Italy’s unique bookshop.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It was very curious. The other day the Italian Jewish newspaper Pagine Ebraiche ran a special issue on the 500th anniversary of Venice’s ancient Jewish district, the world’s first ghetto. The 12-page supplement had no mention of Libreria Alef.
The bookshop’s staffers were disappointed yet again. Opened in 2006, the important landmark is almost never mentioned in any newspaper feature on the ghetto. This is puzzling because Libreria Alef is the only bookstore in Italy devoted exclusively to Judaism, which means that it stocks books written for or by the Jews–this explains the high visibility of Woody Allen in the shelves.
According to bookstore’s manager, Ugo Casarin, Rome used to have a Jewish bookshop, too, but it shut down a couple of years ago. Milan still has a shop with a section on Jewish literature. Elsewhere in Italy, you are certain to find writers in bookstores who happen to be Jewish but they are not bunched together under their faith.
Libreria Alef’s specialty is ideal because of its historical address. The bookshop, with an in-house cafe (the lady and the gentleman who stand behind the counter are very generous with their kind smiles) is built as part of The Jewish Museum of Venice. The light-filled store has hundreds of books in Italian with a few shelves in English and other languages. Visitors to the museum end up almost always spending some time in the store; some must also be taking away the classic The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani, a Venetian author who is said to have one of the city’s best private libraries.
Like the guides to the Jewish Museum, the 30-something manager of the bookstore, too, is a Christian. He says that he landed in this job with almost no clue on the Jewish culture. In fact, on his first day in the shop, years ago, a customer approached him asking for a Jewish law book titled Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and he said, “What!”
Today, Mr Casarin will easily score high marks if he were to answer general knowledge questions on the Hebrew world.
Meanwhile, The Delhi Walla just heard a piece of breaking news leaking out from the editorial room of Pagine Ebraiche: a second special issue is coming soon on the ghetto with a big story celebrating the lovely Libreria Alef.
The place newspapers don’t write about
1. (Ugo Casarin with the aforementioned newspaper)