Category: Press,

May 8

Odyssey through the ghettos

College student explores Jewish subculture in southern Europe. Florence-Venice-Split-Corfu-Crete-Roma.

Odyssey through the ghettos

This summer, my family - my parents, two sisters, grandmothers, my sister's fiancé and I - went to Italy, Greece and Croatia. Of course we went to the Colosseum in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens, but in addition to the amazing and more traditional tourist stops, my family made it a priority to visit the Jewish sites of the places we visited. Here are some of the highlights. 

Florence, Italy 
We arrived at the Florentine synagogue a half-hour early after shopping in the outdoor markets in the city center. The synagogue is astoundingly beautiful from the outside and the tall gate separating the inner courtyard from the street almost begs you to take a look inside. We found our way into a small kosher market before it was time to enter the synagogue by way of a metal detector. Once we were inside, our guide told us a little about the history of Florentine Jews. Jews were invited to settle in Florence by the powerful Medici family in 1436 for small-banking purposes. Even though there were around 60 Jews in Florence at the time, families remained spread out in the city, meaning that they never actually formed a community. Ironically, the pope and Papal States indirectly forced Jews to start a community when they created the ghettos in the 16th century, a measure which probably preserved Jewish life in Florence. 

Venice, Italy 
Venice is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen and I couldn't have been more excited to visit, especially after having recently studied "The Merchant of Venice" in my Shakespeare class. The Jewish ghetto to me was both haunting and incredible at the same time. Haunting because the ghetto in Venice was the first Jewish ghetto ever created in Europe; incredible because of the unique mixing of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures, the five synagogues built and hidden in the tiny space, and in modern times, the beautiful Jewish jewelry, metalwork and bookshops, an elderly home, and kosher restaurants that fill the ghetto, making it a center of Jewish life in Venice even to this day. After seeing three of the synagogues and perusing the shops, we went on a gondola ride through the small canals surrounding the ghetto. Soon after, we ate a delicious Israeli meal at a kosher restaurant called Gam-Gam before leaving the ghetto that somehow had become so familiar within just a few hours. 

Split, Croatia 
I had no idea what to expect before going to Croatia, but I absolutely loved Trogir and Split, the two cities we visited in the region of Dalmatia. Dalmatia is where the first parachute and the necktie (cravat) were invented. It is also the place of origin of canine Dalmatians. After visiting the Roman emperor Diocletian's Palace, we made our way to the Jewish section of Split, which was first populated by Spanish Jews in the 1500s. Unfortunately, the synagogue was closed the day we visited because it was a national holiday, but it is the third-oldest, still-functioning synagogue in Europe. We had possibly the best pizza ever in a small restaurant in the Jewish area near the palace and saw the oldest bookshop in the world, which was opened by a Jewish man from Split. 

Corfu, Greece 
Besides being the island where much of Homer's "Odyssey" supposedly took place, Corfu is home to a Jewish community that has lived there for more than 800 years. The synagogue we visited was more than 400 years old and its two beautiful Torah scrolls are 200 and 400 years old. I had a lot of fun trying to sound out the Torah blessings transliterated into Greek on the bimah. We learned from a lovely woman who showed us around the synagogue that Jews first came to Corfu from Italy and later from Spain after the Inquisition began in 1492. 

Crete, Greece 
One of my favorite Jewish sites was in the city of Chania on the island of Crete. After seeing an excavation of Minoan ruins, we made our way down an old street, pushed open a door and walked into a small garden. Through the garden is the entrance to Etz Hayyim. Etz Hayyim first opened in the late 15th century with about 600 people in the community. It has recently been refurbished, but retains an older feel. During World War II, the Nazis bombed a second synagogue located close by. Ironically, the ashes from that synagogue preserved Etz Hayyim and its small graveyard. It was wonderful seeing the synagogue, especially as my family realized that one of our ancestors probably visited Etz Hayyim many years ago. 

Rome, Italy 
We spent our very last night in Europe in the Jewish ghetto in Rome. When we visited the ghetto six years ago, I remember it being virtually empty and abandoned, save for an old woman in a chair sitting outside and a kosher pizza restaurant. This time, the experience was completely different. In the evening, the ghetto is bustling with people and filled on both sides of the street with kosher restaurants and shops. I almost didn't believe it was the same place. We strolled around the ghetto - which in its time was one of the most wretched places of the city, constantly flooded by the nearby Tiber River - and were amazed. Now, the area around the ghetto is becoming one of the more chic places in the city. We decided to eat at a restaurant called Ba'Ghetto. It was very amusing to see the fleishig (meat) part of the restaurant on one side of the ghetto and to see "Ba'Ghetto Milky" on the other side. We had an absolutely wonderful time and enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip with a perfect mix of traditional Jewish and Italian foods. It's hard to explain the beauty and familiarity of a place that I've only been to once before, but when you're in a kosher restaurant in Rome and see a hand-washing cup in the restroom to say the bracha with, maybe you will understand what I mean. 

Erica Morris is an English major in her junior year at Emory University in Atlanta and is the daughter of Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman and Roger Morris of Scottsdale. During this past summer, she was an intern at Jewish News.


Tags: Split, Rome, Crete, Venice, Florence, Corfu, jewish, ,