Little secret of Venice
July 20, 2004
Disclaimer: This article is not intended in any way
to offend anyone; it is merely about the facts of a historical
landmark that I came
across and my observations. This disclaimer should reduce my hate
mail by four or five...
I found myself wandering Venice alone one day. See photos.
Beyond the normal tourist attractions, the Murano glass shops,
and the private gondola rides around the murky lagoons, I found
the most interesting surprise of this dilapidated but active
floating city: the world's first Jewish ghetto. I meticulously
a detailed map of narrow streets and bridges around the city,
finally managing to escape the crowds and enter this historic place.
I entered through a narrow passageway. A two-minute
walk left me standing in the middle of the main square amidst a
small community. Modest but active, it contains Kosher restaurants,
a religious school, five synagogues, and even shops filled
with handmade Murano glass menorahs and stars. There is also a
a holocaust memorial and a museum. Four security guards with
the Star of David on their collars man the square under tight
for the 30 to 50 residents of the community.
This is what I found in a little section of Venice,
"Jews in Venice?" you may ask.
Perhaps you are reminded of a money-lending character in Shakespeare's Merchant
of Venice or maybe you are just perplexed, as was my first
Jews have actually been around here for
quite some time. While they may have come as early as the first
centuries of the
common-era, the Jews are confirmed to have been there at least
since the start of the eleventh century. Historically Venice
has been a trading center, a common meeting ground for many people
including Jews. The Jews here assumed the role of moneylenders,
charging interest for ventures before and during the Renaissance
when cities hustled and bustled with business. They would sometimes
get into trouble for doing so by the Church on charges of usury.
the final expulsions of non-Catholics from Spain in 1492 and a
year before Martin Luther nailed his papers to a church door
in Germany, sparking the religious reformation and counter-reformations
throughout Europe, the Venetian government in 1516 decided to make
a distinct community for Jewish people and for Jews who had converted
to Christianity. Established in an area formerly containing cannon
foundries, the community came to be known as the ghetto, Italian
for the word foundry. The term swept across Europe and came to
refer to enclosed Jewish quarters.
The Venetian government imposed
some restrictions on the Jews. Not only did they have to live
in the ghetto, but
they also had
to wear signs of identification when working in the city's
pawnshop and were not allowed to venture out of the guarded ghetto
at night. However, afforded a place to live, many opportunities
for work and to practice their faith under protection even in
case of war, the Jewish people quickly settled the ghetto. They
five synagogues, one for each ethnic group of Jews who settled
Venice. The population grew so quickly that at its height it
housed nearly five thousand people in buildings as high as seven
Today nearly 500 people are registered with the community even
though only 30 to 50 actually reside there.
community has persisted throughout time: through the Napoleonic
era when they were declared
as equal to all other citizens and
through World War II where a couple of hundred from the community
were deported and whom never returned from the concentration
As a non-Jew I found the
ghetto fascinating. So next time you are in Venice and you are
tired of the regular
tourist attractions, you might want to check out this interesting
little secret of Venice. See photos
Roxanne Moin has a B.A. in political science from University of
California, Los Angeles.
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