Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a story of prejudice, racism, social injustice, gender inequality, the evil of money and tough retribution through love. It’s a comedy.
Photo credit: on pininterest. Shylock prepares to take his "pound of flesh". Stratford Festival Company. Scott Wentworth as Shylock.
It is also a vehicle to understand how Jews were viewed in real life during the Middle Ages. And that’s a tragedy.
In her book, A Guide to Jewish Italy,(Rizzoli, 2004), Anne Sacerdoti explores the cities that had a Jewish presence. A thread through the book assesses why Jewish dishes are so well assimilated into the Italian canon of recipes. The history of the Jews in Italy in general, and their food in particular, is a fluid one of acceptance, segregation, oppression and integration. Even those who, for whatever reason, abandoned orthodoxy often held dear to them the old family dishes that remained as a tether to their past. And so quintessential 'Jewish' dishes passed into the Italian inventory almost seamlessly.
It is for others more knowledgeable than me to write about the laws of kashrut which deal with what is allowed (kosher) and what is forbidden (treyfe). My personal interest lies in the connection, as I perceive it, between la cucina italiana and la cucina ebraica.
I find so many fascinating connections between the food of Sicily that my friend, Marisa Raniolo Wilkins at allthingssicilianandmore champions and that of Venice, which though it is the capital of the Veneto has a cuisine a world apart from its region. The links between Sicily and Venice are hardly surprising. Both were busy trading centres. Adding to the existing Jewish populations, the comings and goings of the Arabs, Normans and Aragonese further influenced their numbers and along with that, their customs and food.
In the Venetian repertoire, the Arabic presence at the table is reflected in sweet and sour dishes, the combination of pine nuts and raisins, and the subtle use of spicing.
Photo Credit: South Australian Tommy Ruffs on a bed of zucchini 'spaghetti' with sweet and sour bitter greens. Recipe can be found in the next post, Dishes Inspired by the Jewish Ghetto.
The Arabic traders, including the Sephardic Jews among them, introduced rice, eggplants, fennel, citrus, saffron, artichokes and many spices to Venice at more or less the same time as they were introduced to Sicily. As well, many cities came to recognise that the Jews could bring invaluable commercial ties and therefore important revenue with the near east. For instance, in 1385 Venice invited German Jewish moneylenders to the city. Perhaps that is how Shylock came to be in the city. Indeed, there were so many Jews in Venice at the time that they were conceded a parcel of land on the Lido (Venice’s beach island) for a Jewish cemetery.
But the harmony was not to last. The story of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is unashamedly vile and hateful to Shylock, and by implication, to all Jews. It is a difficult play for a modern audience.
Venice has the unenviable distinction of creating and naming the first ‘ghetto’ in the western world. In 1516, after increasing numbers arrived from abroad, the Jews of the city were corralled into an area in the district of Cannaregio with iron gates at either end. These portals were opened at the first ringing of the bells of St Marco and locked again at midnight. While going about their business, Jews needed to wear a yellow badge. Today you enter the ex Ghetto through a tunnel – Sottoportego. My heart skips a beat and a pall falls over my conscience even though the ghetto gates were torn down by Napoleon in 1797. After this concession, wealthy Jews, the many merchants and academics, left the ghetto to live in palazzi elsewhere in Venice and so enrich the commercial and intellectual life of the wider community. Since travelling by gondola was permissible on the sabbath they could still pray in the scuola or synagogue of their choice.
Photo Credit: Italy Magazine. Aerial photo of Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
Below: How many people have trodden this path with heavy hearts?
There is some dispute about the name. I had understood that the word, 'ghetto', was coined by the Venetian dialect word for ‘getar’ to throw or smelt because of the iron foundry on the site. But now I read that it may have come from the German word for “gitter” for an iron grill or indeed from the Hebrew word for divorce or separation. However it was named, it was not a happy place – crowded, unsanitary, claustrophobic. As more people came from the Levant, from Rome and from Spain after the Spanish Inquisition, and while restrictions on expansion remained, the only solution was to build vertically, so at one time there were eight and nine storey buildings which were the forerunners of ‘grattacieli’, literally skyscrapers. There are some there to this very day.
Photo Credit: Italy Magazine. 'Grattacieli' in the old Jewish quarter.
And yet, in this confined space there are five ‘shuls’, scuole or synagogues (at one time there were six) as I outlined in my previous post. Each scuola represents the heritage of the various communities who settled there.
Photo Credit: Italy Magazine. Scuola Levantina above. Below Scuola Canton for French, Swiss Jews.
Setbacks, prejudice, sabotage and injustice have beset the Venetian Jewish quarter for 502 years but its darkest hour came under Fascism and German occupation. Those with a nerves of steel could read Alexander Stille’s Benevolence and Betrayal which traces five Jewish families under Fascism. Although none of the families came directly from Venice, it is a poignant account of everyday lives and as such moved me as much as Primo Levi’s writings.
Today the community numbers only about 450 (from 5,000 at its height in the 1800s) and the increasingly older residents centre around the wind swept Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. Here there is the Museum and library, a kindergarten, a retirement home , a number of excellent Kosher restaurants, numerous intriguing shops and a very good bakery. Sadly, there is also a security watch post at the entry. Presiding over the whole are two heart-breaking monuments to the Holocaust by Lithuanian sculptor, Arbit Blatas.
After a guided tour of the Jewish quarter, we ate at Chimel Gardens, a dairy/fish kosher restaurant in Ghetto Nuovo. (Another place to eat well is the famous Gam Gam.) The food and processes of our menu all suggest links to a Jewish past and yet the food is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows Italian food. In Venice, the word "kosher," is not used so much, their term for it is lecito (which means to be "allowed"). Our menu read like a typical panzo for a festive family lunch in Venice. But each item was firmly tied to its heritage with its intriguing challenges.
Firstly, the laws of no work on the sabbath means that the Saturday midday meal has to be prepared before sunset on Friday. This would certainly test a Jewish casalinga’s ingenuity at a time when there was no refrigeration and no freezers. Long, slow heat (with certain extra restrictions) was used for winter dishes, while in the summer preserves of sweet and sour pumpkin or zucchini, capsicum sott ‘aceto or the famous “sarde in saor”.
Photo Credit: my modern take on 'sarde in saor'. Here I use local garfish filled with raisins and pinenuts and the distinctive sweet and sour sauce of the traditional dish. I give this recipe in an earlier post from December, 2017: "How to eat like an Italian policeman. Case Study #2".
While these days, the humble “Jewish vegetables” of fennel, eggplant, zucchini are embraced universally, for a Jewish family they are celebrated in dishes for Sukkot, the Festival of the Harvest. Interestingly, the citron peel which is usually candied and used for elaborate pastries throughout the south of Italy, was introduced, along with myrtle, by the Jews for the Sukkot holiday. Citron trees were planted wherever Jewish families settled as a necessity for observances at synagogue but I am sure not many Italian
pastry cooks know the origins of the much loved ingredient.
Photo Credit: wikipedia. Etrog, citrus.
Below: my homage to Sukkot. Fried haloumi with minted zucchini.
Recipe in my next post, Dishes Inspired by the Jewish Ghetto.
At our meal in the Chimel Garden Restaurant we ate delicately fried zucchini flowers and I recounted to our table how my family is inordinately fond of fried foods - vegetables or calamari in batter, which my mother called 'dorato e fritto', dipped in golden batter and fried, and for dessert, fruit filled, yeasty fritters. The love of things fried - quick, easy, using what is at hand - is particularly at the heart of Hanukkah meals. This is a celebration of the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 days in the Temple of Jerusalem. In the south, around Naples in particular, fried foods are a street food masterwork that, no doubt, they absorbed from centuries of living with Jewish neighbours.
Photo Credit: Raffaele Tardivo. Learn Italian in Lecce. Note the ubiquitous tarallini in the right hand corner.
We ended our long lunch in the Venetian Jewish quarter with a tray of biscuits and sweets. I'd been making these 'archetypal' Italian recipes for most of my life. And here they were presented as 'typical' Jewish pastries - cartellate from Le Marche, Sicilian cuccidati, Neapolitan mostacioli. Even Orecchie di Amman, Haman's Ears- something so delicious to spite the villain who decreed death to all Jews - are made for an Italian Carnevale.
(Recipes for these biscuits can be found in my next post: Dishes Inspired by the Jewish Ghetto.)
Photo Credit: Kosher pastries and other products at Panificio Volpe in the Calle Ghetto Vecchio.
My Italo-Jewish studies continue. Whenever I go to Italy and see street signs for Via Ebraica or Via Sinagoga, I realise that the the world is small and we are all connected. On these occasions, I pause to celebrate the contribution that the Jews have made to the artistic, literary, humanitarian and culinary life of Italy. In this way I hope that the world becomes kinder as we understand each other a little better.
For more information: www.Jvencie.org and for tours of the Jewish sector - www.museoebraico.it
To be invited to enter the synagogues, you need to take a tour with the Jewish Museum of Venice. The guides are most engaging and answer all questions, dopey and otherwise, with the same charm. If you book well in advance, you may be able eat in the Hasidim run restaurant attached to the retirement village. Centro Comunitario, Casa di Riposo Israelitica, Campo Gheto Novo 2874, Cannaregio
Please go to my next post, Dishes Inspired by the Jewish Ghetto for recipes from the Venetian Ghetto.