A vanishing world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The weekend edition of The International New York Times is lying in one corner. It has a story on the ancient Jewish district of Venice. The full-page feature, timed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the world’s first ghetto, shows a portrait of Riccardo Calimani, a historian of Jewish life. In the newspaper, this stately looking man—himself a Jew—is seen seated in his study. It is the most picturesque room of his house, a palace that overlooks the Grand Canal.
One morning The Delhi Walla enters this same study at Palazzo Fontana. Mr Calimani is surrounded by thousands of books, dozens of family photographs, and some soft toys. There is also a barometer to foresee the weather–this instrument used to be in almost every Venetian home before Google made it redundant. Like every self-respecting private library in Venice, there is Storia del ghetto di Venezia.
Known to English-language readers as The Ghetto of Venice, the book is considered a landmark. “Calimani’s book participated in the movement of the (Jewish) ghetto’s renaissance and rediscovery during the 1980s,” says Simon Levis Sullam (see photo number 3 below), an associate professor of modern European history and Jewish history at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice. A relative of Callimani, he adds, “Over the years, this book played some part in shaping the popularity of the ghetto, also internationally.”
Picking out the book’s first edition from a shelf in the visitor’s room, the 70-year-old author says, “I was born one hundred meters away from the ghetto… my father sold buttons and sewing kits… the shop was near the Rialto Bridge, outside the ghetto, in the center of town.”
Mr Calimani’s parents married a week after the Nazis occupied Venice. It was also the day when the president of the Jewish Community of Venice, Giuseppe Jona, committed suicide by consuming poison. “His self-murder was an act of protest towards the collapsing world,” says Mr Calimani.
Among many other books, he has also written one on Jesus’ Jewish origins. His first work, however, was a novel about a struggling Jewish writer in Venice, who falls in love with a non-Jewish girl. Mr Calimani himself married a co-religionist.
These days Mr Calimani finds no time to read for pleasure. He is working on a book on the Jews of Rome from ancient Romans to immediate postwar period. Settling down in front of his computer, he says, “I have about 25,000 books. Ask me for any author, and I have him here. The only thing is that I wouldn’t know in just which shelf.”
Such is the problem of the plenty.
The historian’s den
3. (Simon Levis Sullam with Riccardo Calimani)