It was a mild early summer evening and Venice’s ghetto quarter was pleasantly busy, rather than packed to the gills like the more touristy sites.
It was early Friday afternoon and the ghetto was winding down when a bearded man honed in on me and my companion and said: “My friends, would you like to celebrate Shabbat with us at Chabad House?”
I thought of that unexpected invitation — from a stranger to two strangers — a couple of days ago when a friend sent me a video of a Venice I struggled to recognise: its narrow lanes usually teeming with tourists and the odd local eerily empty, shops and restaurants shut, visitors gone, all life sucked out.
So empty it felt dead; a splendid museum rather than a living city.
The ghetto quarter and its museum are closed like the rest of Venice — but then, the whole of Italy, Jewish and not, had been slowly shutting down for weeks.
My inbox has kept pinging with cancellation notices: it started back in February when the Milan-based CDEC (Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center) indefinitely postponed the official presentation of its 2019 Antisemitism in Italy report.
Then the Meis, the National Museum of Italian Judaism and Shoah, which like all Italian institutions shut its doors, although for Purim it sent out a defiant message highlighting the festivity’s message of resilience, with hope and optimism overcoming trauma and danger.
But Italy’s Jewish leaders are using web services to keep in touch with their congregants.
The general message from the community has been one of defiance: the Jewish people has overcome — and survived — far bigger challenges.
Even as the whole country was battening down the hatches and people were retreating indoor, a few days ago kosher eateries in Milan, in Lombardy, the worst-hit region, were still offering to home-deliver kosher food.
But, even before the general lockdown, UCEI (Union of Italian Jewish Communities) had stressed “the need to safeguard our own lives and those of others” and to this purpose had organised a Purim-themed country-wide streaming event.
The theme was “close even if far away” and people joined from their homes and offices: some even dressed up for the occasion.
UCEI has led the way by using its Facebook channels for Talmud lessons and study, but religious leaders throughout the country have also embraced social media.
The Chief Rabbi of Florence, Gadi Piperno, has been urging his congregation to do at home what they would do if the synagogue were not shut. He is using all available technology to continue a daily conversation with the community.
The Bologna’s community’s channel has a busy calendar with a Pesach lesson on Monday, a Torah study on Wednesday and a reflection on the week’s Parashah on Friday.
The response, says the Chief Rabbi, Alberto Sermoneta, has been very encouraging.
The upcoming Seder will be an emergency one in Italy and Yosef Labi, the Rabbi of Verona, has been working on what he calls an “essential guide to the festivity”, which will cover various aspects from the Seder itself to the cleaning process.
Although “not particularly technologically minded”, Rabbi Labi is determined to make full use of the web and social media. His message for all Italian Jews? “We need Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah”.
I’m sure that the stranger who invited us to Friday night dinner in the Venice ghetto all those years ago would wholeheartedly agree.
*The article was published in the Jewish Chronicle on March 26, 2020.