross and is kept in a special shrine in the main church. I visited Preveli on the day after the Feast of the Holy Cross. One of the three monks in the monastery put on his stole, took the cross out of its shrine, and blessed me before I went on my way.

West of Preveli, the tiny monastic church dedicated to Saint Paisos of Mount Athos stands on a tall craggy rock above the beaches of Damnoni of Amoudaki. It looks out of place and might be more appropriate among the monasteries of Meteora, perched perilously on high, precipitous rocky peaks in northern Greece.

Saint Paisios (1924-1994), whose feast day is 12 July, is still known for his spiritual guidance and ascetic life and has been described as ‘the saint of the dispirited and of sinners.’ This tiny, almost inaccessible church probably goes unnoticed by tourists, but it was filled with tourists on his feast day this year after popular reports that miraculous myrrh was seen streaming from his icon.

The Church of Saint Paisos might easily sit among the monasteries of Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Watching the sunset
on the seashore


On the day I visited Preveli Monastery and the Palm Beach below, I also visited the beaches at Plakias, Damnoni and Amoudaki for the first time.

But since 2015, I have been staying in Platanias, a working suburban village on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon that has also grown into a resort in the last decade or so. And one of the joys of staying in Platanias is being a mere a two or three-minute walk from Pavlos Beach.

Pavlos Beach is part of the long, sandy stretch of white beach that stretches for miles and miles east of Rethymnon, as far as the eye can see. When the summer season is at its highest, the beach can be filled with tourists on sunbeds. But, on days when you least expect it, the seas can be turbulent, the sunbeds are abandoned, and it becomes a new pleasure to watch the high waves crashing against the shoreline.

When the tourists leave to get ready for dinner or an evening out, Pavlos Beach comes into its own. It is transformed into a quiet place to watch the sun setting majestically in the east behind Rethymnon and the Venetian Fortezza that dominates the town.

The Venetian harbour and the Ottoman lighthouse of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

* * *

Two friends from Leixlip arrived unexpectedly while we were staying in Rethymnon, and I brought them on a walking tour of the town through the narrow streets, the Venetian churches and palazzi, around the harbour and the lighthouse, into the cafés and tavernas, and up into the Fortezza.

I realised then how I have come to feel at home in the town. But, as they asked questions and expressed their awe and surprise, seeing places with new insights, I wondered whether I had come to take the town for granted over these past three or four decades.

As tour groups elbowed their way past us, I also caught a glimpse of how the residents of Rethymnon must feel about the tourists who crowd out their town for six months of the year.

The real impact of the pandemic lockdown on tourism and its impact on local businesses came a few days later when I brought these friends to Maroulas, an old Venetian village in the hills above Platanias. Only one taverna and one shop were open, the main church and the main Venetian tower were locked, and it was only with great difficulty that we found someone to call a taxi back down to Platanias.

I realised how the economy of Crete, and of Greece in general, depends on the earnings of the tourism sector.

Elektra in Rethymnon … bringing together, Zorba, Euripides and Theodorakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

When Zorba dances
with Electra


As we walked around the harbour of Rethymnon in early afternoon sunshine, I noticed a boat named Elektra out of the water and near the old lighthouse.

It brought to mind the score Mikis Theodorakis wrote for the film Electra (1962), two years before Zorba the Greek. The film, starring Irene Papas, is based on the play Electra by Euripides. It was the first in a Greek tragedy trilogy by Michael Cacoyannis, followed by The Trojan Women (1971) and Iphigenia (1977).

His music expressed his political values and fused his idealism and his commitment to freedom. His scores for Zorba and Electra show how Theodorakis caught Greek cultural imaginations, combining Greek traditional music and classical composition, high art and popular culture.

In the week after his death, Theodorakis was described by a leading Greek newspaper, Kathimerini, as ‘Greece’s last enduring myth.’

Pavlos Beach, east of the Rethymnon … the sun sets on another holiday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This feature was first published in the November 2021 edition of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)

Sunday intercessions, 7 November 2021,
Third Sunday before Advent

‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched … A poor widow … put in two small copper coins’ (Mark 12: 41-42) … old copper coins on a table top in a pub in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Let us pray:

‘Blessed be the Lord … may his name be renowned … He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher’ (Ruth 4: 14-15):

Heavenly Father,
Listen to our prayers for the world,
that you may restore life to and nourish those who suffer
through violence, coercion and subjugation,
and to all who seek mercy, peace and justice.

We pray for all who deal with the problems of climate change …
and for all who demand climate justice …
that we may take to heart the fifth mark of Anglican mission,
‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation,
and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

‘Christ … will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’ (Hebrews 9: 28):

Lord Jesus Christ,
we pray for the Church,
that we may eagerly await your coming among us …

In the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
and for Bishop Paul Colton.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray this week for the Anglican Church in
Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

In our community,
we pray for our schools,
we pray for our parishes and people …
we pray for our neighbouring churches and parishes,
and people of faith everywhere,
that we may be blessed in our variety and diversity.

And we pray for ourselves …

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

The Psalmist says, ‘The Lord … gives his beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127: 3):

Holy Spirit, we pray for one another …

In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer,
we pray this morning for all in our dioceses who have been bereaved in the last year,
that the Lord may comfort them.

Throughout November in this group of parishes,
we remember with thanks all who have died in the past year,

including: Alan Fitzell; Arthur Gilliard; Ena Downes; Gill Killick; Joe Smyth; Kenneth Smyth (whose birthday is today); Linda Smyth;

We remember those who are remembered and mourned by parishioners this month, including:

Jack and Eileen Ryall …
Jack Shorten …
Marian Locke …
Lil Gilliard …
Alan’s sister Hazel …
Brendan Quinlan …
William, Kathleen and Dorothy …
Robert and Lynda Gardiner …
May their memories be a blessing.

We pray for those who feel pain and loss …
for those who are bewildered and without answers …
for those we love and those who love us …
for our families, friends and neighbours …

We pray for all who feel rejected and discouraged …
we pray for all in need and who seek healing …
and we pray for those we promised to pray for …

We pray for all who are sick or isolated,
at home, in hospital …
Ruby … Daphne … Sylvia … Ajay … Cecil … Pat … Mary … Ann … Vanessa …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

The prayer in the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), invites us to pray today:

Calling God,
may we follow you
with the conviction of the disciples,
spreading your message of love
wherever we go.

Merciful Father …

Candles on the altar in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, remember seven parishioners who have been buried since last Christmas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Is it more blessed to give than to receive,
or more blessed to receive than to give?

‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched … A poor widow … put in two small copper coins’ (Mark 12: 41-42) … small coins for sale in an antique shop in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

7 November 2021 (Third Sunday before Advent):

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert

Readings: Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The Cooke window by John Henry Dearle and Morris & Co in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth … the two central figures, Ruth (left) and Naomi (right) are flanked by Samuel (left) and David (right); the text beneath the two women reads, ‘Intreat me not to leave thee’ (Ruth 1: 16) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I have to say this morning that we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the parishioners and parishes shown last weekend.

It was unexpected and I would not like to disempower anyone, but it was undeserved and unnecessary. I am here because I want to be, not because I want anything.

And without drawing patronising comparisons, I really did wonder later last Sunday whether your generosity came at the expense of what we are reading about this morning – at the expense of the ‘widow’s mite’?

I have to understand too that your generosity is not just personal affection, but also a sign of how you want to express your commitment in faith too.

In the two alternative first readings provided in the Lectionary this morning (Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17; and I Kings 17: 8-16), we meet widows who are outsiders in the community, who have very little, and yet who are rewarded with the bread of life because of their surprising commitment to God.

Ruth is an outsider who commits herself to following Naomi and Naomi’s God. At first, she seems to be reduced to depending on the leftovers of the harvest. Yet, her unexpected, and at times bewildering, faith is rewarded not only with personal and domestic security but with a reward that she could never have known about: she becomes the ancestor of David, and she has a key role in the story of salvation.

The unnamed widow who offers food, bread and shelter to Elijah finds new life when her son is restored to life.

Psalm 127 could be read as a promise of God’s response to faith, rather than faith setting demands on God.

So, the readings this morning challenge us to ask whether faith is expressed in praying for what we want from God? Or is faith about giving thanks to God for God’s abundant generosity, even when we have little in life?

In the Gospel reading, the demands of people of faith, seen in the ambitions of some scribes, is in sharp contrast to the widow in the Temple, who is generous in her faith but seems to make no demands on God.

Who am I more like?

Those who seek the best seats in church and in society, when they already have so much, so that I will be noticed and respected?

Or the widow, who does not know or care whether anyone notices her, but who continues to love God despite all she has lost in life?

Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I wrote a feature in The Irish Times that was critical of Japanese development aid policies at the time. It said that the Japanese economy received more in return than Japan gave to support developing countries. A clever sub-editor wrote a headline that said, more or less, ‘When it is more blessed to receive than to give’ (see Acts 20:35).

When we give, do we hope that we will receive more in return as some sort of divine reward?

This morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 12: 38-44) comes after a scribe has put a question to Christ: which is the greatest precept in the law? His agreement that to love God and to love one’s neighbour are the most important has led Jesus to tell him that he is almost ready for the kingdom of God.

Now, as Christ teaches in the synagogue, he warns of certain scribes, professional interpreters of the religious law, who walk around ostentatiously, seek honour in the market-places or public places, and seek the best seats in places of worship and at banquets.

The best seats in the synagogue were near the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls were kept and faced the congregation. The places of honour at a banquet were couches at the host’s table. Both gave people high visibility that brought with it higher social prestige and status.

Some scribes, as the legal trustees of a widow’s estate, charged exorbitant fees for their services. The fee was usually a part of the estate, but some took the widows’ houses, yet kept up the appearances of piety. They will be judged harshly in the greatest court of all on Judgment Day.

Christ then moves from the synagogue to the Temple, where he sits down and watches the people bringing money as an offering to the Treasury (verses 41-44). The Treasury is in the outer court of the Temple, where people placed their offerings in chests.

As he is watching, Christ singles out a poor widow as an example of good discipleship. Widows were often poor, vulnerable and exploited, as Christ reminds us in the first part of this reading. Yet she makes a real sacrifice in giving two leptas, two small copper coins, the lowest value coins then in circulation.

He tells those who are listening that she ‘has put in more than all’ the other contributors that day, for the rich people were giving only what they do not need, while ‘she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

The men of power in our Gospel reading link what they receive with how they are blessed. The poor widow in our Gospel reading is blessed and gives of what she has.

Generosity, as in these Lectionary readings, must always be freely given, but should never be sought.

When it is sought, it becomes coercive, and can never be properly measured.

When it is freely given, it can never be measured but always becomes a sign, a real expression not just of the generosity of the giver, but of the faith of the giver. And then, God becomes the true giver, and the true receiver.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched … A poor widow … put in two small copper coins’ (Mark 12: 41-42) … the Treasury at Delphi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 38-44 (NRSVA):

38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

They ‘like to … to have the best … places of honour at banquets’ (Mark 12: 38-39) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year B)

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of the Word:

O God,
whose blessed Son came into the world
that he might destroy the works of evil
and make us your children
and heirs of eternal life:
grant that, having this hope,
we may purify ourselves as he is pure;
that, when he comes again
with power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Scroll of Ruth in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

218, And can it be that I should gain (CD 14)
593, O Jesus, I have promised (CD 34)
597, Take my life, and let it be (CD 34)

Villiers Almshouses in Limerick were endowed by Hannah Villiers for the benefit of 12 poor widows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
162, the Ghetto in Venice

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Novo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Third Sunday before Advent (7 November 2021). Later this morning, I am presiding and preaching at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and leading Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

I am planning to visit Venice this week. Photographs of churches in Venice provided the theme for this prayer diary in the week 20-27 June 2021. So, instead, as part of my reflections and this prayer diary this week, my photographs are from the ghetto in Venice.

In the heart of the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The English word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, which was set up by a decree of the Venetian government over 500 years ago, on 29 March 1516, when the Jews of Venice were compelled to live in a segregated area. In mediaeval times, this part of Cannaregio housed a getto or foundry, and from the 16th century this was the Jewish quarter of Venice, so that the word acquired a new meaning.

But, while many people know that the ghetto of Venice is the first of its kind, few realise that the Jewish presence in Venice long predates the ghetto.

Jews were trading in Venice as early as the tenth century, and there is evidence that Jews had lived in the Giudecca quarter – formerly called the Spinalonga – in the 11th to 13th centuries. Oral tradition in the Venetian Jewish community holds that there were two synagogues in the Giudecca, although these were demolished as late as the 18th century, and a plaque with a Hebrew inscription was found in the Giudecca near the Church of the Zitelle in the 19th century.

Despite common prejudice and anti-Semitism, the mediaeval authorities in Venice realised that Jews could bring invaluable commercial ties with the Near East and important revenue into the city state.

The Venetian Senate invited German Jewish moneylenders to move to the city in 1385. This was followed a year later by a grant of land on the Lido for a Jewish cemetery.

But, while Jews were allowed into the city, this was only for fixed times and they were obliged to wear a yellow circle sewn onto their coats.

Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496, Iberian Jews began arriving in Venice in the decades immediately after. Among them were Marranos or converted Jews who had secretly maintained their traditions, and these Spanish and Portuguese Jews were known as Levantini because many had made their journey through Constantinople, Thessaloniki and other parts of the Levant or Near East.

Increasing numbers of Jews arrived in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century, stimulating an increase in bigotry flamed by the some religious orders. The Ghetto was decreed in Venice in 1516, and the Papal State – not to be outdone – instituted another version of the ghetto in Rome in 1555.

The ghetto in Venice is divided into three areas: the Ghetto Vecchio or Old Ghetto, the Ghetto Novo or New Ghetto, and the Ghetto Novissimo or ‘Newest Ghetto.’ Paradoxically, and to add to the confusion of visitors, the Ghetto Novo is the oldest Jewish ghetto area in Venice. The ‘old’ and ‘new’ adjectives have nothing to do with the historical dating of the areas but indicate the age of the former foundry or getto.

When the German-speaking Ashkenazim arrived in Venice from Central Europe, their guttural pronunciation changed the Venetian term from getto into ghetto, creating the word we still use today for places where minorities are marginalised.

The Ghetto was connected to the rest of Venice by two bridges that were only open in the day. With the decree in 1516, Jewish lenders, doctors and clothing merchants could take part in the commercial life of Venice by day, but at night and on Christian holidays they were locked into the gated island of the Ghetto Novo.

When Jewish families fleeing the Spanish Inquisition arrived in Venice in 1541, there was no place to build in the Ghetto except to build up. Around the Campo del Ghetto Novo, upper storeys housed new arrivals, synagogues and publishing houses.

The Levantine Jews who arrived by the mid-16th century brought different customs of worship and dress that contrasted with the more modest Ashkenazi communities. They were followed by Roman Jews in 1575 and Sephardic Jews in 1589.

Although the Ghetto was home to a large number of Jews, they never integrated to form a distinct, Venetian Jewish identity, and the names of the five synagogues reflect the linguistic and geographical origins of the community:

● the Scuola Grande Tedesca or German Grand Synagogue, founded in 1528;

● the Scuola Canton, built as a private synagogue for four Ashkenazic families of French origin who funded its construction in 1531;

● the Scola Levantina, founded in 1541 by the Levantine Sephardi communities;

● the simple, rooftop Scuola Italiana or Italian synagogue, built in 1575 by newly-arrived, destitute Italian Jews who had fled Spanish-occupied southern Italy;

● the Scuola Spagnola, founded around 1580 by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Jews.

I hope to look at each of these five synagogues in turn in this prayer diary this week.

In addition, Venice also has a large population of Lubavitcher followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of Brooklyn, who died in 1994. They run a kosher food shop, a restaurant and a yeshiva, and have their own Chabad synagogue.

The Jewish community of Venice was intellectually and culturally distinguished for centuries. The leading figures include Elia Levita (grammarian), the poet Sara Copio Sullam, and the rabbis Leone da Modena and Simone Luzzato. Venetian Jews were allowed to study at the prestigious UniversitĂ  di Padova and Venice became a centre of Jewish scholarship and, with the arrival of Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp, the printing trade.

Meir Magino was a famous glassmaker from the ghetto, while Margherita Grassini Sarfatti was a noted journalist, critic, patroness of the avant-garde – and Mussolini’s mistress.

Setbacks were common too. The Counter-Reformation proved particularly difficult, and when Pope Julius II ordered the destruction of the Talmud in 1553, the Venetian authorities responded with a mass bonfire in Saint Mark’s Square. The bubonic plague struck Venice on several occasions, and a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery on the Lido is marked simply: ‘Ebrei 1631.’

The messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the mid-17th century divided the Jewish community of Venice and by 1737 the community was forced to file for bankruptcy.

In 1797 Napoleon’s army captured Venice, dissolved the Venetian republic, and ended the ghetto’s segregation from the city. The Jews of Venice experienced six months of freedom before the Austrian administration restricted them to the Ghetto once again.

When Venice was integrated into the modern Italian state in 1866, the Jews of Venice gained full emancipation, but even that was short-lived.

The fascist racial laws introduced in September 1938 deprived Jews of civil rights, and the Jewish community entered a difficult period under the leadership first of Aldo Finzi and then from June 1940 of Professor Giuseppe Jona.

The Nazis started a systematic hunt for Jews in Venice in September 1943. On 17 September, Giuseppe Jona died by suicide rather than hand over a list of Jewish community residents. In November, Jews were declared ‘enemy aliens’ to be arrested and their property seized.

Some Jews from Venice escaped to neutral Switzerland or Allied-occupied southern Italy, but 200 or more Jews were rounded up between 5 December 1943 and late summer 1944, and were deported, in most cases, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those arrested later in 1944 included 20 residents of a Jewish convalescence home, 29 patients from a Jewish hospital, and the Chief Rabbi of Venice, Adolfo Ottolenghi (1885-1944), who chose to stay with his community.

Most of those arrested that summer were detained in Risiera di San Sabba, a concentration camp near Trieste.

The Jewish population of Venice in 1938 had numbered 2,000; by the end of the war, their numbers were reduced to 1,500 or, according to some sources, 1,050. Only eight Jewish people from Venice survived the death camps.

Today, the Jewish Community in Venice numbers about 450 people. Few of them actually live in the Ghetto, but many return to the Ghetto for religious services in the two synagogues that are still used – the other three synagogues are open for guided tours organised through the Jewish Community Museum.

But the Ghetto is now a lively and popular district of the city where the religious and administrative institutions of the Jewish Community alongside the synagogues. The community maintains the synagogues, as well as social facilities, a kindergarten, old people’s home, kosher guest house, kosher restaurant and a bakery. The Ghetto also has a yeshiva, and several Judaica shops.

Memorial sculptures by Arbit Blatas in the Ghetto commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. These harrowing bas-reliefs line two walls in the Campo del Ghetto Novo, with the names and ages of the people murdered in the Holocaust. Close-by, Chief Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi is commemorated in a memorial tablet.

The Chief Rabbi of Venice, Adolfo Ottolenghi (1885-1944), chose to stay with his people during the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 38-44 (NRSVA):

38 As he [Jesus] taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

The memorial sculptures by Arbit Blatas commemorate the victims of the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (7 November 2021) invites us to pray:

Calling God,
may we follow you
with the conviction of the disciples,
spreading your message of love
wherever we go.

The old people’s home in heart of the Ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Sephardim against Ashkenazim … a chess set in Murano glass seen in a shopfront in Murano in the Venetian lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)