In Venice, my wife and I like to stay in the old ghetto, which sits in ideal proximity to sundry picturesque attractions, yet somehow feels insulated and tucked away. My hunch is that the neighborhood’s name, despite its antiquated origin, keeps away the riffraff. “This is where your people used to live,” my wife, Francesca, invariably tells me upon arrival.
“That’s only because your people sequestered us here like common thieves,” I rejoin.
Typically, we head to Venice from my in-laws’ house just a few hours west, in a small town in Piedmont, where we can sleep off jetlag while my mother-in-law waits on us as if we were British nobility in the years before the war. But our last trip found us dropped onto this dreamlike town, surely devised by some mad child architect straight from New York who never before had visited another urban center. Before we knew it, we found ourselves strolling the Venetian ghetto in a ravishing jetlag haze. It was in this state of enlightened bewilderment, beneath my obnoxious sunglasses and in shorts of brazen plaid, that the young Hasid approached.
He was Texan by birth, stationed at the Venice Chabad for the sake of Jewish tourists investigating their Italian roots. Like Lubavitch Jews the world over, he did not waste time with conversational niceties before getting to his point. “Are you Jewish?” he barked by way of introduction, applying the hurried tone one might use to request a doctor on an airplane, or a sip of water at the edge of a freshly crawled desert.
In New York, when Orthodox men draw near with this personal query, I like to dramatically scrutinize their dark wardrobe and godly curls and spit the question back at them, “Are you?” (It has yet to get a laugh.) Under the amiable fog of jetlag, however, I felt uncharacteristically drawn to my nonsecular brethren. “But of course,” I found myself telling the man, “I would love to recite a prayer with you.”
And — we were off! With lightning speed, the Texan covered my shoulders in a shawl and produced a set of tefillin. He wrestled a can of Coca-Cola away from my hand, then wrapped my left arm in the tefillin’s black leather straps, as if he were about to inject me with dangerous drugs right there in the square. Patiently, he led me through a Hebrew prayer, my tongue contorting itself into patterns studiously avoided since my 13th birthday. Italians gaped at this eccentric scene: An assumed rabbi, with the big hat and everything, joined in prayer with a tourist dressed not unlike a Rodney Dangerfield character.
At the conclusion of the prayer, my devout comrade freed my arm from the straps. “That was interesting,” I confessed. “I have never seen tefillin up close.”
“You have never laid tefillin?” he proclaimed excitedly. “But you said you are a bar mitzvah!” The man trained his eyes on me skeptically. “Your mother is Jewish, right?”
I replied that she is, not that it was any business of his, and that I had been bar mitzvahed.
“If there was no tefillin,” he said, “you did not have a bar mitzvah.”
“I did,” I insisted. “It’s even on the T-shirt: ‘Can’t stop partyin’ at Jay’s bar mitzvah.’”
“Trust me,” the Texan replied, a distasteful smugness having crept into his voice, “that was not a proper bar mitzvah.”
My new friend was beginning to wear out his welcome. “Let’s get something straight,” I wanted to say. “I can, without pause, recite for you the five greatest Bob Dylan lyrics and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ plots, list the current rotation of Yankees pitchers and New York Times op-ed columnists, explain with precision what was eating Howard Stern last week and, if I must, draw a rough map of Newark strictly from information gleaned off Philip Roth novels. You, on the other hand, are hassling strangers in a public square while holding a shawl. You are no more Jew than I.”
Instead, I stood in red-faced silence as the man eagerly summoned a similarly attired colleague. They exchanged words and turned to me like proud parents. “Today is a happy day for you!” the Texan exclaimed. “This is your bar mitzvah!”
“Dance with us!” the second man implored.
“Your grandmother,” the Texan said, “would be so happy!”
I thought of my beloved grandmother, long ago departed to this man’s heaven and my cold ground, whose only house of worship, as far as I could tell, had been Wrigley Field. Though she was not a dirty old lady of sitcom mythology, one such incident leaped to mind. Toward the end of her life, my grandma was gossiping with my mother, who informed her that a neighborhood friend — Dr. Cohen, husband of Jill — had recently adopted religion and, in his new prayer ritual, laid tefillin every morning. “He lays tefillin?” my grandmother quipped. “What’s the matter with Jill?”
I stared at these two men, overdressed for the Italian heat yet waltzing with vigor, beseeching me to join in their revelry. It dawned on me that, placed in my shoes, my grandmother would have instructed them to take a hike. No doubt she, too, would have found me insufficiently Jewish: If I lacked these men’s piousness, I begged for her chutzpah. Meekly I slunk away, ashamed of my passiveness. “Jerks,” I muttered to my wife. Then I timidly turned around, fearful that the men had heard my insult.
I need not have worried. As we walked off, the Hasids continued their joyous dance, linking arms and twirling about the Venetian square in celebration of my belated bar mitzvah.
Jay Ruttenberg is the editor of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader and of its book, “The Lowbrow Reader Reader.”