Damaged but not drowned, Venice Jewish ghetto counts its blessings after flood
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Reporter's notebook'God somehow protected this part of the city'

Damaged but not drowned, Venice Jewish ghetto counts its blessings after flood

November’s record deluge caused an estimated billion dollars in damage citywide, but the historic enclave central to a close-knit community got off relatively easy

  • Fabio Penazzo, a hotel manager in Venice's Jewish ghetto, says God helped keep the damage to a minimum in record-setting flooding last November. Photo taken on December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    Fabio Penazzo, a hotel manager in Venice's Jewish ghetto, says God helped keep the damage to a minimum in record-setting flooding last November. Photo taken on December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
  • The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto's religious and commercial hub, experienced unusually high flooding in November 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto's religious and commercial hub, experienced unusually high flooding in November 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
  • Water in the November floods reached extraordinary levels, causing damage to lower levels of buildings even in the elevated Jewish ghetto of Venice. December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    Water in the November floods reached extraordinary levels, causing damage to lower levels of buildings even in the elevated Jewish ghetto of Venice. December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
  • A Jewish bakery display, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    A Jewish bakery display, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
  • The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto's religious and commercial hub, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto's religious and commercial hub, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
  • One of the canals going through the Venice Jewish ghetto, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)
    One of the canals going through the Venice Jewish ghetto, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

VENICE — On a sunny but frigid Saturday morning in late December, a seagull coasts to a landing and rummages for food among the damaged household goods and other debris accumulated along the streets of the Jewish ghetto of Venice.

Aftereffects of the record November 12 flooding are still visible. A number of abandoned appliances are piled up along the side streets, probably suffering irreparable water damage and destined for the landfill.

A little further on, in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the ghetto’s religious and commercial hub, all is serene. Saturday marks Shabbat, the day of rest, and the Jewish community abstains from work. This particular morning is the Shabbat of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, and a large menorah, or candelabrum, stands in the center of the square.

The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo holds several synagogues, a kosher bed and breakfast, the Jewish Museum, a library, and several shops and hotels, along with the military and law enforcement garrison.

Fabio Penazzo, a hotel manager in Venice’s Jewish ghetto, says God helped keep the damage to a minimum in record-setting flooding last November. Photo taken on December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

Here Jews from all over the world, often as guests of the Chabad Hasidic community of Venice, gather to pray and experience Shabbat in one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

The ghetto is also home to residents, merchants, and hoteliers who are not Jewish and who operate on Saturdays. Some of them have only recently reopened their doors due to the damage caused by the acqua alta, or high water.

“Different religions and cultures coexist in the ghetto, but I believe there is only one God who somehow protected the houses and shops of this part of the city from the flood, limiting the damage compared to other areas,” says Fabio Penazzo, a self-described non-practicing Christian who manages the Jewish-owned Locanda del Ghetto hotel.

Ghetto upon a hill

The ghetto’s survival is one of the few positive news stories for Venice following November’s deluge; over the course of its 500-year existence, the ghetto has largely been spared the high tides due to its location on one of the highest areas of the lagoon. Experience has also taught Venetians to be prepared to deal with such natural disasters quickly and efficiently using tools such as containment tanks, hydraulic pumps and bulkheads.

The Jewish community after Sabbath prayers in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto’s religious and commercial hub, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

Despite it being the day of rest, locals politely respond to questions from The Times of Israel.

“The water made its way into the ground floor of some of the shops, but most of the buildings have been spared from the tide,” explained a Jewish shopkeeper.

While a handful of families and some entrepreneurs with Jewish roots still live inside the ghetto proper, most of the Jewish community’s 450 members reside outside it. Still, those who speak with The Times of Israel on this Saturday morning make it clear that the community as a whole is closely-knit.

The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto’s religious and commercial hub, experienced unusually high flooding in November 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

“Most of our coreligionists live in the other districts of Venice and nearby Mestre. The high water has seriously damaged the home of a family who lives outside the ghetto,” says Paolo Navarro Dina, one of the Jewish community leaders.

According to Navarro Dina, the ghetto is a popular area, highly sought after because of its central location. “You don’t feel the desertification that is advancing in other areas of the city,” he says.

Paolo Navarro Dina, a Jewish community leader in Venice. (Courtesy)

The water level inside the ghetto in November was extraordinary, Navarro Dina says. When the tide reached a record height of 187 centimeters (over 6 feet) on November 12, Campo del Ghetto Nuovo flooded.

Toppled trees caused damage in both old and new cemeteries in Venice, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

“Usually the water doesn’t get this far,” he says. “If the tide remains between 120 and 150 centimeters [roughly 4 to 5 feet], we are prepared. We realized that the library, located near the synagogues in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, would be seriously in danger if the water exceeded the height of 190 centimeters [6.2 feet]. Many precious and ancient books would be damaged.”

The Lido, a barrier island in the Venice lagoon, is home to two Jewish cemeteries, one ancient and one modern. Winds of over 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph) severed tree branches, causing them to fall and damage some of the tombstones.

According to Navarro Dina, the US-based nonprofit Save Venice, which works to conserve the lagoon city’s cultural heritage, gave the Jewish community 18,000 euro ($20,000) to repair damage done to the cemeteries.

Business slows to a trickle

Some shopkeepers, hoteliers, and gondoliers are less than happy to see a journalist. Tourism has suffered, they say, because of exaggerated reports of the flooding and its consequences, and many reservations for the upcoming months have been canceled. In the weeks immediately following the high water, cancellations hit a 45 percent peak, and New Year’s also saw a sharp drop in business.

“Many foreigners think that Venice is still flooded. In fact, high water is an ordinary phenomenon that comes and goes — it’s a regular part of life for Venetians,” says a local trader.

A shopkeeper in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

The floodwaters caused millions of dollars in damage to Venice, a World Heritage Site, but the financial blow has been compounded by widespread images of the city submerged in water, which caused many tourists to forgo holiday plans.

Rabbi Ramy Banin heads Venice’s Chabad community, a Hasidic sect known for its hospitality and religious outreach, which also runs a popular kosher restaurant.

“After November 12, for a few weeks the city was deserted,” Banin says. “We host Jews from all over the world, but many tourists have given up.”

According to Michael Calimani, general secretary of the Jewish community, “high water did not reach the synagogues and the library, but the Jewish Museum suffered damage on the ground floor, in particular in the bookshop where a considerable amount of objects were submerged.”

The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the Venice Jewish ghetto’s religious and commercial hub, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

In the community’s home for the elderly, which also houses Giardino dei Melograni, the kosher bed and breakfast, the ground floor was completely flooded.

“We are still calculating the damage and we have no precise data,” says Calimani. “An initial estimate could put it higher than 60,000 euro [roughly $67,000].”

The Venice municipality told The Times of Israel that it is too early to estimate total damages to private property in the ghetto, as it is still well ahead of the January 30 deadline for submitting claims for financial reimbursement.

Water in the November floods reached extraordinary levels, causing damage to lower levels of buildings even in the elevated Jewish ghetto of Venice. December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

So far, in the districts of Cannaregio — where the ghetto is located — San Marco, and Castello, roughly 2,800 claims totaling 41 million euro ($45.6 million) have been submitted. Damage to the city’s museums, infrastructure, and transportation system amounts to 354 million euro ($394 million), and the total damage to the city hovers at around 1 billion euro ($1.11 billion).

Government slow to bail the flooded city out

Israeli-born Allon Baker, an artist who manages The Studio in Venice, an art gallery in the ghetto, along with his wife, Michal Meron, blames the political class with typical Middle Eastern acerbity.

“I’d like those who took bribes for the construction of the Mose to come clean up and dry the water in my shop,” he tells The Times of Israel.

Allon Baker, an artist who manages The Studio in Venice, an art gallery in the ghetto, next to the Torah that his wife, Michal Meron, illustrated and wrote in Hebrew and English. December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

The artist was referring to an ongoing corruption investigation into a massive — and still incomplete — engineering project which would defend the city and lagoon from high tides.

Fortunately, while the water entered Baker’s art gallery, it did not reach the splendid Torah illustrated and written in both Hebrew and English by his wife.

Alvise Ceccato manages Antica Adelaide, a restaurant in Cannaregio offering typical Venetian fare and, on request, kosher specialties, as well.

“The flood has caused serious damage,” says Ceccato. “If the stagnant water is not dried immediately, it penetrates and warps the floor, which is what happened to us. It would take 60,000 euro [$67,000] to fix it.”

A Jewish bakery display, December 28, 2019. (Giovanni Vigna/ Times of Israel)

When asked, Ceccato says the thought of quitting the business did indeed occur to him.

“Everyone in town has thought about it,” he says. “But it’s hard to find anyone to take over the business. They’d have to have a lot of money, and it’s a very demanding investment.”

The Italian government has set aside an initial sum of 20 million euro (roughly $22.3 million) which may be adjusted later based on the claims made by citizens to the Venice municipality. Many have called the amount insufficient. But as the leadership doles out emergency funding to help cope with floods, earthquakes, landslides, and glacial thaw — all of which have hit the vulnerable country — Venice, while important, is not the only city asking for help.

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