‘Shylock’ on stage in Venice Jewish ghetto

400 years after Shakespeare’s death and 500 since Venetian Jews’ confinement, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is set for its historic premiere this summer.

March 5, 2016 22:17
PEOPLE WALK through the main square of the Venetian Ghetto.

PEOPLE WALK through the main square of the Venetian Ghetto.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you venture into the historic Jewish ghetto of Venice this year, you could very well encounter the ghost of Shylock, whose complicated persona has been at the center of lasting debate in the annals of Shakespearian theater.

The Merchant of Venice, with its central Shylock figure, a character both despised and pitied, is to appear July 26-29 and 31 in the very ghetto where Jews were first separated from the rest of Venice during the Passover of 1516.

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The irony of staging this play for the first time in the Italian ghetto – a play in which the central character is a stereotypical Jewish moneylender demanding a pound of flesh at a trial – is hard to escape, given the fact that anti-Semitism is once more on the rise in contemporary Europe 70 years after the Holocaust.

Shakespeare’s play is part of planned activities marking the 500th anniversary of the ghetto’s beginnings.

“In a way you could say that putting The Merchant of Venice on stage is precisely a way of showing how old and ingrained anti-Semitism is,” says Shaul Bassi, who is at the center of the modern “reinvention” of the ghetto.

At the same time, he adds, staging Shakespeare’s play in the ghetto will “create the magic” of seeing the action in the place that would have been the historical background of that action.

Bassi, who traces his own Jewish roots to 16th-century Venice, is an associate professor of English literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the author of the forthcoming book, Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare: Place, “Race” and Politics.

He is also the imaginative director of Beit Venezia, a home for Jewish culture, whose mission is to transform Venice into an international center of Jewish learning – an approach that goes beyond Venice itself to include multiple Jewish themes and issues.

“We are in Venice, but by no means exclusively focused on it,” Bassi notes.

At the height of the ghetto’s existence in the 17th century, 5,000 Jews were forced into its confines, permitted to leave during the day, but required to return at night.

Today, its population stands at a mere five or six families, but in spite of this drastic decline, it nourishes a kind of historic centrality within the larger, but dwindling, Venetian Jewish community, which numbers around 500.

A key to the ghetto’s future, he believes, lies beyond quick, tourist-style visits.

“The real solution,” he says, “is to be able to host and work with Jewish organizations and Jewish studies programs that can bring people into Venice for a longer amount of time. If an organization comes to Venice for a day or two, it could be nice, it could be interesting, but it will make no impact.

“If you have an organization that brings anyone from... students to senior citizens and they spend a week and a Shabbat...

something really happens for them, something really happens for us.”

The Merchant of Venice and the other activities taking place during the quincentennial of the ghetto’s creation are all part of the idea of turning the ghetto into an international gathering place for creativity.

The production of The Merchant of Venice is a joint venture of the Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective of performing artists based in New York that was conceived in Orvieto, Italy, and Ca’ Foscari University.

This year’s performance, coming on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, is to take place in an outdoor theater with a small stage to be constructed as part of renovations to the ghetto, with director Karin Coonrod casting each of the five performances with a different actor playing the role of Shylock – and all five Shylocks performing different scenes in each performance.

The actors of Compagnia de’ Colombari come from many countries, giving the company a cosmopolitan flavor, and while the drama itself is to be staged in English, it includes rich cultural and artistic elements like commedia dell’arte and Judeo-Venetian, the Venetianized Hebrew and Yiddish words that made up the jargon of ghetto Jews.

An example was the Hebrew word for courtyard, the word by which the Jews referred to the ghetto, but instead of using hatzer (courtyard), they converted it to the Judeo-Venetian haser.

In spite of European anti-Semitism, audiences should not expect a politically-correct Shylock as a reaction to it.

“We don’t want to make Shylock a nice guy,” Bassi says. “We want to show it as it is.

It’s an experiment, so we don’t really know where it’s going.

“I think that’s also the business of art.

The idea that this might be unsettling and disturbing is also part of the scope of the process. Yes, there is rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and so this is also, I think, a response to this phenomenon – we’re not hiding, we’re not going anywhere, we’re just staying where we live, a place we have reclaimed.”

And what is being “reclaimed” is something more than a place closed off from the rest of the world. In its time, the ghetto was indeed physically isolated, but there was a good deal of interaction between Jews and non-Jews during the day.

“The seeming paradox,” he notes, is that “the ghetto enabled more interaction than ever before.”

One of the most important examples of this interaction was the Jewish book trade, in which Jews were translators and editors and Christians were printers, thus yielding one-third of all Hebrew books produced in Europe, including the first Talmud.

In a kind of mirror image of the ghetto’s significance in printing, one of the ghetto’s anniversary projects is a new Passover Haggada being produced by a group of international artists, including head artist Jacqueline Nicholls of London, Andi Arnovitz (US-Israel), Josh Baum (UK), Yael Cohen (Israel-UK), Nathan Gotlib (Belgium), Sophie Herxheimer (UK), Kyra Matustik (Sweden) and Hillel Smith (US).

The project’s resident scholar is Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College in New York.

Working at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica di Venezia print studio, the artists are creating a series of etchings on copper plates, inspired by an original 1609 Haggada. A limited edition of 600 Haggadot are to be produced, and luxury and commercial editions, digitized in Jerusalem, look to be available, too.

Additional anniversary projects are expected to feature works set in Jewish Venice by Israeli artists Hadassa Goldvicht (video art) and Ronit Matalon (short story).

What will surely draw a great deal of attention in connection with The Merchant of Venice is a kind of “play within a play” featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, who is to preside over a mock trial presented as a separate event at Ca’ Foscari University for sponsors of the play.

“This is going to be one of the highlights of the whole year,” Bassi says, “and I think again it speaks to the ability of the ghetto to be not just a local place, but a very international place.”

Of course, after so many years of decay, the ghetto needs major repairs. To rehabilitate its physical side, the noted fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg has established the Venetian Heritage Council with the goal of raising $12 million to renovate the Jewish museum and its three synagogues.

Confined to the ghetto’s small space, Jews had only one way to grow, and that was up. Thus, three of the ghetto’s lovely synagogues – the Canton, the Italian and the German – were established in the upper reaches of the museum, hidden away from public view.

The museum itself, Bassi notes, is small and very rich, but it “needs to transition from a more traditional collection of objects to a more modern, interactive place where people can see the object in context.”

While the ghetto’s anniversary means that this historic space can once again live as a place of creativity, it is important to recognize that the terrible experience of the World War II ghettos will understandably influence perceptions of the word “ghetto.”

For his part, Bassi affirms that supporters of the anniversary are “not by any means celebrating the creation of the ghetto, but there’s no question that Jews were very happy to be there compared to the situations in Germany or... Spain, where they were expelled.”

In recent years, educational partnerships have been established to foster study opportunities in Venice.

For example, Tel Aviv University has a permanent program there, Ca’ Foscari has an agreement with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and there have been collaborations with Bar-Ilan University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Bassi believes that it is worthwhile for young Israeli students to visit places in Europe like Venice that experienced coexistence.

“As you know,” he says, “there is a tendency to send a lot of Israeli kids to Europe, but mostly to the camps, which of course is an unavoidable experience.

“But I think that it would be really interesting... to send the kids to places where of course there was persecution, of course there was oppression, but also there was incredible cultural vibrancy and... coexistence. So in that sense I think that Venice would be a perfect place where Israeli Jews, American Jews and European Jews can come together and get to know each other.”

The ghetto is unique, the Venetian affirms, in that it can have the “ability to be once again under new, completely modern conditions a cosmopolitan meeting point between different Jewish communities and a place of interaction between Jews and non-Jews.”

But it can’t be done as a form of simple tourism, he stresses.

“I’ve been to enough places where there are beautifully-restored synagogues and there are no Jews left. To me that is sad, and it may be inevitable in certain places, but it’s not inevitable here. The Holocaust did not decimate the community as in other places in Europe, so the majority of the people survived, which means that it would really be a shame if we would disappear...”

The writer writes about travel, food and wine at www.PostcardsForYou.com.

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