The Jewish Ghetto, the world’s oldest, remains intact and is still marked by dark porticoes, peeling paint, laundry hung out to dry, and windows placed so close above one another that you’re back aches just thinking about the low ceiling.
The First Settlements
Until the 14th century, Jews were allowed to come to Venice for money-lending activities, but were not allowed permanent residents permits. The first Jews were allowed to settle in Venice only in 1385, when the city was involved in a war against neighbouring Chioggia and needed loans from the Jewish money-lenders.
But racism persisted, and in 1516 Venice’s ruling council confined all the Jews in a smallen getti, or foundries. The gates were locked at night, and restrictions were placed on Jewish economic activities. Jews were only allowed to operate pawn shops and lend money, trade in textiles, and practice medicine.
They were allowed to area not far from today’s train station, where there had be leave the Ghetto during the day, but were marked as Jews: Men wore a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder of their cloaks or jackets, while women wore a yellow scarf. Later on, the men’s circle became a yellow beret and still later a red one.
The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were the central European Ashkenazim. They built two Synagogues. the Scola Grande Tedesca in 1528-29 and the Scola Canton in 1531-32. They are on the top floors of adjacent buildings, above the Jewish museum and from the outside, are not easily distinguishable from the apartments around them.
Space was limited, and according to Jewish law it is forbidden to have any thing between the Synagogue and the sky – hence their strange attic location. The canton Synagogue was probably added to house the large number of Jews already in the Ghetto.
Next came the Levantine Jews, who practiced the Sepharadic rite. When they got their own neighbourhood, an extension of the Venetian Ghetto granted in 1541, they were wealthy enough to build a Synagogue on the ground, rather than in cramped top floor apartments. The rich red and gold interior of the Levantine Synagogue is particularly beautiful. If you’re their in the summer and get to see it. note the intricately carved wooden bimah , or pulpit, and the carved wooden decorations on the ceiling.
Mixed in with the poorer Ashkenazim were Italian Jews who had migrated north to Venice from central and southern Italy. In 1575, they built their own Synagogue on top of some apartments in the same square as the German shul. The Scola Italiana has a cupola, barely visible from the square outside, and a portico with columns marking it’s entrance. Inside, there’s another exquisitely carved wooden ark of the covenant, housing the Torah.
1630 until the 20th Century
Levatines and Ashkenazim, Italian and Spanish Jews all lived together in the Ghetto through hard times – including the plague of 1630 – and better times, until Napoleon threw open the gates in 1797 and recognized equal rights to the Jews of Venice. At its height, around 1650, the Ghetto housed about 4,000 people in a space roughly equivalent to 2-1/2 city blocks. Before World War II there were still about 1,300 Jews in the Ghetto, but 289 were deported by the Nazis and only seven returned.
From which the word “Ghetto” derived, the Jewish ghetto of Venice is the world’s oldest. Until 1385, when the first Jews began to settle in Venice , Jews were only allowed to come to Venice for money-lending purposes. But, in 1385, when the city was involved in a war with nearby Chioggia , they needed loans from Jewish money-lenders to finance their campaign and so they allowed Jews to move into the city.
Although, the Jews never were allowed to properly assimilate into the city’s population, and in 1516, the ruling council of Venice confined all Jews to a small area of the city. Where, at night, all routes leading in an out of the Ghetto were guarded and sealed by locked gates. The Jews had limitations set on their economic activities in Venice . They were only allowed to have pawn shops, trade textiles and practice medicine.
Whenever Jews left the Ghetto area, the men had to wear a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder, while the women wore a yellow scarf. The first Jews to settle in the ghetto of Venice were central European Ashkenazim, who constructed two synagogues: in 1528, the Scola Grande Tedesca, and later in 1532, the Scola Canton. They are still intact, and occupy the rooms above and adjacent to the Jewish museum.
In an area where space was limited, the Jews had no other choice but to build their synagogues in the attic stories of buildings as Jewish law forbids that anything should come between the synagogue and the sky.
The next group of Jews to arrive in Venice were the Levantine, who got their neighbourhood granted to them in 1541, as part of an expansion of the Jewish ghetto. This area today, is known as the “new ghetto.” The Levantine Jews were fortunate enough to build their synagogue on the ground, and the elegant red and gold interior of the Levantine synagogue is particularly special.
Mixed in with the Levantine and Ashkenazim Jews, were Italian Jews who migrated north to Venice from the central and southern parts of the peninsula.
In 1575, the Italians built their own synagogue, the Scola Italiana, which was built on of apartments. The structure features a cupola which is barely visible from the square below. The Spanish synagogue, also built in the 16th century, offers services on Shabbat and holidays. Around 1650, the Ghettos population reached a peak of 4,000 inhabitants. A feat hard to believe as you wander around today, an area no bigger than two and a half city blocks. Before the second world war, there were still 1300 Jews living in the Ghetto. Of the 289 were deported by the Nazi’s, only seven returned.
Today, along with neighboring Mestre on the mainland, Venice boasts a population of 500 Jews. Even though the ghetto continues to be the center of community activities for the Jewish community, very few Jews continue to live in the ghetto.
With the opening of Chabad of Venice’s Rabbinical Yeshiva 20 years ago, an active daily Jewish life is once again visible in this historic area, offering three prayer services every day. At almost any given time of day, a Jewish tourist can proudly see young, vibrant yeshiva students in the ghetto, helping visitors and neighbors alike. A daily Venetian newspaper stated that “Chabad of Venice is the thriving source of Judaism in Venice today.”