08 July 2022

Facelift for the 16th century
synagogues in Venice and
the oldest Ghetto in Europe

The Scuola Spagnola or Spanish Synagogue is he largest historic synagogue in Venice, built in 1550 for the community of Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Charlotte and I were in Venice earlier this week for a short visit, and we returned to the ghetto on Wednesday afternoon to visit the synagogues and have lunch there.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the first in Europe, and a new effort is underway to preserve its 16th-century synagogues for the Jews who have remained and tourists who pass through.

For almost two years, restorers have been peeling away paint and discovering the original foundations of three of the ghetto’s synagogues, which are considered the only Renaissance synagogues still in use.

The art historian David Landau is spearheading the fundraising effort to restore the synagogues and nearby buildings both for Venice’s small Jewish community, which numbers around 450 people and for tourists who can visit them on a guided tour through the Jewish Museum of Venice.

‘I was really deeply offended by the state of the synagogues,’ he is quoted as saying in recent news report.

Landau is a Renaissance specialist who bought a home in Venice 12 years ago. ‘I felt that the synagogues were in very bad condition. They had been altered beyond recognition over the centuries, and needed to be kind of cared for and loved.’

He has secured about €5 million to date and expects workers can complete the restoration process by the end of next year (2023) if the rest of the funding comes through, although the original outstanding €4 million has now ballooned to €6 million because of soaring building costs.

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Novo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ghetto in Venice dates from 1516m when the Serene Republic forced the growing numbers of Jews in the city into the district where the old foundries (geti) had been located. The area, which was locked down at night, became Europe’s first ghetto and remains the hub of the Jewish community in the Cannaregio area.

The first synagogue in Venice dates from 1528 and was built by German Ashkenazi Jews. Others followed and served different groups, including one for Spanish Sephardic Jews and one for Italian Jews. None is visible from the street, as strict rules prevented open Jewish religious practices.

All the synagogues are hidden discreetly on the top floors of seemingly normal buildings that on the lower levels held cramped living spaces for Jewish families. The synagogues have remained open continuously and have continued to function, except for the years of World War II and the German occupation of Venice.

The head of the Jewish community in Venice, Dario Calimani, says the restoration project is necessary both to maintain the religious and cultural life of the Jews of Venice today and to preserve the community’s history. ‘They are a testimony to the life that it was, to the history of our community, small community,’ he says.

Shabbat Shalom

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
8 July 2022 (Psalm 135)

‘The Lord … sent signs and wonders into your midst, O Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants’ (Psalm 135: 9) … the Exodus, from The Haggadah by Arthur Szyk, in the University of San Francisco Gleeson and Zief Libraries

Patrick Comerford

Two of us arrived back in Stony Stratford early this morning after two all-too-short days in Venice earlier this week. In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 135:

Psalm 135 begins and ends with the phrase ‘Praise the Lord’ (הַלְלוּ יָהּ, Hallelujah). In the slightly numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this is Psalm 134.

Together, the two psalms Psalm 135 and 136 form a single composite unit, similar in tone, vocabulary and literary structure to the group of psalms known as Hallel. Some Jewish Sages called these two psalms ‘The Great Hallel’ to distinguish them from Psalms 113-118 which they called the ‘Egyptian Hallel,’ since it contains a reference to the Exodus from Egypt.

It is likely that both psalms were written for public worship in the Temple, and both are litanies or a series of invocations said by a leader of prayer, together with congregational responses.

In Psalm 135, the responses are likely to have been, for the first section, ‘Praise the Lord’ (הַלְלוּ יָהּ, Hallelujah), and for the last, ‘Blessed be the Lord.’

Psalm 135 is structured in three parts: the first and last speak about the truth of God and the falsity of idols; the second part speaks about God’s power over nature and history. The first part is five verses long, the second is seven and the third is nine.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Psalm 135 and Psalm 136 (134 and 135 in the Septuagint) are called the Polyeleos (Πολυέλεος) or ‘Many Mercies,’ named such after the refrain ‘for his steadfast love endures for ever,’ or ‘for his mercy endures forever’ (ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ) in Psalm 136.

The Polyeleos is sung at Orthros (Matins) of a Feast Day and at Vigils. On Mount Athos and in some Slavic traditions, it is read every Sunday at Orthros.

On Mount Athos, it is considered one of the most joyful periods of Matins-Liturgy, and the highest point of Matins. In Athonite practice, all the candles are lit, and the chandeliers are made to swing as the psalms are sung, it is also accompanied by a joyful peal of the bells and censing of the church, sometimes with a hand censer that has many bells. At vigils, it accompanies the opening of the Royal Doors and a great censing of the nave by the priests or deacons.

The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos … ‘The Polyeleos’ (Psalm 135-136) is read every Sunday at Orthros on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 135 (NRSVA):

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the name of the Lord;
give praise, O servants of the Lord,
2 you that stand in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of the house of our God.
3 Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
sing to his name, for he is gracious.
4 For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself,
Israel as his own possession.

5 For I know that the Lord is great; our Lord is above all gods.
6 Whatever the Lord pleases he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
7 He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth;
he makes lightnings for the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

8 He it was who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
both human beings and animals;
9 he sent signs and wonders
into your midst, O Egypt,
against Pharaoh and all his servants.
10 He struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—
11 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
and Og, king of Bashan,
and all the kingdoms of Canaan—
12 and gave their land as a heritage,
a heritage to his people Israel.

13 Your name, O Lord, endures for ever,
your renown, O Lord, throughout all ages.
14 For the Lord will vindicate his people,
and have compassion on his servants.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
17 they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them
and all who trust them
shall become like them.

19 O house of Israel, bless the Lord!
O house of Aaron, bless the Lord!
20 O house of Levi, bless the Lord!
You that fear the Lord, bless the Lord!
21 Blessed be the Lord from Zion,
he who resides in Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Tackling Poverty.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty.

Friday 8 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We give thanks for the generosity of poor and rich as they support charities working with the disadvantaged.

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