In Venice, I needed a route canal

By David Robson, May 14, 2013
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I was in Venice. It was Shabbes. I thought I would visit the area where the Venetian republic confined its Jews 500 years ago - the place that gave the world the word, ghetto. But no sooner had I set out than I got totally lost. For centuries, Jews have been trying to find their way out of the ghetto, my problem was different - I couldn't find my way in. That is a common experience for me. I have no sense of direction whatsoever. But is that just me, or is it Jews? I don't think it is just me.

The worst marital spat I have ever witnessed was between a Jewish couple. I was travelling in their car on the way to a funeral. Neither of them was the deceased, though by the time we eventually got there each wished the other was. We had totally lost our way and, as you know, you can't be very late for a Jewish funeral because they really don't last very long. "Reuben," the wife screamed, "I knew you'd do this, I knew you'd do this!" How did she know? Because he's Jewish and that's what we do. We lose our way. Reuben could easily navigate a path through a complicated law book but the third turning off a roundabout proved impossible.

It's not a new problem for us. Crossing the Sinai desert should have been a relatively short trip. We left Egypt in a hurry but it turned out to be more haste, less speed. Other peoples would have completed the journey in a matter of days; it took the Jews 40 years. We were heading for the Promised Land but clearly we had no idea where it was and certainly didn't know the best route to get there.

For gentiles, explorers are people who go from point A to a rarely-visited point B in the most direct way possible - Ranulph Fiennes (or Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes to give his full moniker) heads for the Pole by the shortest route. But if his name were Raphael Feinstein he'd still be looking for the Pole and we'd still be looking for him. We simply are not great explorers in that sense. Exploring the human mind, that's quite another matter. That's something we do, it's a sedentary activity you can comfortably do in your own home. Fiennes has a sledge, Freud had a couch.

There is a school of thought that believes Christopher Columbus was a Marrano Jew just pretending to be Christian. I am of that school. He is obviously the greatest Jewish explorer in history (not that there's much competition) and he certainly did his exploring the Jewish way - he set off in search of the New World, got to the Bahamas and thought it was India.

That was more or less what happened to me in Venice. In fairness to myself, one canal does look very much like another but nobody I met there got as lost as I did. Unlike the simpletons who value simplicity, we are people with a respect for complexity and doubt. Whatever the subject, we tend to say: "On the one hand… on the other hand…" In my case, it was: "On the one hand, I could go right; on the other hand, I could go left." I always chose the other hand and I was always wrong.

    Last updated: 9:45am, May 14 2013