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Little secret of Venice
World's first Jewish Ghetto

Roxanne Moin
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, the overpriced food, 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 followed 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 peaceful and 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 cemetery, a holocaust memorial and a museum. Four security guards with the Star of David on their collars man the square under tight security for the 30 to 50 residents of the community.

This is what I found in a little section of Venice, Italy.

"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 reaction.

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.

After 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 established 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 stories. Today nearly 500 people are registered with the community even though only 30 to 50 actually reside there.

The 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 camps.

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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