by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)
Ahh…Venice. Canals. Cobbled streets. St. Marks Square. Gondolas with gondoliers rowing and singing “O Solo Mia.” I had dreamed of this trip and here I was, climbing out of the speedboat that had taken my husband and me from the airport to the foot of our hotel.
The only nagging regret I had was by circumstances of work and schedules we could only make the trip at the beginning of Yom Kippur, and we arrived on the day of Kol Nidrei, causing nagging spurts of guilt I tried to suppress. I knew there was a historical old ghetto synagogue in Venice, the first ever ghetto, so famous it was almost folklore. I decided that was where I would hear Kol Nidrei.
A friend who spoke fluent Italian made many phone calls and finally was able to contact the synagogue and arrange for tickets. I doubted it would work out but when we registered at the hotel we were handed an envelope with two tickets for that evening’s services. Could it really be that I would be in Venice, Italy, hearing Kol Nidrei? I was ecstatic with anticipation. My husband had tripped coming out of the speedboat and was in too much pain to go, but insisted I go alone.
I boarded a vaporetto at the base of our hotel, with not a clue of where to disembark. A vaporetto stops at the equivalent of every watery corner. With relief I spotted someone reading the same guide book we had and she helped me find the right stop.
I was the only person who got off at that stop with no idea which street to follow. By this time dusk had descended and a light rain begun. Few people passed and none understood me. Suddenly, pay dirt! Coming toward me was clearly a family: man, wife, child, older woman, all dressed in holiday clothes. I approached them and said, already knowing the answer, “Can you direct me to the ghetto synagogue?” The male responded, in barely accented English, “Please come with us. That’s where we are going.” On the short walk, he told me he was a lawyer and his family had lived in Venice for 500 years. He had visited the States many times,
When I entered the synagogue a guard took my purse and umbrella but left me with the siddur I had brought along, assuming the Hebrew translation would be in Italian. It was.
I was ushered up a flight of steps and to my surprise the men and women were on the same floor, separated by a mechitza with many openings so nothing of the service was hidden. Three seats just behind the mechitza were marked “Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia” for their American guests. Apparently my idea was not so original. Directly in front of these seats, on the other side of the mechitza, were three marked seats for the husbands of the American women.
I looked around the synagogue. It was very grand, yet reminded me of the old fashioned shul my grandfather had helped found when he came to America in 1913. He and his fellow emigrants started the Zhitomir Shul at 6th and Dickinson streets in South Philadelphia. Having their own place of worship gave them some sense of familiarity in this new and strange land.
The ghetto synagogue was noisy, children rushing through the aisles to greet the men in the family, going in the back to see their mothers and grandmothers, The bimah was crowded: men talking, gesturing, praying. And then there was a sudden stillness. The cantor’s voice rang out with the haunting first sounds of Kol Nidrei. A chill ran through me as I realized, throughout the world, Jews were hearing the same strains of the somber sounds of Kil Nidrei, with me. I felt tied with a rope to Jews throughout the world, a connection that was strong and tight.
Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.