by Eadbhard McGowan
My way in Venice leads as if in a dream around small squares, lined with trees, my steps get lost in the maze of narrow alleys, where the ancient houses lean so far toward each other that they almost seem to touch. The leafy patios of private mansions behind their iron gates attract admiration, they reflect in the waterways. The quarter is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets and steep stairs.
The red, caramel-and ochre coloured facades shine in the evening light. The lanterns are switched on and lights appear behind closed curtains and over balconies.
Can walls speak? Yes, they speak. They have the capacity to soak in history, stories, and fates. They evaporate suffering, joy, blood, tears, language, and the cries of the tortured during inquisition and persecution. Dominant is the smell of wet masonry work and sadness in a place where many people exuded the sweat of fear.
But linger long enough in the Calesele place, the frayed, narrow labyrinth that anchors this corner of Sotoporgeto to the corner over the canal and you will feel the walls of the past closing in. Half a millennium stamped the soul of a place.
“Is the ghetto still alive, or is it an illusion?” I wonder aloud as Ms. Simone Negri leads me across a bridge, down a street, and into a square, the Campiello delle Scuole or “little square of the synagogues.
The place looks quaint, as if from another century, removed from time.
We take the boat to the Ghetto Nuovo.
A mist surrounds me. Unreal. Am I alive or in an alternative universe? The sun flickers on the water, an unnatural blue stretches over a December sky.
“Is the ghetto still alive, or is it an illusion?”
The answer to my question is revealed inside the sumptuous Scuola Grande Spagnola (Great Spanish Synagogue). After we gaze at the elliptical coffered ceiling and the black-columned pediment that frames the ark of the covenant; after we crane our necks to glimpse the cherry wood balustrade and diamond-hatched panels that screen the upstairs women’s gallery; after our eyes bathe in the silver gleam of candelabra and the soft glow of crimson-curtained window panes, we notice brass plaques affixed to the pews.
“The names of families who pay to rent their own bench sections. These families still pray here.” Ms. Negri says.
Are the living praying here or the dead? Do the dead assemble on a Friday evening and haunt the empty synagogue and ask the Almighty for forgiveness for the culprits and courage for the deprived?
I hear Ms. Negri as if speaking from far away. She points at a pew and to two of the brass plaques.
Cardoso and Sadun are the names on the plaques.
“Mr. Sadun is a lecturer of Ladino and Romance language and author of a book about the Ladino language.
I have spoken with Mr. Sadun and he would like to see you. Give him ring.” she says.
She knows my interest in and knowledge of the Ladino language.
Cardoso and Sadun — two of the surnames inscribed on those plaques — appear in tiny letters by the buzzer which I press at 10 o’clock in the morning.
Umberto Sadun had given me very precise directions to his home off the Calle Ghetto Vecchio.
What he had neglected to say is that he lived in a kind of palace, in a light-bedazzled, soaring-ceilinged, art- and book-lined Renaissance suite overlooking the Canale Grande.
Sadun welcomes me at the door. A friendly smiling small man, with a row of white teeth and frizzy hair.
“Aaaaah… Buona sera.”
He ushers me into his study which is full of bookcases and paintings.
“My ancestors, members of Sephardic families, arrived in Venice in 1508,” he said, slowing his Italian down to a tempo I could follow. “The ancestors of my wife, the Cardoso’s, were cantors in the Scuola Levantina, even though our roots are not Levantine but Spanish.”
Sadun gives me a glass and fills it with red wine. Soon we fall into a very academic discussion of this language. Being fluent in Spanish and able to read Hebrew letters I am fairly acquainted with Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews, who live and lived in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and North Africa. Ladino is one of my many passions.
Guitar music sounds from the street in the background. On several tables are books in all formats are stacked in little towers. I inhale the smell of these books, books with a long and mostly sad history of lost homes, persecution, expulsion.
Sadun takes a book from a pile.
He opens it.
“This is a book entitled A Bouquet of Poems by Haim Vitali Sadacca from Turkey.
I will give you a sample. You can take the book with you.”
Kamino en las kayes… tu siempre en mi tino,
Sol de mi vida, tu azes briyar mi destino, ………………
I walk down the streets… you, always on my mind,
Light of my life, you brighten my destiny, ……………….
With tantalizing fragrances wafting out of the hidden kitchen and the velvety light of winter throwing thousands of silhouettes on the walls, I taste the history that had made this place possible. The palace may be extraordinary, but the convergence of cosmopolitan currents in the Cardoso/Sadun household is quintessentially Venetian.
“Do you know sarde in saor?” Sadun asks as the first round of plates are brought in by his wife. They are sweet and sour sardines, a winter appetizer in Venice.
His wife is an oriental beauty with the subtle, gentle elegance of Venice like a reflection of the Renaissance times. Sadun pours three glasses of prosecco.
Her hands, hands which one would see on paintings by Sandro Botticelli, hold the glass and the glass seems to hover. “To your health”, he says.
By the time the pasta arrives, the conversation moves to the value of the Ladino, lost in an ocean of the many Italian dialects and idioms.
“The challenge today is to sustain the vivacity of our culture and carry it into the future.”
As we sit by the window of the top-floor apartment watching the dome of San Marco go grey against the December dusk, we hear the chimes of a nearby church strike seven. Sadun gives me a sign to get up and to follow him.
He had invited me to a meeting of Ladino speaking poets. “This will be a treat for linguists”, he promised.
It is a four minutes’ walk to the place, to a meeting of a writers’ group that gathers at intervals to consider issues pertinent to poetry in general and the Ladino language in particular. The assembly takes place in a little house on a canal in Cannaregio near the Baroque Jesuit Church, Santa Maria Assunta that presides over a quarter once inhabited by artisans and artists (Titian and Tintoretto among them).
My Italian, though not quite up to the rapid flow of ideas, is good enough to register the enthusiasm that these thirty or so men and women show of their deeply rooted passion for this language.
When I listen to poetry, I hear music, it lulls me into a different world, no, into a waking dream. I hear Romance sounds and Hebrew letters appear and dance, climb up and down, and remind me of my childhood. And I hear a symphony of Old Aragonese, Leonese, Catalan, Mozarabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Aramaic.
I try to find a description for the melodies. It is as if somebody plays exceptionally fine, filigree and soft music on a violin.
Sadun introduces me and I speak about the diversity of languages and the shaping of poems.
How long did I speak?
A young lady asks for permission to read out a poem for me.
Un viandante que,
suavemente, anda a tientas
su camino, avance,
paso a paso
a lo largo del Canal Grande,
en el crepúsculo
de la isla de San Marco,
de platos de palabras,
se lleva a casa
Strange, it is as if I had heard the poem before. Where?
I hesitate to ask Mr. Sadun how he feels about the future of the ghetto today, but as I pick my way back to my hotel near the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo through echoing alleys and over black filaments of water, carrying the small volume of Ladino poems in my pocket, I know that words are keeping the memories alive.
Do I see night owls with carnival masks standing at a corner overlooking the canals, or is it the fog rising from the water? All seems to hide behind a shroud.
Saturday morning, my last in Venice, at the Shabbat service in the Scuola Levantina. The high, dim sanctuary is about a quarter full.
In this sacred space in the hushed city, listening to the Hebrew prayers and Italian murmur, I feel reassured, not discouraged, by the evidence of time.
I awake, awake from a dream. Is a dream the essence, the sum of experienced impressions deposited in the subconscious, filtered through the mind?
My opened notebook lies near my pillow. On the open side the stanza of the poem the young lady had recited and which I had scribbled into my notebook during the night:
A wayfarer, who,
gently gropes his way forward,
step by step along the canals,
in the twilight of San Marco Island,
just to nourish on word dishes,
takes home poetic objects
All is Déjà vu. Shadows of the past persist.
About the author
Eduard Schmidt-Zorner (also writing under the pen name Eadbhard McGowan) is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories.
He writes in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose.
Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany.
Published in 107 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in USA, UK, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Bangladesh, India, France, Mauritius, Nigeria and Canada.
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