So, as usual, I didn’t get to follow the schedule I’d planned for starting this new series because life and that paper chaseee. But here we are now. Ok, this first post will mostly be a background about why this Catholic, Army-brat from Georgia became interested in Judaica studies (didn’t even know that was a thing until 2011) and how a seminar paper from 2012 became a thesis chapter in 2013 and has impacted my life more than I could have ever fathomed. This initial post is more about me than about Jews in Venice (if that’s all you’re here for, just wait for part two-there will be no personal stuff in that one), but I will link to my original paper and the L.A. Times article about the same topic from last year. Part 2 will be an updated summary of my paper/thesis chapter with some new material and commentary.
I am going to start by saying I knew NOTHING about Judaism. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I knew Hitler killed millions of “the Jews” in the Holocaust, that Jews didn’t believe in Jesus, and that they didn’t eat pork, but that was the extent of it. I know about Christianity because that’s the religion my parents are and therefore how I was raised (mom’s
Baptist non-denominational and my dad is a non-practicing Catholic). I know about Islam because I had several Muslim friends (see also: hung out with an Imam’s son in the back of his coffee shop after school for a few weeks my Junior year) in Tulsa and I became more curious about that religion when my dad was deployed to Iraq. I’ve learned about Christianity in Sunday School since I was 3 years old and I learned about Islam through independent study, friends, and a couple of university classes. But guess what? In all my travels and all the moves, I had not ever met a Jewish person-to my knowledge.
Circa 2006 or 2007, I went to Alabama with my mom and we had lunch with her uncle. He knew I was interested in history and gave me a jump drive with our family tree on it. He was an amateur genealogist and had traced my mother’s, father’s, mother’s family tree. I never looked at the jump drive, but he passed away in the Summer of 2011 and I thought I’d better check it out. I opened up the document and to my surprise, he traced the family back to the 15th century in Bassano del Grappa, Italy! After some Googling, I saw that research had been done by other people who thought the family were exiled Jews from Spain or Portugal. I obviously thought it was cool, but didn’t really dig any further. When I started graduate school in 2011, I took a class about Venetian History and learned about the ghettos and a little bit about the Jewish population there. A new student arrived the following Fall and we became friends-it turned out she was Jewish. It just so happens that I signed up for a History of the Reformation class with her and the professor was Jewish too (hold on to your shorts, this will get trippy in a little bit). We had to come up with a paper topic and since I always tried to piggy-back my research paper’s off one another, I thought I would expand upon research I’d already done about Jews in Venice.
**Grad School pro-tip: I highly suggest finding a broad topic you like before you start graduate school and using that to guide all of your seminar papers. It turns out my broad topics were Italian Politics and Judaism. I went to two universities and took 25+ classes and was able to spider-web my papers and expand upon a few core topics each semester. (Obviously, I took unrelated courses like Carribbean History and Russian Cinema for which I wasn’t able to research anything related to these topics, but you get what I mean.) If I ever got nervous about using my own prior work, I’d just cite myself and link to my paper on Google Docs, but as far as I know there is no academic dishonesty in this approach and it will cut down your workload tremendously because you’ll be familiar with a group of sources and have already researched a topic that you can just expand or reframe in your next class.**
As a result, I wrote a seminar paper entitled: Jewish Life in Early Modern Venice: Migration, Segregation, and the Economic Necessity of Jews in Venice. I worked really hard on this paper and was proud of it. (SN: This paper contains the least amount of passive voice I could possibly use-so if you have issues reading things written in passive voice you best skidaddle on out of here now…also, this was my first real seminar paper, so excuse the errors and also realize I am NOT AN EXPERT of Judaica-sorry in advance). After some issues with my thesis committee and topic, in 2013, I decided to build upon this paper and some research I’d done about Venice in another course. This paper became a chapter in my thesis (I wrote more about it during my trip to Italy in 2014) and I got into the Ph.D. program at UNT shortly afterward. I left UNT, I had this chunck of research/writing, and a tangential connection to some family history. So, that’s the end of it, right? Nope.
In 2014, I went to Italy and got to visit all the places I’d talked about in my thesis. From the place the first Venetian settlers came from, to the town where my family came from, all the way to the Jewish ghetto itself! Later that year when I got to New York, I quickly found a job in Riverdale, an affluent-and largely Jewish-suburb in the Bronx. I began working for a family as a companion to a lady with Alzheimer’s. I soon found out that her daughter-in-law was from Fort Worth, Texas. The following year, upon meeting her in-laws, I asked them if they knew the Jewish professor who was on my thesis committee (not just because he was Jewish-I’m not that redneck-but because I knew he was an active member of the Jewish community in North Texas) and helped guide my research. It turns out my new bosses’ in-laws were very well aquainted with that professor I took the class with way back in 2012. Then, early this year, I logged into Facebook and had several notifications. 3 or 4 friends that knew about my seminar paper and thesis had linked me to the L.A. Times artilce about the history of Jews in Venice! I found out shortly afterward that I wasn’t accepted into a Ph.D. program, so I really thought that was the end of all this history stuff, but it turns out I wasn’t quiteee done.
As part of my job, I go to a Jewish Senior Center multiple times a week and earlier this year I met a member of the senior center who is an Afghani-Sephardic Jew from Israel. We became close friends, and in the past 6 months my research about Judaism has increased ten-fold (peep my IG if you’d like to see my interactions with the Jewish community in the Bronx). While I’ve branched out beyond Venice, I am still finding new sources which connect to my thesis!
So, a family tree given to me in Alabama in 2007 and viewed in 2011, led to a seminar paper in Denton, Texas in 2012, and a thesis chapter in 2013. An application to a Ph.D. program using this chapter as a writing sample brought me to New York City in 2014, where I found a job with a connection to two Jewish families in Fort Worth, Texas and the Bronx, New York. This new job led me to a Jewish Senior Center and a new friend from Israel, who just so happens to be an expert in the field of Judaica. Here I am, 4 years after writing that first paper and just last week I found yet another connection between Venice and “the Jews”…
*Next up: Let’s talk about the modern day divides within Judaism and the history of Jews in Venice/their importance to the Venetian economy!
*Probably next weekend…