Book Review: Contesting What a 'Ghetto' is

The book traces the term’s development from the Renaissance to Nazi Europe to the present day.

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing Jewish victims. Brest, Belarus February 2019. (photo credit: VASILY FEDOSENKO / REUTERS)
A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing Jewish victims. Brest, Belarus February 2019.
What does ghetto mean? A term that has been used to designate Jewish quarters, the last station to German death camps, enclaves of African Americans; a term that evokes nostalgia, poverty, seclusion; a noun that has turned into an adjective; a call for sophistication; a sign of longing and belonging up to its present race-based connotation. A word that cannot be easily defined, as it carries a long and cumbersome history.
For six years, Daniel B. Schwartz, associate professor of History and Judaic Studies at The George Washington University, traced the word back to its inception in 1516 in Venice to its usage in present-day New York City, peeling back the layers of its meaning in his new book Ghetto: The History of a Word (Harvard University Press, 2019).
“Depending on how it is used and who is using it, [it] can suggest both danger and security, weakness and toughness, social pathology and communal solidarity, a prison and a fortress,” Schwartz writes.
Schwartz is not only interested in amassing numerous definitions, but also exploring it in its historical and cultural context. Navigating through several centuries, the author does not grant ownership of the word to any particular group, but shows in the book’s five chapters an impressive array of voices and historical evidence on the mentioning and official application of the term.
From Renaissance Italy to Nazi Europe
While it is a misrepresentation to claim that the idea to enclose its Jewish population in one area first took place in Venice, the Italian city was, nonetheless, the birthplace of the term. Schwartz presents debates over the very nature of the word, from the Venetian “geto,” or foundry, to an area of the city which was designed to its then-Jewish population already known as “Ghetto Nuovo,” from the Venetian verb “gettare,” meaning to thrown or to cast, to the Hebrew term “gett,” used for bill of divorce. The author, however, travels a few centuries back, showing examples of “a ghetto before the ‘ghetto,’” such as Frankfurt’s Judengasse and the Spanish juderias of the Middle Ages, where Jews tended to live in quarters separated by gates – evidence that even before the term was born, the idea of segregating Jews had been circulating on the continent for a long time.
Schwartz takes the reader through vivid accounts of the Roman Ghetto, where the term took roots and transformed into a synonym of abject poverty and forced Jewish isolation, to the expansion of the concept and idea to other parts of the continent. In the midst of the push to modernization throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, European Jewry’s relationship to the term became fundamentally ambivalent. It signaled something “old and obsolete,” a physical and mental place Jews had to escape from in order to become modern, as well as a term which “preserves the memory of a vanishing world.”
As the Nazi regime rose to power and officially revived segregated Jewish quarters, the term acquired its darkest overtones. As pointed out by Schwartz, the word ghetto was commonly invoked by scholars to address the persecution of German Jewry and the active Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The ghetto arrives in the US
The word, eventually, left the old continent to arrive in the United States. Schwartz recounts that the then-aspiring author and recent immigrant Abraham Cahan, when pitching a story to the New York Sun about life in the ghetto in the late 19th century, understood that the term was not part of the American lexicon. Cahan, who later became a giant of Yiddish journalism, together with a number of Jewish literary voices, introduced the term – and the life of the new immigrants – to the public. The term again transformed into something beyond the physical place of Jews before modernity, but a mental place “between tradition and modernity.”
It was in the US as well that the term was understood as a multicultural phenomenon, trespassing religious and national boundaries, turning from a noun into an adjective, and sparking heated racial discrimination debate across the United States. In the 1960s, the author points out, the term was already more commonly associated with black Americans than with Jews, being clearly part of the African-American lexicon already by the end of World War II, to convey their struggle against segregated neighborhoods.
The term, at last, arrived to modern day Israel, where it gained prominent place in political debates and once again was met with another layer of complexity and making its way into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ghetto: The History of a Word is a thorough etymological, historical, literary and cultural analysis of an ever-evolving word. Through his all-encompassing approach, Schwartz explores how the term gained substantial emotional weight by showcasing works of literature, newspapers’ opinion pieces, poems and journal entries. The reader finally comes to see the ghetto, as the author first suggests, “not as a neat conceptual package, but as a changing and contested conglomeration of diverse elements, brought together by the contingencies of history and the projections of memory.”