Living in the ghetto






Venice’s medieval Jewish quarter – the original “Ghetto” – turns 500 this year. We went to meet the locals, who are commemorating the mixed fortunes of the past and a more hopeful future

At the edge of the Cannaregio sestiere, on the outskirts of Venice, there’s a district that’s unlike any other. For one thing, there are no crowds here – strange in a city that receives around 22 million visitors each year. Unlike the marble-lined square of San Marco, or the gondola-strewn Grand Canal, where over 50,000 tourists can be found loitering each day, the streets here are almost empty. There are no grand churches or basilica here either, as elsewhere. Rather, there are five synagogues – one of the highest concentrations of Jewish religious architecture in the world.

Then there are other, more disconcerting, signs that this place isn’t like the rest of the city. The towering buildings that crowd around the square, far more densely than in the rest of Venice; or the marks of gate hinges at the bridge on the Rio and at the Sotoportego on the Fondamenta di Cannaregio – all that remains of the heavy gates that once stood here.

This is the Venetian Ghetto, where the Republic of Venice decreed that all Jews were to be segregated on 29 March 1516. In just three days, the city’s entire Jewish population of around 700 people was forcibly relocated here, to the site of a former copper foundry dumping ground (the word ghetto comes from the Italian getto, which means to cast). Surrounded by canals and confined by two gates that were locked in the evenings and guarded by Christian sentries, it was a way for the Republic to exert control. This nightly locking away of the Jews lasted until Napoleon took power in 1797.

Five centuries later, its impact is still felt, both in the Jewish community’s contribution to Venetian culture, and – as Venetian Jewish scholar Shaul Bassi says – for the “dubious distinction of its name having become synonymous with segregation”.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the area, and this ancient quarter still plays an important role for the tiny community of around 450 Jewish Venetians, as well as a growing number of tourists. Not only is it the administrative centre of the Jewish community, it’s also where all religious ceremonies are conducted, in one of the two synagogues that are still in use.

In the approach to the anniversary, the Venice Ghetto 500 committee was established to coordinate a series of special events and exhibitions across the city, and an ambitious restoration project of the synagogues and museum. In addition to working with the community to organise the quincentennial, and use it as an opportunity to encourage more visitors, the committee had to be careful to strike the right tone.

“It was important for us to convey the anniversary in the correct way,” says Barbara Del Mercato, who sits on the committee. “Nobody wanted it to be turned into a celebration. It’s more complicated than that. No one is celebrating Venetian Jews being segregated, and we are not proud that the concept of a ‘ghetto’ originated here. At the same time, the anniversary offers an opportunity to think about the history, meaning and complexity of this place.”

Much of this history can be understood on a walk around these streets. Overcrowding was a serious problem in the late-Medieval Ghetto. In 1582, records show 199 homes, which rose to 368 by 1661. By this time, the Ghetto had a population density four times that of the rest of the city. The only place to build was up, and the homes here are the tallest in Venice. Typically subdivided with precarious partition walls and mezzanines connected with rickety timber stairs, some of those that still exist are up to nine storeys high.

By 1541, just 25 years after its establishment, the Ghetto Nuovo – the original Ghetto – was so overcrowded that it was necessary to expand, and neighbouring Ghetto Vecchio was established as a home for Levantine Jews from the eastern Mediterranean. In 1633, the Ghetto Novissimo was established, populated mainly by Ponentine (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews.

Each ethnic group had its own traditions and practices. “Jewish people from many countries with different traditions had to learn to live together here in a harmonious way,” says Del Mercato. “That cosmopolitan nature is one of the precious lessons from the Ghetto.” This multiculturalism is reflected in the Ghetto’s five synagogues, each with their own character and rituals. The German one, for example, dating from 1528, was squashed into an existing building, hence its unusual trapezoidal shape; while the Levantine synagogue was rebuilt at the end of the 17th century, and contains sumptuous woodwork throughout.

Today, all these synagogues are in need of restoration, which is where the Venice Ghetto 500 committee comes in. “The quincentennial is a way of looking at the past, but with our eyes on the future,” Del Mercato says. “What do we want this place to be?” She hopes that the committee’s projects, which have included an exhibition at the Palazzo del Doge, a staging of Shakespeare’s controversial play The Merchant of Venice and – perhaps most importantly at a local level – a restoration drive will help to rejuvenate the area.

“It’s such a great opportunity,” she says. “Venice is suffering through a time of extreme duress. The population is declining and tourists are increasing, so I think any cultural initiative that fosters creation and encourages creative people to spend more time here and leave something behind is a gift to Venice. These projects create opportunities for locals – researchers, builders, costumiers. You can’t stop mass tourism, so let’s start considering tourists as an opportunity.”

Davide Volpe Baker, Panificio Giovanni Volpe

On a tiny alley by the Ghetto Vecchio, this bakery was opened 50 years ago by Davide Volpe’s father, Giovanni, although it wasn’t kosher until Davide took over. Even though he isn’t Jewish himself (a giveaway is the hours of operation, which include Saturdays: the sabbath), he decided to bake according to Jewish tradition and was certified by the Chief Rabbi of Venice. “The rules to create pareve (kosher) bread are very strict and difficult to follow,” he says, “so I thought I would help the local community and visiting Jewish tourists.” His wife, daughter and son, who he hopes will eventually take over, all help out with the business. Their specialities include traditional Venetian-Jewish pastries, like crumbly almond impade and, during Carnevale in February, frittelle (Venetian donuts), made without butter or milk. Volpe says that, as the Jewish population shrinks, tourism is becoming increasingly important for the area. “The 500-year anniversary means that is growing.” Calle Ghetto Vecchio, 1143

Ettore Waiter, Gam-Gam Kosher Restaurant

The Jewish community in Venice has always been made up of many different sects. Hasidic Lubavitch was the most recent sect to arrive in the city, in the late 1980s. Since 1996, this community has run Gam-Gam Kosher Restaurant, overlooking the Guglie Bridge. The restaurant has Italy’s largest collection of kosher wines, to accompany its non-dairy kosher Israeli- Italian fusion menu (certified by the Lubavitcher Rabbi), which includes Sarde in Saor, a typical cicheti (Venetian tapas) of fried sardine fillets marinated in white onions and vinegar, with raisins and pine nuts, which was introduced to the city by Jews from Spain and Portugal. “We have many tourists coming from Israel and the US for the 500th anniversary,” says Ettore, who has worked at Gam-Gam for the past year. “We also do Shabbat every week with visitors from all over the world.” Cannaregio, 1122

Sylvie Menasche Owner, Ghimel Garden

One of just two kosher restaurants in Venice, Ghimel Garden was opened 18 months ago by Sylvie Menasche and Bruno Santi. Located in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo in the former old persons’ home (alongside the reception for Kosher House hotel), the restaurant serves a meatfree, dairy kosher menu – certified by the Chief Rabbi – with an Italian- Jewish twist. “I was born here and am part of the Jewish community, so I knew this space for many years,” says Menasche. “Before we opened, it had been closed, and there were Jewish tourists who didn’t travel to Venice as there wasn’t a certified kosher restaurant.” Kosher regulations mean that everything is made freshly, so it’s also built up a loyal base of non-Jewish locals.

Marcella Ansaldi Curator, Jewish Museum of Venice

Marcella Ansaldi’s family has been part of Venice’s Jewish community for generations, and she’s been co-manager of the Jewish Museum for 25 years. The small museum was founded in 1953 in the same building as the German and Ashkenazi synagogues. “This museum is not only about preserving precious objects, but also people’s stories,” she says. The proposed renovation will see public areas enlarged and offer better access to the synagogues. “At the beginning we didn’t think it was a good idea to celebrate such a terrible date,” says Ansaldi. “Then we understood that visitors know the canals and the squares, but they don’t know the history of the Jewish community. It’s important to show our culture to other people, as it’s a way to fight discrimination.”

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