Making a splash in Venice

Jewish Ghetto is remarkable historic community.

Venice 311 (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Venice 311
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
VENICE – This is among the world’s most picturesque cities. Famous for its meandering canals, innumerable gondolas, bridges, ornate architecture, and colorful carnival masks, Venice also possesses a complex Jewish history.
It’s been home to many famous and influential Jews, including rabbis, physicians, poets, mystics, and politicians. One Venetian, Luigi Luzzati, was even elected, in 1910, as Italy’s first Jewish prime minister. However, Venice is also recognized for a less admirable achievement – the establishment of the world’s first Jewish ghetto.
Although prohibited from residing in the city itself, at least not for extended periods of time, Jews had a documented presence in the territories around Venice since at least the 14th century. The Venetian Republic needed the Jews because they were permitted to lend money while Christians were forbidden by church decree. Indeed, since the Middle Ages, the occupation of money-lending became common to Jews because it was among the few occupations in which they were legally permitted to work.
Excluded from public office, the military, and numerous other occupations, Jews could earn a living as textile traders, physicians, and money lenders. For many people, therefore, Venice conjures up notions of Shylock, the Jewish character from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, an unfortunate negative stereotype that, for centuries, reflected policies imposed by Christian rulers throughout much of Europe. While the Venetian Republic was not unique in this respect, there is much more to Jewish Venice than its association with the money market and the literary character of Shylock.
The Venetian Ghetto, established in 1516, enabled the Jews to reside in Venice, but only within a restricted area of a former copper foundry called ‘ghetto’ (from the Italian ‘gettare,’ but with a soft ‘g’ sound in the Venetian dialect). Since the first Jews to settle in Venice were central European Ashkenazim, they tended to pronounce the word with a hard ‘g’ sound. As a result, in Venice and elsewhere in Europe – most notoriously epitomized during the Nazi era – the word ghetto became synonymous with enclosed quarters where Jews were forced to reside.
Besides the connection with the Venetian word for foundry, some scholars suggest that ghetto may have also derived from the Hebrew word ‘get’ (divorce), as its meaning represents a form of separation.
The first area in Venice where Jews (primarily Ashkenazi) had settled was called ‘Ghetto Nuovo’ (new ghetto), but expansion soon followed. The growing population of Sephardi Jews – known as Levantini (Levantines) due to these Spanish and Portuguese merchants (many former Marranos, or forced converts) having passed through Greece and Turkey prior to arriving in Venice – led to the construction, in 1541, of ‘Ghetto Vecchio’ (old ghetto).
The words ‘new’ and ‘old’ refer to the original foundries, not the subsequent Jewish districts.
In other words, the oldest area of the Venetian Ghetto, Ghetto Nuovo, was established at the site of the newer foundry – the first foundry to be abandoned, and, hence, where the Jewish ghetto was first built.
Ghetto Vecchio, the old foundry, was the second foundry to be abandoned and where the second part of the ghetto was built. By 1633, as the Jewish population rose, Ghetto Nuovissimo (newest ghetto) was added.
The Venetian ghetto was surrounded by canals and three gates. These gates were closed all night, preventing the Jews from escaping, and were patrolled by Christian guards whose salaries, ironically, were required to be paid by the Venetian Jewish community. Any Jew found outside the ghetto during the night faced severe punishment ranging from financial penalties for the first two offences, to two months‚ imprisonment for the third. As a consequence, Jews could only exit the ghetto during the day, but not without wearing public markers of their Jewish identity. Over the centuries, such demeaning symbols included yellow badges, yellow hats, and red hats.
The Venetian Ghetto remained enclosed until 1797, when Napoleon arrived to Venice, demolished the gates, and ended the legal segregation of the Jews from their Italian Christian neighbors.
During the Venetian Ghetto’s most populous period – the 17th century – perhaps as many as five thousand Jews resided there.
Aside from some small private family synagogues, five major public synagogues served the population in Ghetto Nuovo and Ghetto Vecchio. None were built within Ghetto Nuovissimo.
VENICE’S SYNAGOGUES were established along distinct ethnic lines and were historically led by rabbis from each community.
Three of the original can be found in Ghetto Nuovo. To find them, visit Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, a large, open square, and head towards the entrance of the contemporary Jewish Museum at 2902/B Cannaregio.
Opened in 1955, the museum features exhibits of unique Venetian Jewish ritual objects. These doors are also the common entry point to three of Ghetto Nuovo’s historic synagogues, located in the upper floors of adjacent buildings.
The Venetian synagogues, as those elsewhere, were used for prayer, study, and as a meeting place – in Hebrew, beit knesset (house of assembly), or in Italian, scuole (schools), likely derived from the Yiddish, ‘shul.’ They were intentionally constructed with low-level ceilings so that more floors could be built due to space limitations.
These buildings – often referred to as ‘Venetian skyscrapers’ – rise as high as eight floors, an elevation most unusual for Venice.
The synagogues were constructed on the top floors high above the city to conform to Jewish law, and also so that they would not be easily recognized from the outside in accordance with Venetian law. Indeed, from the outside, without the aid of signs, it is virtually impossible to tell that such beautiful synagogues exist here.
In Ghetto Nuovo, the first synagogue – built in 1528 – was the Grand German Synagogue (Scuola Grande Tedesca), reflecting the German-Ashkenazi tradition. The Canton Synagogue (Scuola Canton), built in 1531-32, followed French-Ashkenazi rite. The Italian Synagogue (Scuola Italiana) was built in 1575 by Italian Jews who arrived from the southern parts of the Italian peninsula. It retained the Italian, or Italki, Jewish custom.
To varying degrees of opulence, each is richly decorated with wooden columns, carvings of marble and other stones, colorful fabric curtains, and elaborate chandeliers.
While they remain ornate and impressive, these synagogues are no longer in regular use (except one day per year, when the German Synagogue hosts Hoshana Rabba, the service on the seventh day of Sukkot).
The Jewish Museum offers tours of several of the synagogues (interior photography is prohibited).
Venice’s two largest synagogues were constructed in Ghetto Vecchio, located on the other side of Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
Both are ground-level buildings, hinting at this community’s historically greater wealth. Services originally kept the Sephardi rite due to the significant population of Sephardim who settled in Ghetto Vecchio.
First, the Levantine Synagogue (Scuola Levantina) was built in 1541, followed by the Spanish Synagogue (Scuola Spagnola) in the 1580s, across Campiello delle Scuole, a small courtyard.
The Sephardi synagogues are lavishly decorated with marble and cherry wood, and, unlike the Ashkenazi synagogues in Ghetto Nuovo, both synagogues continue to function today, serving the entire Venetian Jewish community. However, the synagogues alternate seasonally – Levantine is used in fall and winter because it is the only synagogue in Venice with central heating; the Spanish is used in spring and summer because it is the largest of all the Venetian scuole (synagogues). Both are open during the High Holidays.
By the outbreak of World War II, more than a thousand Jews were in Venice. Of some 200 sent to concentration camps, fewer than ten survived. While the contemporary Jewish community is comprised of about 450 Jews residing mostly in the suburbs, the Venetian Ghetto remains the focal point of Venetian Jewish life.
This area is where the synagogues are located, the holidays are celebrated, and kosher restaurants and bakeries are found. In Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, there is also a Jewish retirement home, as well as Jewish gift shops, and Jewish bookstores. Venice also has a Chabad House and yeshiva, just down the block from the historic Ashkenazi synagogues in Ghetto Nuovo.
Despite its nefarious origins, the Venetian Ghetto is a remarkable historic community that remains seemingly unchanged since its 16th-century founding. No visit to Venice is complete without a stroll through the ghetto, which is full of interesting sites for all tourists to discover.
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver.