A Shofar Sounds In Venice!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

From the harbor where we disembarked, my daughter and I had walked almost the length of the Venetian canal to reach the Old Jewish Quarter. In Barcelona, we had found only an extinct Jewish community, memorialized mainly by a few inscribed cemetery stones inserted into a wall, tales of what used to be, and white-washed stories of the Spanish Inquisition. In the ports we visited in Croatia, we had discovered a small synagogue but little else that warmed the heart of Jewish life. In Albania, we found nothing. By contrast, the Old Jewish Quarter in Venice it was restored, vibrant, and alive with the sound of young, black-clad and hatted, Chabad students showing interested tourists how to lay tefillin – and how to blow the shofar (a ram’s horn traditionally used to herald the Jewish New Year). Scattered on a long table were shofarot of various shapes and sizes. In preparation for my Guest Rabbi stint on a Mediterranean cruise over the High Holy Days, I had carefully packed a small, whitish, bubble-wrapped, Israeli ram’s horn – chosen over my black Yemenite antelope’s horn, curlier and harder to fit in the suitcase. I didn’t know that I would be able to find a shofar – from such a plentiful array — in the Village Square of the Old Jewish quarter in Venice. You have to hand it to Chabad (even if they don’t accept women rabbis!)

The long table was set out in front of a storefront synagogue, a comfortable prayer space for travelers that Chabad had set up, and right next to it was – yes, a small kosher restaurant. Both were full. Klezmer music played, and it was next to impossible to keep my feet from dancing. The joyful atmosphere was infectious. It was old Jewish Venice revived.  

In the Judaica shop, I was drawn to and almost purchased a good-sized Torah scroll (available in a smaller size, too, but harder to read) that featured a continuous, brightly-colored comic strip to tell the story of the Five Books of Moses. The balloons emanating from the characters in the story were in English (other vernacular languages may have been available), and bannered directly above each comic strip was the Hebrew text. It was a beautiful creation, not garish at all, not sacrilegious. A good teaching tool to interest bar/bat mitzvah candidates, I thought.  And I’m not one to be thrilled by comic books (even though I did devour Wonder Woman comics and plenty of others when I was a kid).

“How much?” I asked the kind-faced Hasidic man who seemed to be supervising the store. That’s when I found out that the price was $1,000. That’s why there were donation pages preceding the text to record the names of the givers. Probably the scroll was intended as a bar/bat mitzvah gift. I still wavered – it was so unusual. Where would I ever find such a scroll again?

In Florida, that’s where! The truly excellent artist, Michal Meron, lives in the U.S., and the scrolls were produced there, too. “It takes her a year to make each scroll,” the Hasidic man said gently.  He was a great salesman, but now he wanted to close the sale. The Judaica shop would ship it to L.A. for me, but the price was the price.

“Hmmm,” I prevaricated. Buying it would decimate my shopping budget for the entire, three-week trip. “I think we’ll take some time to think about it. We want to visit the restored synagogue first.”

So my daughter and I climbed the steps to the moderately-sized, Sephardic synagogue on an upper floor overlooking the square and listened to an informative guide explain its history, and how it had, like everything else in the quarter, been so lovingly restored.

Then we returned to the Judaica store where I regretfully told the Hasidic man, who eyes still smiled at us, that we couldn’t afford the comic book Torah, but the Hanukah dreidels (miniature tops that spin and are used for a children’s game) were also compelling. So we settled for several really beautiful dreidels crafted in Murano glass.

I haven’t been to Florida in years, but the next time I visit there, I’ll look up the inspired artist who creates Torahs for bar/bat mitzvah kids.