January 19, 2020

The Other Venice

Venice is the famous city of romance, where boatmen serenade visitors with operatic arias in gondolas that glide through canals under charming bridges. Old buildings reflect in the water like an impressionist canvas of shimmering colors. Pink, red and orange blossoms hang from flower boxes on apartment windowsills, reflected in the water as exotic water lilies.

But for the Jews of the world, Venice is distinguished for much more than its celebrated beauty. Venice is also a historical marker of a painful past. This city is the home of the first and oldest Jewish ghetto in the world.

From 1516, Jews in Venice were forced to live literally and symbolically walled off from the rest of the population. Until very recently, few tourists to Venice were aware of il ghetto di Venezia. But all that has changed now, since the phenomenal popularity of the Oscar-winning Italian film "Life Is Beautiful."

"Since … ‘Life is Beautiful’ appeared in theaters, it seems that everyone is curious about Jews in Italy," said Sanislao Pugliese, assistant professor of history at New York’s Hofstra University. Suddenly, Italian Jewish history is a hot topic and both Jews and non-Jews are including the Jewish ghetto as part of their visit to Venice.

It’s a warm day with the sun beating down as I get off the vaporetto (water bus), which has navigated the waterways to San Marcuola. From here I make my way by foot to the ghetto, in an area called Cannaregio. I pass bakeries, gelato stands and fruit stalls. Clothes dry in the bright sunshine on ropes hanging over the canals. Then I arrive at a heavy iron gate and a sign that tells me I’ve reached the ghetto. As I step inside, it is suddenly dark and chilly. The buildings are too tall, too close together to let the sun’s warming rays pass through.

A group of meowing cats follow two women in colorful dresses who are carrying bowls of milk and scraps of food from one building. Nearby, little boys kick around a soccer ball.

The word ghetto is a corruption of the Venetian getto (the g is pronounced as in jet), which means foundry, after the iron foundry that was here before the ghetto walls went up. All signs are in Italian and Hebrew, and Hebrew words are carved into wooden and stone monuments, synagogues and walls. In the square, memorials are inscribed to the 204 Venetian Jews deported by the Nazis; about 8,000 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust — despite the attempts of many Italian citizens to protect them against deportation orders.

As I wind my way down the narrow streets, I pass a few Orthodox Jewish men in black robes and yarmulkes. The wives, their entire bodies covered as befits Orthodox women, sit on benches feeding their children.

Today, few Italian Jews live in the ghetto. However, you can still hear Hebrew and Yiddish spoken in Jewish shops and inside the Jewish Museum and synagogues. Jews had lived in Venice long before the Venetian Republic locked them behind gates; as early as 1386, Jews were granted land on the Lido for use as a cemetery. The official segregation of the Jews, which was imposed by the pope in 1516, was decreed to restrict Jewish influence and success in business and commerce. Many Italian citizens vociferously deplored segregation. Jewish merchants, traders and moneylenders conducted business outside ghetto walls, and Jewish physicians went outside to treat and heal the sick and dying. But they had to wear badges identifying them as Jews; and at sunset, they, like all Jews, had to obey a strict curfew and return inside. Jews were not permitted to own real estate and could not pursue professions in the arts and architecture; Christian architects designed Jewish synagogues. Yet, il ghetto was alive with music, poetry and drama as Jews celebrated religious holidays and traditions and entertained themselves. Christian musicians, scholars and friends were invited inside to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Forceful segregation of Jews was not unique to Italy. Poland segregated Jews in the mid-1200s, France had the Carriere des Juifs, Germany and Austria the Judeviertel or Judengasse and England had its Jews’ Street.

But it is Venice, which gave the world the name ghetto and it is the Venetian Jewish ghetto — its synagogues intact, its Hebrew signs and Jewish shopkeepers — that echoes history and transports tourists back in time. A wave of Jews had arrived in Italy after Spain expelled its Jewish population in 1492. Many of these Sephardic Jews found work in moneylending and related economic activities forbidden to Catholics. Italy’s Jewish population grew as these Jews were joined by others fleeing Mediterranean and European countries. As the population in the increasingly cramped ghetto expanded, the buildings they lived in grew upward, "toward the sky."

Today, these five-, six- and seven-story buildings are affectionately referred to as "skyscrapers" and historians believe that these ghetto buildings were the model for skyscrapers around the world.

In 1797, Napoleon decreed an end to the ghetto, and Venice’s Jews were free to roam as they pleased.

The Jewish Museum, close to the ghetto’s entryway, has exhibitions that tell the story of Italy’s Jews throughout the centuries. There are stunning silver cups and Torah pointers, tapestries and delicately embroidered silk and velvet textiles from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Europe. There are wedding certificates, marital contracts and books hand-lettered by Hebrew scribes.

The Museum offers regular tours of the ghetto and its synagogues. German Jews worshipped in the Canton synagogue, Sephardic Jews in the others. Venetian Jews still attend services in the ghetto’s synagogues, especially during the High Holidays.

Touring the synagogues, restored in the 17th and 18th centuries, I am immediately struck by the different architectural styles. The ornate hall of one Sephardic synagogue is early Venetian baroque, with two-toned marble floors and overwhelming brass candelabras hanging from decorated ceilings. Wood-carved lions’-feet benches and decorative panels on the walls bear the mark of fine Italian craftsmanship.

The Canton synagogue is far less ornate. Here, focus was placed on the ark housing the Torah — which is carved and adorned with gold designs and letters. In Orthodox Judaism, women sit together, separate from men; in the Canton synagogue, women sat in the balcony while in Sephardic synagogues, women were separated from men by long, velvet curtains.

"All the Venetian synagogues are little jewels," said my guide, who describes the artwork and the monuments dedicated to Italian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Under a symbolic strand of barbed wire, she talks about the seven bas-reliefs by the recently deceased sculptor Arbit Blatas, depicting the brutality and death of more recent times.

I walk through the inner, winding streets of the ghetto, conversing with shopkeepers in English, Spanish and spotty Italian. Here Venice is relatively uncrowded with tourists, so shopkeepers have time to talk. They seem to enjoy exchanging stories. They also argue religion and politics in various languages, including the famous Italian body language — shaking heads vigorously, shrugging shoulders, hitting the table and, sometimes, finally, throwing up their hands.

For more information, contact the Italian Government Tourist Board at (310) 820-1898.