If there is anything about Venice that natives and tourists agree on, it must be the fact that the city is a labyrinth. As natives, we used to often amuse ourselves, cruelly sending tourists to Sant’Elena, the very far end of the city, convinced that they will reach Punta della Dogana, at the opposite end of Bacino San Marco, where the Pinault Collection has one of its world-famous museum. But, once out of the safety of the paths trodden day after day, it is possible even for a veteran to feel that sensation that seizes the hit-and-run visitors at every turn. Calle, campo, turn around, campiello (Alley, square…tiny square). You turn around once again to find yourself in front of four identical calli. You feel like you’re inside Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s castle, whose stairs, as you likely know, like to change. In Venice, there is a similar place that, more than any other, has a thing for disappearing. The ghetto.
“Li giudei debbano abitar unidi” (“The Jews must live together”): the first Jewish ghetto in the world was created by order of Doge Leonardo Loredan, the then head of the Venetian Republic, on March 29th, 1516. The very term “ghetto”, understood as a closed city district in which the Jews were segregated, was born in the Venetian lagoon 503 years ago. The name derives from the homonymous Campo di Ghetto, an Ashkenazi mispronunciation of the Venetian “getto“, or metal casting, as the Venice Ghetto was built on the ashes of what was once the foundry district.
The newborn Jewish quarter was bounded by two gates, the old hinges of which can still be seen in Sottoportego del Ghetto Novo. Those that remain in Sottoportego del Ghetto Vecchio belong to a later expansion of the quarter, which the Republic made in 1541 to make room for the growing Sephardic community, which had arrived in Venice after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. At night, the doors were barred. Behind them, the ghetto disappeared, closed from the rest of the city. No one was allowed to go in or out until dawn.
“But what if a Jew was late to a friend’s?” That’s how I used to nag my grandmother on the way back from the Jewish kindergarten, passing back and forth between those hinges. She would dither, pointing to the pawnshop Banco Rosso to distract me: pawnbroking was one of the few activities Israelites were permitted to engage in. The Banco Rosso dominates the Campo del Ghetto, where its sign can still be read today. The red writing, true to the Banco’s name, is eye-catching, and one can still visit the building to read about the ghetto’s history in its very first money lending establishment. In the 16th century, there were two other pawnshops–the Verde and the Nero; another eight would open over the next century.
While money is lent on the ground floors, the attics of the tall houses–which have grown over the centuries to accommodate as many people as possible–are used as places of prayer, at first a secret. Here are the German Synagogue, the Canton Synagogue and the Italian Synagogue.
The gates of the ghetto were thrown wide open by Napoleon in 1797, and although Venetian Jews have since moved to the four corners of the lagoon, the local Jewish community still has its beating heart among these ancient hinges. Here, in the fields between the stratified buildings, where our ancestors were forced to live, the city’s Jewish children still take their first steps. A few years ago, I too was among them, losing myself among the trees in the garden of the Jewish Community Centre, learning to count in Hebrew before I did so in Italian, my mother tongue.
Growing up Jewish, everywhere, but especially in an Italy that still has to come to terms with the sins of Fascism, means building one’s identity on difference. A difference I was unaware of at the time when endless swings at the playground were interrupted by prayers in an ancient yet familiar language, the soundtrack to our sheltered days. For me, a metaphorical Napoleon arrived when I was six years old, at the moment when, crossing the threshold of a classroom where I was the only one wearing a small golden Star of David around my neck, I left the ghetto.
I see myself again, a bewildered child, shocked to discover that many of the prejudices against Jews that I had been warned about were repeated by my classmates. Today, for a Jewish child, coming out of the ghetto means facing and accepting one’s diversity, making it one’s own. The ghetto, an ancient place of confinement and oppression, has now become a refuge, a safe place of belonging and of transmission of centuries-old tradition.
Museums & Galleries in the Venetian Ghetto
Museo Ebraico di Venezia: Visit the Jewish Museum of Venice to find out more about the history of the Venetian Jewish Community and of the first Ghetto.
Le Sinagoghe: The Synagogues in Venice are among the most ancient in the world.
Ikona Gallery: Founded in 1979 by the legendary Ziva Kraus, Ikona is the first gallery in Venice to focus on photography and organises avant-garde expositions.
Restaurants & Cafés in the Venetian Ghetto
Gam Gam: Middle East specialties in the oldest kosher restaurant in the city.
Osteria al Tapo: A classic bacaro, where the variety of cicchetti is as nice as the hidden garden.
Panificio Giovanni Volpe: The only bakery in Venice to sell kosher products. Order a panino alla mortadella!
Majer Venezia Ghetto: My go-to address for a classic Venetian breakfast.