Most of us who’ve been lucky enough to travel to Venice usually have a few goals in mind: parking ourselves in St. Mark’s Square with a beverage of choice while soaking in the sights; not getting over-charged by a gondolier while traversing through the city’s labyrinth of canals; doing the two above mentioned activities with some newly purchased Murano glass in possession.
But just a short distance away from the city’s main train station is a Venice that most people have never seen - though as Jews it’s touched our lives on a spectrum that ranges from tragic to inspirational.
March 29, 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. Significant on so many levels because it’s wrapped in an enigma of “firsts”. The “first” - it was the first Jewish Ghetto in Europe.
Don’t be mistaken, Jews had been in the Veneto for centuries prior to this pernicious ruling. In 1244, Rabbi Isaia da Trani navigated through the canals on a day when labor of any kind was not permitted. That started a rabbinical dispute that’s truly Venetian in nature: is it licit to take a gondola on the Sabbath? The dispute was finally settled in the 17th century. The answer? Si.
Prior to their confinement, the Jews were not permitted on the lagoon, which at the time was called the “Dominant.” They were only allowed to live on the mainland. But the area experienced two significant waves of Jewish immigration: the first after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492; the second after Venice was defeated by the French in 1509. Once again the Jews had to flee - this time onto the Dominant.
Fearing that their growing presence might attract persecution, they took what they thought was a preemptive measure - they asked to live in a community of their own, a safe place where they could all be together. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “In 1516, the Doges, Venice’s ruling council, debated whether Jews should be allowed to remain in the city…but their residence would be confined to Ghetto Nuovo, a small, dirty island.”
This brings us to the second “first.” That small, dirty island was once the home to countless metal factories that made cannons. A cast of a cannon was called “getto”. In time, the word turned into “Ghetto.” Welcome to “seraglio of the Judeans” - the world’s first Jewish Ghetto. The island was surrounded by canals, making it isolated and easy to close down at night. It functioned as a walled, segregated barrier until Napoleon seized the city and tore down the gates in 1797. Only the hinge marks remain.
The reverberations of the next “first” can still be felt today. Although they were isolated, the Jews were allowed to build places of worship. In order to pray, they needed books. At the time, Venice was the capital of publishing. Three great minds converged - a practicing Jew, a converted Jew and a Christian and together, in the impoverished, isolated and segregated “seraglio of the Judeans,” they produced the first printed rabbinical Talmud in 1520. These men managed to keep alive and transmit to future generations the entire ethical and cultural heritage, which has always distinguished Judaism down through the centuries. We cannot underestimate the importance of Venetian Jewish printing. It safeguarded the history of Jewish civilization while being a symbol of freedom beyond guarded walls.
To this day there are only two bridges that connect Ghetto Novo to the rest of Venice. At its peak, it was home to 7,000 people. After WWII and the Holocaust there were only 500. Today, that number is still hovering at 500 though there is a concerted effort to bring Jews back into the fold. And for the first time in 50 years (yes, another first), there’s a new Jewish school that recently opened its doors. Under plans by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the area is due to become a World Heritage site.
The Jewish Museum of Venice and Venice Ghetto 500 are actively working towards reestablishing the Ghetto, where the very word was born. Joseph Sitt, of the Venetian Heritage Council, which is leading the fundraising needed to rebuild the city’s synagogues, said: “The Ghetto of Venice sits at a nexus of world history for Venice, Europe, and Jewish culture as a whole. It needs to be saved, its story told.”