Venice: Home to Gondolas, Romance and the World’s First Jewish Ghetto

The expulsion of Jews from European countries was common throughout the Middle Ages. Spain’s expulsion or forced conversion of Jews in 1492 is the most infamous, but others had set the stage: England in 1290, France in 1306, and Warsaw, Sicily and Lithuania in 1483.

Various regions of Italy expelled Jews in different years, but in Venice, the merchant economy’s need for the Jewish moneylenders caused the Venetian Senate to create a different paradigm to deal with the tensions that periodically arose between Christians and Jews living side by side. In 1516, Venice created the world’s first ghetto – an area where all the city’s Jews were required to live. The word ghetto arose from the Italian verb gettare (to discard or cast), because the area was littered with the discards of the area’s former copper foundries. While Jews were required to live in the defined area, they were confined there only at night. The Christians who guarded the two bridges into the Jewish square not only kept the Jews in, they also protected them by keeping others out.

Before traveling to Italy this summer, I explored the Jewish history of Venice in anticipation of spending two days there at the end of our trip. I interviewed Lisa Calevi, now a doctoral student at the University of Oregon researching the visual culture of Jewish Italy. While living in Italy from 1994 to 2008, Calevi created several Jewish Heritage Tours of Italy and still leads about one tour a year (for information on future tours, email lisa.calevi@gmail.com). She provided many suggestions on things to see and people to talk to in the ghetto.

Shortly before we left, I received the novel The Midwife of Venice, a story about a Jewish midwife in the late 1500s who aids a Christian woman during childbirth despite a papal edict prohibiting Jews from treating Christians. (For much of the ghetto’s history, Jewish doctors were in high demand in the Christian community. In the 1500s, the Venetian Senate granted Jews the right to study at Padua University, where many earned medical degrees.) Reading the novel on the flight over sent my mind on flights of fancy about that era. As I pedaled my bicycle over mountain passes in the Alps and Dolomites, I wondered if Jews expelled from other European countries had crossed those same passes centuries earlier. We spent two weeks cycling through the mountains that line Italy’s northern border. Even with today’s modern roads, navigating the passes through those craggy peaks is daunting.

Emerging from the mountains, the flatness of Venice seems especially pronounced. Crossing the lagoon from the mainland, the buildings seem to rise directly out of the water. The total absence of vehicles makes it easy to imagine a romantic, pre-industrial era. In Venice, the streets are dedicated to pedestrians and handcarts. The gondolas, water taxis and water buses ferry people and goods around the city’s web of canals.

Lisa had recommended we stay at Locanda del Ghetto Nuovo (www.locandadelghetto.net/en/), right in the ghetto, but it was full the weekend we visited. Instead we stayed along the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge. The view was gorgeous and it was wonderful to sit on the hotel balcony and watch the bustle of water traffic while the waiters at the seemingly endless row of sidewalk cafes vied for the constant stream of tourists.

I was surprised by the heat along the Grand Canal and how it dissipated as soon as we entered the narrow passages that wound between the buildings. Wandering through the labyrinth, we would emerge unexpectedly into a busy square full of people and shops. In the squares, signs painted on ancient walls point the way to major “roads” or landmarks.

We arrived in Venice on a Friday a bit later than we had planned. By the time we found Ghetto Nuovo in the late afternoon, the square was nearly empty. Many merchants were removing their signs and closing their shops in preparation for Shabbat. A Chabad rabbi invited passing tourists the opportunity to lay tefillin for Mincha, the afternoon prayers.

But a glass shop owned by a man named David Curiel was still brimming with tourists who wanted a mezuzah or menorah made by David’s sister Doriana. About 95% of his customers are Jewish tourists, he told me. Between sales, David posed for pictures and answered questions about his family and the ghetto. The Curiel family has lived in Venice for nearly 500 years. The family crest hangs on the shop wall and the family name is engraved on the family residence some 100 meters from the shop. David doesn’t know how his family first came to Venice, but he said now they are among only about 15 Jews who still live in the ghetto area. About 400 to 500 Jews now live scattered around Venice, about the same number who lived in the ghetto when it was established.

The ghetto’s population hit a peak of about 5,000 in the 1600s. That population surge in a confined area resulted in Venice’s version of skyscrapers. Most buildings in Venice are two to four stories, but as the ghetto population swelled, the only place for families to expand was up. As a result the ghetto has many buildings seven to 10 stories tall.

Leaving David’s shop, we crossed the bridge to the other ghetto square – Ghetto Vecchio. Despite its name meaning Old Ghetto, it is actually the newer of the two Jewish quarters (old refers to the older copper foundries that were in that area). As Lisa had predicted, we met Kuba, whom Lisa calls “the nicest gondolier in Venice.” Kuba (short for Jakub) arrived in Venice from Warsaw, Poland, 40 years ago. One of the many non-Jews who now populate the ghetto, Kuba is well versed on the ghetto’s history, shops and residents. Kuba’s “regular perch” is on the bridge between the ghettos, from which point he offers tourists an enlightening gondola tour of his city.

If you want to attend Shabbat services in Venice, Lisa recommends taking your passport to the comunita ebraica di venezia offices (Jewish Community of Venice offices in Ghetto Vecchio; www.jvenice.org/en) to get your name on the list. She says some Israeli bodyguards at the synagogues’ doors will wave in tourists with American passports, but others will admit only those on the list.

The two ghettos feature five synagogues, all originally built in the 1500s. Venice’s oldest synagogue, the Great German Schola; the Canton Schola (1531-32) and the Italian Schola (1575) are all located in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Levantine Schola (1541) and the Spanish Schola (1580) are located in Ghetto Vecchio. The Jewish Museum of Venice (www.museoebraico.it/english/) is located between the two oldest synagogues and offers tours that include one to four synagogues.

 

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