Ghetto splendor

The show’s full title is “Marking 500 Years of the Venice Ghetto,” and it is comprised of various artifacts hauled out of the museum’s storage facilities for the occasion.

Torah crown with vignettes featuring musical instruments, 1739-40 (photo credit: YAIR HOVAV)
Torah crown with vignettes featuring musical instruments, 1739-40
(photo credit: YAIR HOVAV)
The word “ghetto,” for most people, probably conjures up distressing thoughts and images of cramped living conditions in Eastern and Central Europe. Or, possibly, they picture the somewhat more romantic scenes of a Hollywoodesque Fiddler on the Roof ethos. In fact, though, the term comes from a very different world culture, and, linguistically, has absolutely no connection with, for example, Polish or Russian. That is evident from the charming Venetian Splendor exhibition, which opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on September 16 and will run until June 30 next year.
The show’s full title is “Marking 500 Years of the Venice Ghetto,” and it is comprised of various artifacts hauled out of the museum’s storage facilities for the occasion, alongside others that are on permanent display in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.
“We decided that, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the creation of the ghetto, which took place on March 29, 1516, we would mark the date with a small exhibition,” notes curator Gioia Perugia Sztulman. “We wanted to offer something special, along the museum’s Synagogue Route. And this was an opportunity to gather all the relevant items we have here, into a single context.”
The aforementioned house-of-prayer trail is entirely pertinent to the subject matter at hand, and the interior of the Vittorio Veneto synagogue, complete with an upper floor for female worshipers, provides for impressive viewing. The furnishings and religious objects hail from a town just to the north of Venice, and date back to 1700. They required something of a site-specific installation.
“The synagogue was put here in 1965, when the Israel Museum first opened,” explains Perugia Sztulman.
“When they built the museum, they knew the interior of the synagogue was going to be shipped over here, and they designed the space accordingly.”
The museum got a well-seasoned facility for its kickoff 51 years ago.
The synagogue had served a small Ashkenazi community, which moved to the region in the Middle Ages, for over two centuries. As is generally the case with immigrant groups, over time the community eventually improved its financial lot and, towards the end of the 19th century, the Jews moved to larger centers. By the end of the First World War, the synagogue was no longer in use.
The location of European synagogues was often hidden away from the general public, and operated from inside nondescript buildings. That reduced the possibility of attack by antisemites. Indeed, the 19th-century Stadttempel in Vienna, which a sported luxuriously appointed interior, survived the Nazi rampage of Kristallnacht in November 1938, ironically as a result of an edict issued by Emperor Joseph II that only Roman Catholic places of worship were allowed to be built with facades fronting directly on to public streets. The Vittorio Veneto synagogue, with its Baroque design and delicate blend of wood, gilt and fine fabrics, also gives an impression of finery and a well-heeled community. In fact, the religious trappings were funded by a wealthy member of the community.
The cloistered Venetian Jewish quarter was, in fact, the world’s first ghetto, and the etymological can be traced to a Venetian term for foundry – “getto” – in the local dialect, which originally occupied the site. The exhibition includes a contemporary bird’s-eye shot of the ghetto area, which remains largely unchanged, and puts the story of the Venetian community of five centuries ago into clear physical perspective.
The local Jews of the time, naturally, had every reason to fear the worst when they were instructed to leave their homes and move to the island site.
However, as Perugia Sztulman points out, there was some added value to be had from the unasked-for relocation.
“When we put the exhibition together, we wanted to show that, despite the ghetto, and possibly thanks to the ghetto, the community flourished in spiritual, cultural and religious terms.”
According to the curator, the authority’s intent behind the ghetto may not have been designed to benefit the Jews, but it had some positive effects, particularly in view of the nomadic existence that had frequently been forced on our predecessors. “On the one hand, it was the first time that the Jews were concentrated in a single place. It’s also true that they were isolated, and were forced to live at a poor and densely populated site; but, on the other hand, it was the first time that, on a permanent basis, they were allowed to settle somewhere and not move away from there. Before that, the Jews always lived under the aegis of some ruler or other, but as soon as the ruler got fed up with it, the Jews would be expelled.”
There is the old saying about two Jews having at least three opinions between them, and left to our own devices, we tend to find things to argue about.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case with the Venetian ghetto, Perugia Sztulman says. If we take into account that, over the years, the ghetto took in members of different communities, including Jews of Italian, German, Spanish and Levantine descent, the cohesion and mutual support that evolved there is even more remarkable.
That also comes across in the exhibits.
“It is interesting that the members of the ghetto came from different communities, with their own individual cultures and artistic styles,” notes Perugia Sztulman, “but they all gradually adopted the local Venetian style.”
Even so, some decorative elements and motifs hint at an extra-Venetian source of inspiration. One such item is a parochet, the ornamental curtain that covered the Holy Ark, which dates to 1601. It features the crest of the Cohen family, which probably adorned the Levantine synagogue in the ghetto. There were five synagogues in total.
The Jews who came to Venice from the Levant were largely traders in secondhand fabrics, or strazzaria – a.k.a.
shmattes in Yiddish. This gave the ghetto residents access to foreign markets and enabled them to ensure their synagogues were appropriately and aesthetically kitted out. “They saved the best fabrics for this kind of thing,” explains Perugia Sztulman. The limited lines of business open to the Jews back then also included moneylending and medicine.
The Jews were not, however, allowed to engage in jewelry making, and were officially unable to produce ceremonial synagogue artifacts themselves.
“They’d tell the artisans how they wanted, for example, Torah scroll finials to be made, and what motifs they wanted on them,” says the curator. “Maybe some of the Jews engaged in making them themselves, I don’t know, but they weren’t legally permitted to do that.”
By all accounts, it appears that the ghetto residents managed pretty well under their enforced circumstances, which came to an end in 1797, when the French army, under Napoleon, conquered Venice and abolished the ghetto.
The Venetian Splendor exhibition indicates that, physical and legal constraints notwithstanding, the Jews of the 16th to 18th centuries in northern Italy managed pretty well for themselves.
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