Even as far back in the 1300’s the Jews of Europe were being persecuted. Jews began settling in Venice in the 16th century. They were mainly moneylenders, physicians, artisans and traders.
Though the republic valued their services, to placate the Catholic Church they were confined to live on this walled island where drawbridges were raised each evening to enforce a night time curfew. Until Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, the Jews of Venice were only allowed to live in what is known as the ‘ghetto’, in the area of Cannaregio.
The term ‘ghetto’ comes from the Venetian word ‘gheto’ (slag) referring to a metal foundry where metals for canons were cast. Even today the neighbourhood feels cut off from the rest of the city. The Ghetto is divided into two sections: Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) and Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto.) The names actually refer to an older and newer site at the time of their use by the foundries. Actually, in terms of Jewish residency, the Ghetto Nuovo is an older site. The area stretches north from the Grand Canal to the lagoon. I took a vaporetto to the Ponte Gulie stop and walked in through the Camp delle Scuole to the Camp di Ghetto Nuovo.
By the end of the 17th century as many as 5,000 Jews lived in the cramped confines of the Ghetto. I got a real sense of the overcrowded conditions in the Ghetto by the extraordinary height of the houses that almost seem to lean into one another. Lines are strung between some houses and washing hangs over the narrow canal. Because the people were not allowed to move elsewhere, there was little to do but to build up.
Today there are only about 1,000 Jews living in Venice, and most don’t live in the Ghetto. Although there’s only a few kosher restaurants and food shops left, the neighbourhood still feels cut off from the rest of the city. There are even some of the remaining walls with gateways over the bridges where the people were confined, only allowed to go outside the area at certain times of day. I was particularly drawn to a reminder of the persecution of the Jews by a monument of bas-relief panels in the Campo Di Ghetto Nuova square commemorating Venetian Jews who were deported by the Nazis.
The Ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in the city, offering a number of cultural initiatives including an international conference on Hebrew Studies, exhibitions and seminars. There are two synagogues that hold religious services and three others are used for guided tours conducted by the Jewish Community Museum. At the Museo Ebraico which celebrates Venetian Judaism, there is a guided tour of the three synagogues that occupy the top floors of nearby houses.
The museum and synagogue tour is available:
Oct – May, Sun- Fri 10 am – 4pm June to Sept. Sun-Fri 10 -7 pm.
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com