Once we entered into the Ghetto from a fairly busy thoroughfare it was like being in another world. There were kosher restaurants and shops and few people, most of whom were obviously Jewish. The whole atmosphere was quite different from the pomp and splendour of St Mark’s Cathedral which spoke of wealth, power and prestige though the synagogues were also impressive and reflected the wealth and splendour of the Jewish community in past times. It was a place in which the past seemed to be present not just in the Jewish museum but in the very atmosphere of the place. This was the first ghetto, a word which originally meant a foundry, but whose meaning changed over time as a place to isolate minorities but which is associated with the isolation of the Jewish community. Within the confines of this place had lived a community which had suffered as other Jewish communities did in the Middle Ages. Banned from occupations and professions they focussed on commerce and money lending, forbidden to live in the city they were confined to a particular area, allowed to leave during the day they were locked in at night, seen as outsiders they were subject to additional taxes, marked out as different they had to wear distinguishing clothing, continually under suspicion they were often threatened with expulsion.
But within the walls of the ghetto Jewish life thrived. Jews fleeing persecution from Italy, Spain and Portugal and Eastern Europe moved into the ghetto bringing with them their own traditions. Principally these were Sephardic, a tradition from the Iberian Peninsula and Ashkenazic, a tradition associated with Eastern Europe. Both traditions lived side by side but kept to their own customs, building their own synagogues and speaking their own language. We were able to visit three of the five synagogues in the area, all from the 15th and 16th cys. The Sephardic one was bigger and wealthier, reflecting the wealth of that particular community while the others were simpler and smaller. A fellow tourist commented that the same kind of thing happens in present day Israel. Within a small area of a small town there are several synagogues, each one associated with a particular culture so that there is an Iranian Synagogue, and Egyptian Synagogue, an American synagogue etc . It reminded me of the joke, often told by Jews of the man marooned on a desert island who builds two synagogues and when rescued explains there is the one that he goes to and the one that he doesn’t go to. It’s only natural of course that immigrants want to preserve their own culture and retain their own language. In a strange land worshipping and associating with those from one’s country of birth is comforting and stabilising but in danger of stopping integration, always a concern for social cohesion. However in the Israel example the different cultures do come together in that sometimes the only way to get a minyan i.e the ten men necessary for synagogue prayer is to get together in one of the synagogues – united in their orthodoxy. Today in Venice the different synagogues are used on different occasions. With a small Venetian Jewish community the large Sephardic one is used for Yom Kippur and during the summer months when there are lots of visitors, one of the smaller ones for smaller congregations and another during the winter because it has heating. But again all these synagogues are orthodox. I’m not so sure that such coming together would be possible between orthodox and reform Jews.
Judaism, of course, is not the only religion that expresses itself in different cultures or has different divisions. Christianity has many different denominations and before the ecumenical movement one denomination would not be worshipping or even associating with another. Buddhism has its own schools and while I’m not aware of animosity between them I’ve heard one Buddhist school say that it’s way is best and most Buddhists in my experience know very little of any other school. And the tension and violence even between different denominations of Islam is lived out on the global stage never mind the local. It makes me realise that while interreligious dialogue and interfaith relationships are important so too is intra –religious dialogue. Charity begins at home and this is as true for religion as it is for any other aspect of life. interreligious dialogue mustn't close us to this reality or obscure its necessity.