VENICE, Italy — It was a Friday afternoon in the heart of the historic Venice Ghetto, and I was chatting with the city’s chief rabbi, Elia Richetti, when his cellphone beeped.
“It’s a text message from Gam-Gam Goodies, the Chabad-run pastry shop around the corner,” said the bespectacled Richetti, whose wispy white beard spills down to his chest.
He read me the message, a reminder that there were still some chocolate, poppy-seed and cream-filled kosher pastries left — and still time to pick them up before Shabbat.
“They really know how to use technology,” Richetti said, smiling.
Many of the circles that make up Jewish Venice converged in that moment.
Richetti, who is also the president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, was speaking with me in the well-stocked Jewish bookstore and kosher cafe that form part of the Venice Jewish Museum, an institution founded by the Jewish community in 1953 that encompasses several of the ghetto’s centuries-old synagogues.
Jews have lived in Venice since the Middle Ages; the old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido was founded in the 1300s. Venetian rulers established the ghetto as Europe’s first enclosed place of Jewish segregation in 1516 on the site of an old foundry — or getto, in the Venetian dialect.
The museum draws nearly 70,000 visitors a year, and locals say the annual number of Jewish visitors to Venice far exceeds that.
But the Venice Jewish community itself numbers fewer than 450, only a handful of whom live in the ghetto area. Only a few local Jews seek contacts with the tourists, other than as customers in their shops or bodies to make up a minyan.
“There is a paradox here,” said Shaul Bassi, who heads the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, an institution founded last year aimed at fostering intellectual and cultural interaction between Jewish visitors and Jewish Venetians.
“The Jewish community as such is eroding, and many are unaffiliated or disaffected,” Bassi said. “But at the same time the ghetto has never been so famous. There has never been such a profound interest in the ghetto as a site of memory.”
Picking up the slack, as far as foreign tourists go, is Chabad-Lubavitch, which in two decades of activity here has become the most prominent public face of Judaism in Venice.
There is a Chabad house and yeshiva on the main ghetto square. In addition to Gam-Gam Goodies, Chabad runs a popular kosher restaurant, Gam-Gam, which provides Shabbat hospitality, including free Friday-night meals for tourists. Sometimes hundreds attend and spill out into the street singing and dancing.
“Join us for candlelighting, join us for dinner,” urged Shachar Banin, the American-born wife of Chabad’s Venice director, Ramy Banin, when I stopped in at Gam-Gam Goodies after my meeting with Riccheti.
I didn’t buy any pastries, but I did get drawn into a lively discussion with four or five visiting American Jews about the role of women in the Torah and in the home.
Along with a dozen other visiting women, I lit Shabbat candles that night at Gam-Gam. The next morning I attended services led by Richetti in the centuries-old Spanish synagogue. Only about 15 of the 80-member congregation were locals.
“Chabad understood before anyone else that Jewish Venice is not just a local place but an international one,” Bassi said. “They clearly are the ‘real’ Jewish Venice on the Internet. And paradoxically, they are the most Orthodox — and the most open.”
The relationship between Chabad and the resident Jewish community has been rocky over the years, with local Jews accusing Chabad of trying to usurp the community’s position and undermine its activities.
“Before they came, no one here knew what Chabad was,” Anna Vera Sullam, a member of the local Jewish community leadership, told me. “Our traditions are very different.”
After two decades a truce — or at least a modus vivendi — exists, but frictions are still apparent, both in Venice and in cyberspace.
If you Google Jewish Venice, for example, the Chabad website is the first to come up — and it includes no mention of Richetti, the historic Spanish synagogue where regular services are held or, aside from the museum, any of the other local Jewish institutions.
Likewise, on the local Jewish community’s own website, Chabad and its activities are not mentioned; even the notable presence of Gam-Gam is ignored. Only kosher establishments under Richetti’s supervision are listed.
Bassi, whose family has lived in Venice for generations, hopes his new center can foster a concept of Jewish community that will harness the dynamics of centuries of Jewish tradition in Venice with cultural and intellectual input from abroad.
“The future can’t rely on the continuation of the Jewish community as such, nor on the presence of tourists,” he said. “The only real future community is one made up of Venetian Jews and a rotating community of international Jews who come to live here but also to do something cultural that is internationally viable.”
It’s far from certain how much impact such a program might have, given the demographic decline of the local community and the overwhelming presence of tourism.
“In theory it’s a beautiful idea,” said Riccardo Calimani, a Venetian-born novelist and historian who has written widely about the ghetto and Venetian Jewry. “But in practice, who knows — it’s a road to take that has not yet been taken.”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)