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by Louise Lawrence-Israëls

One of my favorite places to visit is Venice, Italy. Perhaps because I lived in Amsterdam for so many years, the water in and around Venice makes me feel connected to the city.

Many years ago, when my husband, Sidney, and I were visiting Venice, we walked for days, up and down bridges; every neighborhood was different. Of course, every street had cafes where you could sit down and drink a delicious cappuccino.

One day, we took a vaporetto (waterbus) to an area we hadn’t explored and while walking around, we stumbled onto an unusual area: a square with trees and some benches, and we saw a lot of families. The men were all wearing kippot.

We were surprised. I approached a family and said “shalom” and tried to ask in Italian why they were there. They were very friendly and gave their answer in English. This was the first Jewish ghetto in the world, and they offered to give us a tour. We saw four synagogues and some of the housing. They showed us some of the entrances to the ghetto—some of the doors still had heavy locks. For several hundred years, Venetian Jews had to live in this ghetto and were locked in before nightfall. Since that first visit, we have returned to the ghetto many times; it is a good place for rest and reflection in a busy city.

In 2016, the ghetto celebrated its 500-year existence. For this occasion, a special exhibit was organized at the Palazzo Ducal in Venice. After checking the dates, I realized that we would be in Venice to see it.

Another event to mark this anniversary was the staging in the ghetto of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, performed in Italian. We were not going to be in Venice for the performance. We were sorry to have to miss it, but thought it was okay as it may have been too emotional for us. 

Our visit was wonderful, even in the middle of a heat wave and with all the tourists walking in Saint Mark’s Square with their selfie sticks. Sometimes it was hard to see buildings with all the cameras in front of you. How tourism has changed.

When we got home from our travels, we saw that The Merchant of Venice was going to be performed at the Kennedy Center. Sidney bought tickets for my birthday. I have always had mixed feelings about this play, but admired Shakespeare for writing about the plight of the Jews, so long ago.

The British actor Jonathan Pryce was playing Shylock. We like him very much.

The play was well done, but the audience was another story. Towards the end of the play—when Shylock cries in agony because he has to convert to Christianity—the audience started to laugh and applaud.

For me, this cry of agony brought back so much of what has happened in my life, the persecution of the Jewish people. I began to cry, with tears running down my cheeks.

How is it possible that people could see this tragedy as funny? This was only a play, seen by an emotional woman.

Today, The Merchant of Venice is actually very pertinent, only now people with another belief are singled out. We cannot let that happen again.

© 2019, Louise Lawrence-Israëls. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12louise lawrence israëlslouise lawrence-israëls

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