A complicated history in Venice

As Venice marks 500 years since the founding of its Jewish ghetto, the commemorations are bringing new life to its Jewish community.

A general view of the campo or square at the center of the world’s first ghetto in Venice (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of the campo or square at the center of the world’s first ghetto in Venice
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TODAY, THE only physical evidence of the massive gates that once guarded the entrance to the first Jewish ghetto are a few worn indentations in the walls that once held the hinges.
The ghetto covers nearly an acre and a half of Venice’s territory, and includes five synagogues. But the border is now a historical footnote. A century and a half ago its name was formally changed to “Contrada dell’Unione” (roughly translated as Unity Neighborhood). Only a handful of members of the city’s shrinking Jewish community still live in the area; the rest are spread throughout the ancient canal city.
And yet, the painful, colorful, complicated legacy of the ghetto is as evident in the consciousness of the city’s Jewish community ‒ and in Venice as a whole for that matter ‒ as any building or monument.
“In a strict sense, the ghetto no longer exists,” says Shalom Bahbout, the community’s chief rabbi. “But it’s still here. It’s still in us. It helped to make us who we are.”
The Jewish community in Venice is among the oldest in Europe. The first Jews arrived from Germany, in the 13th century, as traders, just as Venice was starting to emerge as a major commercial and maritime power.
According to Simon Levis Sullam, a historian with Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, Sephardic Jews began arriving from the Iberian Peninsula soon after, and over time others arrived from the Ottoman Empire (modern- day Turkey), elsewhere in Italy, France and parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Each group remained intact within the ghetto, establishing its own synagogue.
“When there were just a few Jews, there were no problems, but as the city’s Jews grew in number, Venice’s other residents began to feel threatened,” Levis Sullam says.
Rabbi Shalom Bahbout prays in the Levantine synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)Rabbi Shalom Bahbout prays in the Levantine synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews were soon required to apply and pay for special permits to do business and were prohibited from owning land.
Before long, they were forced to live in what was then seen as an isolated corner of the city and pay a 30 percent premium on rent. In 1516 ‒ 500 years ago ‒ the gates were erected on the command of Doge Leonardo Loredan, Venice’s head of state, and the ghetto was born.
“It’s a complicated history,” explains Giuseppe Balzano, a Venice resident and historian with the Institute of Jewish Studies in Brussels. “Obviously, being forced to live in a small area where the gates were locked at night and the shorelines were patrolled by Catholic guards in boats cannot be seen as a positive thing. But it also helped create a community, and it allowed the residents to feel protected.”
At its peak in the 1620s, the ghetto was home to around 5,000 Jews ‒ more than 10 times the city’s current Jewish population, and far too many to be contained within the original confines.
An adjacent island was annexed (confusingly, the original area is referred to as the “New Ghetto” and the annexed island the “Old Ghetto” because it had been populated longer) and, even then, residents were forced to build upward to house everyone.
“To maximize space, structures were built with low ceilings and multiple floors, up to nine stories,” says Donatella Calabi, a history of architecture professor at IUAV University of Venice. “They were the skyscrapers of their day, the tallest buildings in Venice at the time and among the tallest in Italy. You could see the buildings of the ghetto from across the city.”
With its crowded streets and high-rise buildings, the ghetto evolved into a center for innovation, culture and commerce, its streets teaming with moneylenders, clothing shops, bookstores and emporia specializing in the sale of imported goods. It housed theaters, a music academy and literary salons. According to Francesca Brandes, the author of “Venice and Environs,” the ghetto “became a center of trade not only for Jewish residents and visitors, but also for Christian Venetians who poured into the district every morning when the gates were opened.”
A worker at a kosher bakery places sweets in the window of a shop in the ghetto (photo credit: REUTERS)A worker at a kosher bakery places sweets in the window of a shop in the ghetto (photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1797, a greatly diminished Venice fell to the French under the command of a young Napoleon Bonaparte in his first invasion of Italy, ending 1,100 years of independence for the city-state known as “The Most Serene Republic of Venice.” The French smashed the ghetto’s gates and rewrote the city’s laws to allow the free movement of Jews, and giving them the right to buy property for the first time and hold professions. Aside from a brief period in 1943, the ghetto was gone.
Venice’s Jews were not the first in Europe to be quarantined within their city. That distinction probably belongs to Prague, where Jews were separated as early as 1262. The practice could date back even further ‒ delegates at the Lateran Council called by the Vatican in 1179 worried that Christian values could be eroded by exposure to non-Christians and, in 1215, a subsequent Council called on Jews and other non-Christians to be identifiable by their dress and segregated from Christians.
Although the word “ghetto” was coined in Venice, the word’s origins are not clear.
Most of Venice’s residents say it comes from the word gettare, which refers to the casting of metal objects, a nod to the foundries that existed in the area that became Venice’s ghetto. But some Venetians say it comes from the old Venetian word ghet, slang for “waste” ‒ perhaps a reference to the low-value location of the island first set aside for the Jews.
A depiction of the tables of the law in the Levantine synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)A depiction of the tables of the law in the Levantine synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)
Other theories include the last two syllables of the Italian word borghetto, a reference to a small borough; from the Hebrew word get, referring to an agreement allowing a separation or divorce; or from the Yiddish word ghectus, referring to an enclosed area.
The first written reference of the word, according to Brandeis University historian Benjamin Ravid, dates to 1523 in the Hebrew-written diary of the Venetian Jew David HaReuveni, who wrote, “the place of the Jews, the ghetto,” though Ravid thinks the term was probably used before that.
“There are not many words that can conjure up the notion of discrimination as easily as the word ‘ghetto,’ and yet, we do not have a clear understanding of its origins,” says author and linguist Anatoly Liberman. “It is evidence of the complexity of this history.”
Because of the troubling circumstances that led to the creation of the Venice ghetto 500 years ago, members of Venice’s Jewish community are careful to say they are “commemorating” the anniversary rather than “celebrating” it. But, according to Rabbi Bahbout, there was never any consideration given to the idea of disregarding the anniversary completely.
“Of course, the creation of something like the ghetto here was a negative thing,” he says. “But it’s a wasted opportunity if we don’t study what happened and learn from it.”
The community is not holding anything back in its commemorations, which run through November.
The centerpiece is an exhibition called “Venice, the Jews and Europe: 1516-2016,” along with the publication of an impressive special edition catalogue edited by Calabi, the IUAV University of Venice professor.
Over the summer, William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” ‒ with its iconic Jewish character Shylock ‒ was performed in English for the first time ever in Venice, and the calendar is packed with dedicated lectures and exhibition openings, as well as the kickoff of fund-raising for a much-needed expansion of the Jewish Museum of Venice and restoration of many of the ghetto’s landmarks.
“The commemorations are drawing people from around the world, both Jews and non-Jews,” says Barbara Del Mercato, one of the organizers of the “Venice, the Jews and Europe” exhibition. “There are no firm numbers, but you can see the new faces and hear the different languages. It’s brought new life to the area.”
Even though most of Venice’s 450 Jews live outside the ghetto, the area still remains the center of Jewish life in the city. Two of the five synagogues are still used regularly (the other three are preserved and are open for guided visits). There is a well-regarded kosher restaurant and a kosher hotel. Occasionally, a few words carrying the lilt of the old Venetian-Jewish dialect can be heard.
According to Bahbout, there are enough Jews ‒ often including visitors ‒ for a minyan at most weekday prayer services and always on weekends.
“Jews and many non-Jews want to pass through the ghetto when they come to Venice,” says Bahbout. “The city’s population is about a third of what it was in the 1950s, and the same is true for the city’s Jewish population. These celebrations are drawing new attention to the community, which is a good and important thing.”
Timeline of Jews in Venice
13th century: The first written record of a Jewish presence in Venice, by a German trader
1386: The city’s Jewish cemetery is established.
1516: The formal creation of the ghetto by Doge Leonardo Loredan.
1523: First written reference to the word “ghetto” in the Hebrew-language diary of Venice resident David Ha-Reuveni.
Mid-16th century: The ghetto’s population begins to rise dramatically with the arrival of Jews from the Ottoman Empire, followed by arrivals from Spain and Portugal.
1620s: The Jewish population in Venice reaches its apex of around 5,000 before diminishing with the arrival of the plague in 1630.
Mid-17th century: The term “ghetto” starts to be used elsewhere.
1797: The ghetto is abolished when French soldiers, under Napoleon Bonaparte, smash the gates and allow the free movement of Jews in the city.
1911: Venetian Luigi Luzzatti becomes Italy’s second Jewish prime minister (Alessandro Fortis, another Jew who was prime minister six years earlier, was from a small town outside Bologna).
1938: Benito Mussolini’s Fascist racial laws deprive Italy’s Jews of most legal protections.
1943-44: Mussolini’s government falls, putting parts of Italy, including Venice, under control of Germany’s Nazis. The Nazis briefly re-establish the ghetto in Venice and begin systematically hunting Jews. The community’s leader Giuseppe Jona commits suicide to prevent himself from being tortured to provide names of the city’s Jews. A total of 246 Jews are found, arrested and sent to death camps; only eight returned.
1953: The Jewish Museum of Venice is established.
2016: Venice’s Jewish community begins commemorating the 500th anniversary of the ghetto.