'Hava Nagila' San Marco

A wandering trio of musicians asks my husband and me where we’re from. I answer after my usual two-second delay.

Venice’s Piazza San Marco (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Venice’s Piazza San Marco
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the first two days in Venice, we hear “Hava Nagila” twice.
First, a wandering trio of musicians asks my husband and me where we’re from. I answer after my usual two-second delay. Do people from other countries think before they answer this question? We Israelis always make a quick judgment about safety. It’s like my husband’s deciding between showing his kippa or covering it with a baseball cap when we go out.
“Israel,” we answer. The three musicians launch into a canal-side rendition of “Hava Nagila,” top of the international Jewish playlist. We laugh. We sing. We dance. Strangers stop and join in. What a lovely welcome to this city.
The next day we hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at a concert hall in Piazza San Marco. Afterward, we stroll in the busy square. Peddlers are hawking lightup toys that shoot skyward like flares or drones. Not a good choice for our grandchildren these days. Then we hear music. We could swear it’s “Hava Nagila.” Indeed, one of the café bands that surround the piazza is playing our song. Maybe they’ll do Netta Barzilai’s “Toy” next. After all, it won the Eurovision right here in Europe. But no, the medley isn’t that up to date. The Italian musicians play “My Yiddishe Momme,” “Mayn Shtetele Belz” and, finally, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” We look around for the Jewish or Israeli group the musicians are trying to please, but only European and Asian faces fill the audience, now clapping and rocking to the tunes.
This unencumbered embrace of Jewish music is a surprise. So accustomed have we become to headline condemnations of Israel that we have forgotten that not everyone feels hostile to us. There are even admirers out there in the big world.
THIS IS a pleasant reminder. My Facebook feed is pockmarked with wrath and scorn. Sadly, much of it comes from fellow Jews on soapboxes. They want to deride us for immorality and teach us how to become ethical persons. They patronize us, deciding we get pleasure from the numbers rising on the TV news ticker showing the dead in the violent demonstrations in Gaza. They condemn our soldiers – the sons and daughters who selflessly defend our country – for malice and/or ineptness. These self-decorated armchair generals have become experts at extinguishing firebombs and diverting meat cleavers, as long as they’re not aimed at them or their loved ones. They quote newspapers and clergy – point to videos – so that we’ll understand how informed they are and how benighted we are. They have insiders’ knowledge on controlling hostile demonstrations. If we don’t have a magical way of stopping armed infiltrators, we can surely invent one the way we invented their cellphones, pill cameras and car navigation systems. Not even one of our sons and daughters has been murdered in this round, they taunt, as if we should be ashamed.
“You are making the world despise you,” reprimands a distant relative.
I don’t think so. People aren’t stupid. They see the pictures. They remember the illegal immigrants climbing the fence in California, and are relieved that there are so few, none armed, and no booby-trapped kites. We’re one-fortieth the size of America. Picture a proportional number, say a million-and-ahalf protesters, many armed, rushing the guards in California. Would anyone suggest arming the National Guard only with water hoses? These aren’t summer- camp color wars.
The bitter language this week goes beyond the usual diatribe and tsk-tsking. Journalists who have justified their abandonment of any pretense of neutrality focus on Israel, blaming the embassy move. A rabbi writes of her worry that our souls are being blemished by dealing with such troubling matters. A member of her congregation cheers that the Israeli flag will no longer be displayed in synagogue. Now she’ll be able to attend Kol Nidre services and renounce her vows.
OUR SOULS are long schooled in troubling matters. Take Venice, for example.
Venice is, of course, the city that gave the world the word “ghetto.”
Venice was thriving with a Jewish community of increasingly influential and prominent Jews in the 16th century when, on March 29, 1516, Jews were segregated in the area used for copper foundries. Residents out, Jews in. Gates locked.
Italian Jews were joined by refugees, brethren who refused to convert to Christianity in Spain and Portugal. For a quarter of a millennium we had to live behind those gates. We had to wear yellow hats or badges, except for our popular doctors, who could wear black hats. Not all occupations were open. You could, however, be a moneylender like Shylock. Living in a ghetto was tough, of course, writes one journalist in a major Western newspaper, but think of all the cultural and commercial advantages of Jews living close together! (I’m not making this up.)
In 1797 Napoleon tore down the gates. The Nazis rounded up Venetian Jews. Only eight reportedly returned from the concentration camps.
An estimated 450 Jews live in the city of canals and calli today. The ghetto is a popular tourist spot. Five synagogues stand. Chess sets for sale near Piazza San Marco replace pawns and knights with characters in Murano glass: Ashkenazim versus Sephardim. Both of those groups are represented in the polyglot visitors who show up for Shavuot pizza and lasagna at Chabad of Venice. The lingua franca is Hebrew.
Shavuot also happens to coincide with a festive regatta day. Kayaks, dragon boats and elegant Venetian vallontines race on the canals, showing that you don’t need motors.
And sure enough, from a sidewalk musician, we hear it once again.
Hava Nagila.” The song was composed by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn in 1918 to celebrate the British victory over the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I on the occasion of the Balfour Declaration. He was the son of a kosher butcher in a Latvian fishing village. Oddly, he spent World War I in Gaza.
Hava nagila.” Let us rejoice! the words urge. The Balfour Declaration says we can have a state. “Hava neranena venismeha,” let us sing and be glad. “Uru, uru ahim.” Awake, awake, O siblings.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.